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May 15, 2007

Ten Questions With Penelope Trunk: Career Guidance for This Century

Brazen Careerist_ The New Rules for Success_ Books_ Penelope Trunk-3.jpg

Penelope Trunk is the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success. She is a career columnist at the Boston Globe and Yahoo Finance. Her syndicated column has run in more than 200 publications. Earlier, she was a software executive, and then she founded two companies. She has been through an IPO, an acquisition and a bankruptcy. Before that she played professional beach volleyball.

My two favorite answers in this interview are #7 and #10. If I had a nickel for every time I had to answer questions regarding getting an MBA and a first job out of college, I would own my own ice rink by now.

  1. Question: How much money does it take to be happy?

    Answer: It takes about $40,000. It does not matter how many kids you have or what city you live in—that’s splitting hairs because peoples’ happiness levels are largely based on their level of optimism and the quality of their relationships. So as long as you have enough money for food and shelter, your optimism level kicks in to dictate how happy you are.

  2. Question: Is it more important to be competent or likable?

    Answer: People would actually rather work with someone who is incompetent and likeable than competent and unlikable. Most people nod in agreement when they read this. It’s the unlikable people who form arguments in their head.

    But there’s more. At work, if you are unlikable, people start thinking you are less competent. So stop thinking you can skate by on your genius IQ because you can’t. You need emotional intelligence as well. This situation is so pronounced that there are special-education classrooms rife with kids who could read when they were three. Social skills matter as much as intelligence when it comes to long-term success, even for the geniuses.

  3. Question: Should I sue a boss who is sexually harassing me?

    Answer: In most cases, you will destroy your career if you report sexual harassment. So unless you are in physical danger, you should not report harassment. The laws governing sexual harassment don’t protect women who report. The law protects companies from being sued by the women who report. Human resource professionals are trained to protect the company, not the woman who reports.

    When you report harassment it is usually the case that you lose your job through retaliation. Retaliation is illegal but nearly impossible to prove in court. And, even if you could prove it in court, you would go through emotional hell, with no salary, and high-profile drama that makes you unable to get another job. All this for a settlement that will almost certainly not enable you to retire.

    This is simply how the legal system works. I am not saying this is okay. But I’m saying that if you care about your career, you’ll do everything possible to not report. Most women are not in the position to sacrifice their career—and their earning power—in the name of trying to bring down one harasser. The legal system needs to step in and take care of this.

  4. Question: When should I ask for a promotion?

    Answer: Maybe never. The average salary increase is four percent. Is that going to change your life in any meaningful way? On top of that, someone is promoting you up their ladder, but their ladder is not necessarily your best path. So stay focused on where you want to go instead of the paths other people have created for you.

    Getting a promotion is so last century. Instead of letting last century’s carrots dictate your workplace rewards, figure out what will be really meaningful to you: training, mentoring, flex time, whatever it is that means more than four percent more money. These are all things that can really improve your life and your career.

  5. Question: Is being a generalist or a specialist the path to the executive suite?

    Answer: In Hollywood, the best way to get your pick of any role in the industry is to become a specialist—funny guy, tough girl, action hero—get known for being the best at something, and then use that star-power to branch out. The same is true in business.

    Jobs that don’t require a specialty are low level. To move up you need to be great at something, and you have to let people know what you don’t do. No one is great at everything. Even if your goal is not to get to the executive suite, you should specialize. When you want to take five months off to hike in Tibet, if you are easily replaced, you will be. If you have a skill that is hard to duplicate, your job will be there for you when you get back.

  6. Question: What do I do about the gaps in my resume when I traveled or couldn’t find a job?

    Answer: Talk about them well. A gap is really bad if you spent your days on your sofa watching cartoons. But if you watched cartoons to prepare for your next career move into children’s programming, then you sound focused and driven. Same TV, same sofa, two different stories.

    People don’t want to hear your life story. This is good news for people with sofa stints. In almost all cases, you learn something during a gap. Tell a great story about what you’ve learned and where you’re going, and your gap won’t get center stage. Leaving out details is not about lying; it’s about telling good stories.

  7. Question: Will getting an MBA or any other type of advanced degree be a good use of time and money since I can’t find a job?

    Answer: No. If you can’t find a job, then you should invest in something like better grooming, or a better resume, or a coach for poor social skills. These are the things that keep people from getting jobs. Instead of running back to school, figure out why you can’t get a job, because maybe it’s something that a degree can’t overcome.

