Stage First. Enter the Market Second.

When I tell my friends that I run an ed tech recruiting firm, I often hear the retort, “Ah, so you’re a headhunter.” I want to reply, “Actually, I’m more like a real estate agent.”

Granted, many people believe that a real estate agent is just as opportunistic as a headhunter. To the untrained eye, both professions appear to earn commissions by doing whatever it takes to get two parties to close a deal.

Yet, after wrapping up several challenging searches this spring, I am gaining a new appreciation for realtors and discovering parallels between job hiring and home buying. In many ways, a recruiter is like a hiring agent, helping steer inexperienced parties — job seekers and employers — though a complex process in which decisions are sometimes made more on emotion than facts. And in a final ironic twist, I see a glaring void in the typical hiring process: the lack of staging by job applicants.

Staging an opportunity

Over the last year, my firm helped numerous schools across the country fill senior technology openings. Each situation required us to collaborate with the leadership team for several months to design and construct a new position. We helped each school remodel an outdated opportunity in a competitive landscape to attract as strong a pool of prospective buyers — or applicants — as possible.

A good realtor is a creative designer, able to market a property in the toughest of circumstances. So, too, is a good recruiter. But staging is not trickery. Staging is about identifying the true potential of an opportunity — home or job — and then demonstrating to others what could be, not just what currently is.

In hiring, staging is acutely relevant for new roles. We recently helped a school revamp a director of library position into a director of library services and educational technology. At the time of the hiring search, the school was reimagining the mission of its library and preparing to establish a more robust educational technology program. Thus, we had to help prospective candidates look beyond the current metaphorical construction zone, and visualize the exciting potential still two or three years away. And indeed, all six finalists who came to visit left truly excited about the position’s possibilities.

Consider another challenging staging situation: an opening for a director of both instructional technology and IT. Many of our school clients get hung up on looking for that unicorn candidate with equal talents in both areas of technology. Our job is to help a school see past a candidate’s current imbalance of technology experience, and visualize the potential of that applicant in a few years. Using that lens, our clients have come to recognize the value of candidates with great instructional technology vision but less hands-on IT experience, provided that those candidates have the capacity for managing change, developing staff, and learning IT fundamentals.

Role reversal

The astute reader will notice in this second example a metaphorical flip in roles. The employer is analogous not to a home seller but a home seeker, searching for the right candidate. This flip is no accident. Once a job is advertised and applications start rolling in, the roles of employers and candidates swap, with applicants now the ones being evaluated and scrutinized. And herein lies one of the great tragedies of the hiring process: the failure of candidates to realize that their lack of staging is often why they lose out in a search.

Think about all the outside help that a novice home shopper receives in a competitive real estate market: inside tours of properties, prequalification from a lender, and professional assistance throughout the purchase process. Despite the high seniority level of the positions for which we recruit, few if any candidates seek professional help with document preparation, mock interviews, gap analysis, insider advice, or formal representation.

Once again, the cynic might claim that applicant staging is akin to tricking an employer. But is it? I would argue that staging a candidate is no different from staging a job opportunity: It’s about helping the other side focus less on current imperfections, and more on future possibilities. As someone whose firm represents employers, I want my clients to do just that.

So what might applicant staging look like?

  • A K-8 administrator applying to a K-12 school might want to prepare some talking points that highlight admission work or partnerships with high schools in the community.
  • A younger applicant applying to a senior administrative role might want to develop some subtle physical or verbal mannerisms that convey a more mature, commanding presence.
  • A normally quiet or reserved person might want to be mentally prepared to show genuine spontaneity or lighthearted humor during an in-person interview, to avoid coming across as cold or distant.

In all these cases, the savvy applicant does not hide a gap but rather acknowledges it, and then subtly demonstrates the ability to overcome it. An applicant’s gap is like a super small bedroom in a home. Both are flaws that can’t be ignored. The smart agent knows that this room still needs to be staged with a bed, no matter how small, or else prospective buyers will view the room size as a flaw that can’t be overcome.

I know firsthand how exhausting job hunting and hiring are. But don't over look the value of staging. For an employer, this means taking the time to conduct a needs assessment, rethink strategy, and design a new position — all before posting a job. For an applicant, this means doing a thorough self-assessment, investing in professional coaching, and rehearsing for presentations and interviews — all before submitting an application. After all that hard work, you just might find yourself the dream job or applicant you’ve always been looking for. Then both sides can happily take themselves off the market.