‘It’s all about attitude’

By J&C Team

James Caan gives his take on finding, keeping and thriving in a job 
in the 21st century!

With a 30-year career running recruitment businesses, multimillionaire James Caan CBE knows a thing or two about the job market and how to bag yourself that dream job.

He started his career working in a recruitment company, having left school at 16 with no qualifications. He soon realised he wanted to do it better and launched his first company, Alexander Mann, in the 1980s, which he successfully grew into a business with a £130m turnover and 30 offices worldwide. Now he is founder and CEO of investment company Hamilton Bradshaw and supports, invests and advises recruitment entrepreneurs.

Finding a job

What would be your first piece of advice to graduates who are trying to choose a career path?

For new graduates, the market for opportunities is quite challenging as a lot of the big employers – big banks, accounting firms and so on – are revising their intake for this year owing to the uncertainty of Brexit. Through my recruitment businesses, I’m hearing that the number of opportunities has fallen considerably – so graduates need to widen their search and look at other possibilities. 

You’ve worked in recruitment since you started as a consultant in your teens. What is the one thing that makes a candidate stand out from the crowd?

You should be aware that your application will be one of many – in some cases thousands – so you need to be sure it stands out. That doesn’t mean pages of text – keep it short, precise and to the point. The key word is “engaging”.

Your content will be almost identical to everyone else in terms of education, work history and so on. Think about what will make you stand out – your extra activities, your passion for the sector or for the company, for example.

Are traditional CVs still valid, or should we all be using video and visuals to make our applications stand out?

I think it depends on the organisation you’re applying to. If it’s appropriate and there’s the facility to add photographs or video, that is becoming the new norm. Video is without a doubt the fastest growing medium. If the facility is there, then by all means go for it.

Do you think covering letters are still worth doing?

The covering letter allows you to demonstrate your personality, your passion, your interest in the opportunity and the depth of research you’ve done on the potential employer. Without doubt, this is the most important part of the application.

How does the size of the company affect a job application?

Smaller companies look for people who are more rounded, but in larger companies the search is for people with specific skill sets. You need to be versatile and able to multitask in smaller businesses and be more adaptable and flexible.

It’s really important that you know what the company you are applying to is looking for because it’s not going to be the same as working in a big insurance company or bank, when your daily activity would be narrow. The bigger the company, the more narrow the functions become.

What is the single most important thing you should do when preparing for a job interview?

The first question I’ll ask in interview is “What do you know about the organisation?” If you just quote the company website, I won’t be impressed. If you haven’t bothered to learn anything new, it’s almost a deal breaker.

Having in-depth knowledge of the company you’re applying to will help you stand out. I expect an interviewee to have thoroughly researched what we as a company do, who we are, what our position is, what our USPs are and how we compare to our competitors.

I interviewed a finance director recently and the first question I asked was if he’d downloaded our accounts from Company’s House. He said no, and after five minutes I’d lost interest. It said a lot about his approach to work, even though on paper I would have hired him. I was put off because he hadn’t bothered.

A CV will tell the interviewer that you can do the job, but it doesn’t tell them that you’re the right person. Work is about attitude, determination, work ethic, approach, creativity and thinking outside the box. By the time you get an interview, logic should apply – there’s already a match, so what’s the objective? It’s a chance to see how suitable you are to the organisation and that’s about you, not your CV.

What is the main thing to remember when you walk into the interview room?

It’s a two-way dialogue. The perception of most candidates is that the interviewer will be doing most, if not all, of the talking, but there should be a 50/50 split between you and the interviewer.

As soon as you are invited for an interview, go on LinkedIn and look at the profile of the person interviewing you so you know a bit about their background and work history. Set a Google alert on the company so you’re up to date on any new information.

Also think about what you’ll be talking about, what questions you’ll ask, the position, the number of people in the company, the reporting lines, your role and what the company will use to gauge or measure your performance. All these will enable you to converse with the interviewer, which will in turn enable them to see that you’re interested and enthusiastic about the company and the role.

What are your tips for using social media to your advantage when looking for a job?

You need to be very conscious that employers have the same access to social media as everyone else – I think candidates forget that. Whenever you’re putting up a photo or post on social media, always ask, “Do I want my employer to see it?” I’ve spoken to employers who have been put off candidates because of what they’ve seen on social media.