    Grad school generally makes you less employable, not more employable. For example, people who get a graduate degree in the humanities would have had a better chance of surviving the Titanic than getting a tenured teaching job.

    Unless you are going to a top business school at the beginning of your career, you should not stop working in order to get the degree. Go to night school because you will not make up for the loss of income with the extra credential.

    Law school is one of the only graduate degrees that makes you more employable. Unfortunately it makes you more employable in the profession where people are more unhappy. Law school rewards perfectionism, and perfectionism is a risk factor for depression. Lawyers have little control over their work and hours, because they are at the beck-and-call of their clients, and many are constantly working with clients who have problems lawyers cannot solve. These two traits in a job—lack of control over workload and compromised ability to reach stated goals—are the two biggest causes for burnout in jobs.

    [May I interject here? I went to law school for two weeks and quit when I was young! Guy]

  8. Question: What’s the ideal length of a resume in a world where every resume is electronic and not viewed printed out on paper?

    Answer: A page. Still. Your resume is a marketing document, not a summary of your life, so every line should be about an accomplishment. The more amazing your accomplishments, the fewer you need to list. For example, if you can write “Evangelized Macintosh and made it one of the most beloved brands in the world,” then you don’t need any other sales and marketing bullets on your resume.

    If you have totally lost perspective, and you think you have two page’s worth of incredible and relevant achievements, consider that hiring managers spend ten seconds evaluating a resume, and a scanner looks for ten keywords, which certainly fit on one page.

    So unless you have a great connection with the hiring manager, and you know he’ll look at both pages, don’t bother sending them. And if you do have that great connection then you are probably going to get an interview even if your resume sucks.

  9. Question: How should I prepare for an interview?

    Answer: An interview is a test you can study for. So memorize answers to the fifty most common questions. Most interviewers ask standard variations on standard questions, and there are right answers to these questions.

    Whether you are a stripper or a CIA agent, the answer to the question, “What is your weakness?” is a story about how your weakness interfered at work—in a specific situation—and you overcame it. Most of your other answers should be stories, too. This means you need to make them up before you get to the interview. Stories of your life are memorable. Lists of your life are not. Be memorable if you want to be hired.

    Another way to prepare is to go to the gym right before the interview. It doesn’t matter if you never go to the gym—although you should, because people who workout regularly are more successful in their careers. You should go right before an interview because people judge you first on your appearance, and if do heavy lifting with your back and stomach muscles you will stand up much straighter in the interview. This will make you look more confident, which is half the battle in being judged by appearance.

  10. Question: What’s the right strategy for the search for a first job out of college?

    Answer: Don’t place too much importance on your first job. You’ll have a lot more. Most people have eight jobs before they turn thirty, and that’s fine. It is nearly impossible to know what career will be a good fit for you until you start trying things. So give yourself the latitude to try a lot. And don’t get hung up on a big soul search. To land a great job, you don’t need to know the meaning of life, just the meaning of hard work.

  11. Question: Do only losers live at home after college?

    Answer: On some level it would be insane not to move back home, which is why more than fifty percent of graduating seniors do it. Moving back to your parent’s house is a smart step toward finding a career that’s right for you.

    Entry level jobs typically cannot cover the cost of rent, college loan payments, and insurance premiums—all of which are rising faster than wages. If you don’t have to worry about paying rent, you have more flexibility to wait for the right job and to take a job that feels very right but pays very poorly. The rise of the prestigious but unpaid internship intersects perfectly with trend to move back home.

  12. Question: What should I do if I work for a jerk?

    Answer: Leave. I know there are classic Bob Sutton examples of revered jerks like Steve Jobs, but I wonder about the people who put up with him. Can they not find another visionary to work for who is not such a jerk?

    Staying in a job like this makes you look bad. People wonder why you put up with it. And, frankly, you should too. It’s like being an abused wife. The wife who stays always defends the relationship by how much she gets out of it, but to everyone else it is obvious that she should leave. The problem is a loss of personal perspective.


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» Career Guidance for This Century from Zmetro.com
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PT's #3 Answer and comments posted: Penelope's answer is absolutely accurate, and her advice utterly realistic. I can't say the same, not even remotely, for the comments that deny the truth of what she states and then go on to regurgitate lame arguments about justice, these modern times, generalizations, etc. Once upon a time I would've sided with those making such comments, for how could our society let sexual harassment be, such injustice, blah blah blah.

