The Dark Horse Candidate Need Not be Out of the Running

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Introduction

Next we'll turn to the "Working Strategies" column from the June 22nd issue of the St. Paul Pioneer Press titled: "The Dark Horse Candidate Need Not be Out of the Running." By Amy Lindgren.

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It's been a few weeks since California Chrome captured the national imagination by winning two of three major races in American horse racing. With a third victory, he would have joined the elite group of Triple Crown winners.

While much of the spotlight has been focused on this last race, I've been more interested in the upset achieved in the first two contests. Since I frequently use the term "dark horse" to describe job candidates who make an unlikely but successful bid for positions they aren't favored for, I'm happy to have a timely reminder of the term's origins.

According to Wikipedia, "dark horse" began as horse racing parlance to describe a contender unknown to gamblers, making it a difficult horse to place betting odds on. Merriam Webster Dictionary provides the more universal definition of a contestant that seems unlikely to succeed.

So, in honor of California Chrome and his trainers, owners and jockey, let's look at those times when you might be the unexpected favorite for a job. There are three circumstances in which a candidate might achieve dark horse status. Each situation differs enough from the others to demand its own set of strategies.

1. If you have connections to someone in the company, you might be perceived as the "came out of nowhere" candidate to those who don't know you.

While my career counseling colleagues and I are quick to advise using connections to get an interview, we often omit the next stage of advice: How to handle your special status as the known-to-someone candidate once you're in the meeting.

Every situation will have its own contours, based on such variables as the title of the person sponsoring your candidacy and whether you were moved ahead of someone inside the company. For that reason, your most versatile strategy will be to respect the process. Although you are apparently being ushered to the front of the line, you can't afford to take anything for granted.

So prepare for the interviews as intently as you would any other time and focus on proving your benefactor right. Refrain from dropping your sponsor's name too frequently, or you'll cultivate the opinion that your merits aren't noteworthy on their own.

2. If you've been working in the company in an unrelated capacity -- perhaps as an assistant in a different department -- your candidacy for the job may catch people by surprise.

Being a known commodity can be a formidable hurdle, as you must build on what people already know about you while also overcoming their conflicting perceptions of your skills.

To succeed as this type of dark horse candidate, you will need to re-introduce yourself to the decision makers. That means adopting the language of their discipline, structuring your resume to reframe your experience, and even changing your image to look the part.

It will help if you anticipate the cognitive dissonance internal interviewers might experience by describing how you developed the skills you're now seeking to use: "Although I've been working as a secretary for the lab, I've also been completing my marketing degree and working on web projects for a local nonprofit. I think my training and volunteer experience make a good combination with my knowledge of the company ... "

3. If you are an outside applicant who is more impressive than the internal candidate everyone assumed would get the job.

Now here's a real minefield. If you surprise the committee by turning a sham process into a real horse race, you can count on making some enemies before you even begin working. Some on the committee will be genuinely pleased to have competition to the heir apparent, while others will be genuinely annoyed.

If you perceive this is the situation, you will need to tread carefully, both in the interview and later when you come on board.

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That concludes the "Working Strategies" column from the June 22nd issue of the St. Paul Pioneer Press titled: "The Dark Horse Candidate Need Not be Out of the Running," by Amy Lindgren. I'm Anne Obst.

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