What does your picture on LinkedIn say about you, for example? It’s amazing how many profiles have a photo of someone sitting on a beach or at a party, which is inappropriate.

All forms of social media have become big sources of job opportunities – they are the most important channels now and this will only become more true as time goes on. It’s the new norm when it comes to finding job opportunities.

Qualifications and training

How important is a university degree these days?

I think a degree is key. It isn’t just about the academic qualification – it’s what else you learn in those three years that is also important. University helps you to grow and interact with other people – it’s a time for personal development.

In the competitive world we live in, the other candidates for your job are likely to have a degree. Landing a job is a competitive situation, so you want everything in place to make it easier for you, not harder.

Do you think doing an apprenticeship is worthwhile?

In the past three to five years there has been a huge surge of interest in apprenticeships, and there are thousands of opportunities out there. Employers are more aware of them too. If you don’t have a degree and would prefer to go down a practical experience route, an apprenticeship is extremely worthwhile.

Apprenticeships are oversubscribed. What is your advice to someone who is at the application stage?

Focus more on your soft skills. This is something I feel passionate about – I did a huge campaign for McDonald’s on how important these skills are in gaining employment.

Soft skills are all about your attitude, your work ethic, communication and decision-making skills, and your ability to be a team player. All these will help you to be successful within an apprenticeship.

You need to present them on your CV – list your communication skills and give examples of how you’re a team player and when you’ve used good decision-making skills.

What’s your advice to someone who has been made redundant?

The key thing to remember is the definition of redundancy – the company hasn’t let you go; the position is no longer required. If I make a position redundant, that person could still be exceptionally good at that job, it’s just that the function is no longer required. Try to remember it isn’t a reflection of you or your skills.

What qualities do you think are essential for a successful career?

It’s critical you know what good looks like in your function and role. Ask yourself how you can make a difference. Where are you exceeding expectations and how well do you communicate that to your employer?

I have an individual who reports to me every six months. He asks me directly what is expected of him in his role and takes copious notes. He asks me how I’ll measure his achievements and then he comes back six months later and demonstrates how he has exceeded my expectations. He sends a summary positioning himself for a pay rise and he’s the one person who I’ve always given one to because he’s made it difficult for me to say no. He’s very eloquent about what he has achieved.

Are unpaid internships and work experience worth doing to get into your dream profession?

Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of internships. When people think of a job, they have a perception of what it involves and an internship enables you to see the reality. In fact, many people change their mind because the job isn’t what they thought it would be, which is a great thing for the employee and employer. An internship gives you the opportunity to know what you want to do and what you don’t.

Which industries do you consider to be the most future proof?

Anything in the digital media and technology fields, which is where we’re moving to as an economy. It isn’t coincidental that the world’s most valuable company is Apple, a technology company.

Ford, which is more than 100 years old, produces 250,000 cars a year. Tesla produces 10% of that number, but it’s more valuable than Ford because the technological advancements made by Tesla are beyond fault. That’s where the world is going.

If you’re an employee, you want to be at the growth end of an industry, not the retracting end. To be successful you’ve got to develop a skill set that’s going to be in demand tomorrow and you have to be technology competent.

James’s career

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career?

Business is ever evolving, and to keep pace you need to keep reinventing. If you don’t, you’ll be left behind. Business doesn’t look the same as when I started. If I did what I did 30 years ago, I’d be dead in the water. The markets, the business, the services we provide and the pricing of what we do change all the time.

The challenge is how do I make money, because the service we provide is becoming more readily available. The biggest challenge for me is being able to follow the trends and re-engineer my business so it’s still a business tomorrow.

What plans do you have for your business over the coming year?

It’s a case of constantly reinventing myself to keep my knowledge base ahead of the market and to know what will be the impact of change to my businesses. It’s exciting – it keeps me on my toes. I’m sure my business will be doing things next year that we didn’t do last year, and I have to lead that change. I need to stay on top of what’s happening in the market, know how that will impact my businesses and be aware of what jobs people will be doing next year.

Brexit will have an impact, although what that will be we don’t yet know. Our customer base could be different two years from now, for example. For the past 20 years, 50% of our trade has been with Europe, but in the future 50% of our trade could be with China, the US, Asia. Is my business capable of doing that?

I have to follow Brexit carefully, follow the trade deals that the government will be making and how that will have an impact, because our customer base will change.