The reality, however, is that suing for or even reporting the wrong of sexual harassment will destroy your career. Report it and you will lose your job. That is, the company will retaliate against you for reporting it. Try proving that for a lawsuit based on retaliation and even the EEOC tells you there isn't much you can do. Sue for the sexual harassment and your career will be over. That is, our legal system is not on your side, and neither will be your industry, and if those posting the comments think otherwise, they are seriously deluded.

I'm a lawyer. I've been where Penelope cautions about so very straightforwardly. Yes, it is so even in the legal industry, maybe more so. Ironic? Unbelievable? It's many things, all unsavory, but rather than dwell on that, best to get out of the situation. It'd be great if you could leave a letter documenting the situation, but speaking out beyond that will be difficult. Your company, the law, and society will make sure of that.

Not related to Penelope's book. Saw this up in Businessweek. Was not sure where to post

Normally I eat-up everything Penelope says, but her take on the MBA (question 7) is very short-sighted. I was told when I interviewed for my last marketing position "We are only interviewing MBAs because it's a natural way for us to narrow down the field of applicants."

Do I think there were very qualified non-MBAs in the field? Of course. Do I apologize that I made the 1st cut simply on the basis of my degree? Heck no!

Just one man's experience.

Thanks for being so straightforward with this post. There are cold hard truths in this piece that don't get enough air time. The part about sexual harassment is so sad, but also 100% accurate. I wonder of a good strategy when faced with a less-than-helpful management team in this case wouldn't involve a) documenting the incidents, b) working on an exit strategy, and then (and only then) making sure that management is aware of why you feel that you must leave the company.

Great interview from two of my favorite bloggers. I got a kick out of Penelope's answer to #9 regarding interview prep:

"Another way to prepare is to go to the gym right before the interview. It doesn’t matter if you never go to the gym..."

I can't help but think that a sweaty fella/gal in a muscle tee flexing around the office prior to the interview could be a turn off.

Regarding #5: Specialisation is *so* last century. A huge proportion of the jobs we do now will simply not exist in 10 or 20 years time. The ability to change career path and learn new skills will get you further in the future than specialising in one, potentially obsolete, avenue.

Re: suing and sexual harassment, I am sure there are many like me who chose to quit companies they loved because of ignored calls for help and the financial reality that our salaries were kept artifically low by a harasser boss. I did, however, care about the women I left behind, including peers and reports who were also routinely harassed. I sent the letter of all letters to the top HR chief when I resigned, with dates and offers by 5 other wormen to corroborate, and the company, a major IT powerhouse, to its credit, followed up with all of us and the individual was terminated. While suing may not be seen as an effective recourse for one woman, someone has to stand up and say "enough is enough." Many of my male colleagues were grossed out by this guy's behavior as well. Let's hope "suffer in silence" is not the status quo for future generations of workers of both sexes.

I agree with #8 and keeping resumes to one page. There is a very real reason why 99% of advertisements (and that's what your resume is really) are under 1 minute in length, buyers (and that includes those who are hiring you) have short attention spans. As for other helpful resume tips, you can find a short list of them here: http://www.listafterlist.com/ListResults/tabid/57/ListID/89/Default.aspx

I disagree with the answer for #12. There are always going to be jerks for bosses. If I left everytime I had to work with bad management, I would have run out of companies to work for by now. Also, often times individuals that are considered "jerks" aren't capable of limiting who they are jerks to. A jerk to you is likely to be a jerk to all. These types of individuals eventually leave, get fired, or get reassigned into a position where they don't have to manage people. I would hang in there.

Also, think about how great your answer to the interview question for your next job would be:

INTERVIEWER: We all have weaknesses that can interfere with our success. Tell me about one of yours and how you overcame it to be successful on a specific task or project?

YOU: My boss was not (insert issue here), however, we managed to work out our differences. Or you could answer, I managed to work around the issue to where I was able to effectively perform my duties. As a matter of fact, my manager eventually was reassigned to another department and my new manager and I have a great working relationship.

Hi Guy,
I think this part about discouraging females from reporting sexual harassment is pure crap.

