USE A KNIFE: LESSONS FOR MANAGERS FROM THE WAR IN VIETNAM

Posted On 18th December 2013

Ever heard of a man called John Paul Vann? Thought not. He’s not your average management guru. But this isn’t your average outplacement, CV writing, LinkedIn profile building and interview coaching blog either.

So give me two minutes and you’ll learn something new.

John Paul Vann was the closest thing to Lawrence of Arabia the Americans have ever had, although his taste in bedfellows was very different. He also said one of the wisest things any one has ever said, and it’s well worth remembering:

This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle — you know who you’re killing.

Now, on one level that’s your usual advice to choose your tools for a particular job. It could be extrapolated to a warning about being flexible in your leadership style too. The context Vann was writing about – the American war in Vietnam – provides graphic material, but the message is one we’ve all heard before.

So why do I insist you read it?

Our “game” is helping people sell themselves better on paper, online and in person. It’s to help people get jobs, get promotions and so on. Vann’s advice is vital for managers, leaders, come to think of it anyone who is keen to move on.

Choose your weapon. Stop thinking of CVs, LinkedIn, interviews etc. as parts of the recruitment process. Think of them as weapons. Because weapons have targets. Each target has the right choice of weapon, and, of course, you need to know how to use it.

So, for example, if you’re a young graduate your LinkedIn profile is unlikely to get you headhunted. That’s not how graduate recruitment generally works.

It is, however, terribly dangerous. Your prospective employers, on receiving a CV or application form, will Google you. They will find your LinkedIn profile, your Facebook page, and so on. They could do you a lot of harm if your profile picture was taken in a moment of passion, your friends use the “F” word a lot and your greatest achievement is pulling.

Don’t laugh. I’ve seen it. I once saw a prospective intern post a whole string of photos taken of her and her chap in a moment of, umh, some intimacy. God knows why. She didn’t get the job. Reputational risk.

Arguably young graduates shouldn’t be on LinkedIn at all unless they know how to handle this particular weapon. They might just blow their foot off.

Managers and leaders who want to move on are making a massive mistake if they are not on LinkedIn, because headhunting and direct approach is a major means of recruitment. If you’re not on LinkedIn you’re under gunned. Relying on a CV alone is choosing the wrong weapon.

However, what are you using LinkedIn for? What’s your target? You can’t just sit there and trot out a chronology of what you’ve done, throw up a few key words in “Skills and Expertise”, shove on an OK corporate photo and pray.

No. Do you want to go up or out? Interim or permanent? What type of job are you after? Specifically? And why on earth should anyone want you when 200 other candidates are the click of a mouse away?

You can’t duck these questions. You can’t say they don’t apply to me and just send the bombers in, trying to hit everything in sight. That’s what the Americans did in Vietnam and see where that got them.

President Kennedy was once challenged by a staffer for even trying to fight a war in Vietnam. “Look what happened to the French”, the staffer said. “But we’re not the French”, Kennedy replied. That wasn’t good enough. The Americans repeated the same mistakes, added some new ones, and failed even worse.

I could go on about this for hours, it’s such an important lesson for job seekers. Alas, this is just a blog and you haven’t paid us yet. Our shareholders will get angry. But remember this….

Use a knife. And know how to use a knife. Except when you should be using a rifle….

David Welsh

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