If anything; reporting sexual harassment is good-- because even if a woman is bowing before sexual harassment it's no guarantee of her survival/advancement;
and if a woman refuses to succumb to sexual harassment-- then she will face retaliation anyways.
so better that a woman collects evidence of sexual harassment (like recording some of the conversations)-- and goes higher.

Remember::: nobody wants to be seen as shielding a manager that's indulging in sexual harassment.
and she can take it higher & higher-- and as long as she does a good job-- who can hurt her ?

However...hug your neighbourhood MBA. Of course, you'll have to attack them between their BMW and the Starbucks door. It would be nice to have more MBAs in the realm of entrepreneurism. Most MBAs don't consider entrepreneurism a valid area to play, and for that reason, I pity the average MBA.

ciao dall' italia..il tuo sito web e' molto bello...
visita i miei..CIAO!!!

Great post. Reminds me of a story I once read that's very pertinent to people seeking a new job, a new contract, or a promotion ...

In the current environment (where there's lots of fear and insecurity due to outsourcing and so on), too many people settle for something that's below their potential.

The opposite case is the person who has the over-inflated sense of their own worth and constantly complains about their lot, failing to see where a little extra learning or effort is needed to get where they want to be.

The first step to success is to "Know your worth" and build upon it!

See this related blog posting: Do you know your worth?

Hi, Guy,
I did post an excerpt from this interview on my blog at
blogger doesn't do trackbacks

but the question about filing sexual harrassment suits or complaints really struck home as you may see from my story.

You do post some really great stuff.

Re Q3: Ms. Trunk seems to confuse "reporting" and "suing." Generally suing about sexual harassment is a no-win situation. You will lose your job, and the litigation will be stressful and difficult. BUT, reporting the harassment internally is not negative in most corporations. The advice to just shut up and suck it up is absolutely wrong, and damaging to women.

Great article.

Some really pragmatic thoughts that I'll keep in mind.

great article. nice job.

That's the best thing I have read all year! Great job!

Great entry and great advice! I just went to an interview a few hours ago. It went well but I think I could have aced it had I had some of these pointers in the back of my mind! I always have difficulty naming my weaknesses and the advice in this entry would have been really valuable at the interview. I'll remember it for next time!

One of the best posts on this site ever! I wish I had such focus.

Answer 3 is terribly lame, especially when it comes from a woman like Trunk. Brazen alright!

Harassment, with or without a sexual malintent, is not just experienced by career women (I do not think George Bush would have given a shoulder massage to a male head of state, the way he thought it was ok for Angela Merkel, who firmly removed his hands from her shoulders), but also by women carrying bricks on their heads and a baby on their back seen often on construction sites in developing countries. If the latter do not want to stand up, I can understand the pressure of their circumstances. But if the career women do not stand up, well shame on them! Where does this stop? Remind me, what century are we in? Pragmatism is ok and advisable (to some extent, the framing of the question has shaped the answer and it may have been different for an open-ended question like 'What do you advise I do if I am experiencing sexual harassment at work?') but I suppose this model of career advancement thinks it is ok to leave dignity and principles at home...

Saying that the law protects companies, not career-women is a lame excuse and, in my view, just one step short of promoting sexual favours for advancing careers. That, I thought, was the Old Hollywood model. Ah, wait, Hollywood IS cited as an example in strategies for 'career building' in answer 5. Silly me!

Great interview Guy.
Awesome answers by Penelope.
Thanks for sharing this stuff.
Guy I am getting addicted to your blog now.

Point 2: I would rather work around competent people, regardless of whether I like them or not. That way, I get to sleep at night, instead of being called to fix things. That automatically makes competent people likable, regardless of the rest of their personality.

Wonderful advice: "Staying in a job like this makes you look bad. People wonder why you put up with it. "

JIT blog. Just when I need it the most. thank you very much. (although I do have different point of view on No. 12. some of the major contributors that "changed world" are exhibit short fuse in their character. work with them closely is not only a learning experience, but also force you to speed up your own thought process = short fuse. It become a reflex rather than a logical decision making. that is why some of the jerk is very effective, and they are expect the others to perform the same = usually couldn't understand why the others not have such a reflex... I have worked with few such individuals. Although it is painful, but very beneficial =if you can withstand the pressure. I am consider it is the price to pay to learn from some of the masters..my 1.8 cents).

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