Selling Yourself – Part 1

Selling Yourself – Part One

There are so many books and articles on the subject of personal projection and preparing for job interviews, with millions of words all mixed and muddled up into new ways of saying the same thing – Creating a Good Impression at Job Interviews. Yet to me, they all sound so sanitised, sterile, formulaic and a college based series of tick box exercises, they become completely alien to ME and my experiences! “If you were an animal – what would you be? If you were a colour, what would it be?” (Why are they asking me these silly questions?)

At the risk of sounding xenophobic, they also seem so ‘American’, as though they were written for people divided by a common language. So much emphasis on matters that barely relate to the job advertised, yet bound by the same strictures written and produced by someone’s HR department or general employment agency.

As part of my work as an independent consultant, I am often tasked with becoming involved in the job interview process. Sometimes, simply as a member of the interview panel, although increasingly, I am asked to undertake the whole business of finding and appointing a new Head Gardener, including writing the job description and placing the advertisements in the ‘right’ places.  This involves carrying out a full audit of the existing gardens and staff, and interviewing the employer as to exactly what their requirements are. You may be amazed to hear that many estate owners have no real idea of the type of person they should be trying to attract. Often, horticultural knowledge is not as important as management of the grounds and staff, yet previously they have taken on very knowledgeable plants-people when they really needed a hard – nosed ‘Manager’.

Under the title of Selling Yourself, I will be producing a short series of essays, which I hope will encourage everyone thinking of applying for promotion or appointment as a Head Gardener. These will be based on courses run by The School of Garden Management ( which in turn are based on The Head Gardeners Survival Manual. As each of these essays could run into many thousands of words, I will strive to provide the reader with a complete ‘section’ of information and advice concentrating on a particular aspect of the science.

Beginning a Portfolio

Your portfolio is a separate document from your curriculum vitae, and should commence as early in your career as you think fit. Many job applications nowadays are to be completed on line, and unfortunately, this ‘drop down’ formula often overlooks important items, and thus creates difficulties for those seeking to sell themselves. (I will deal with this problem in the next essay.)

However, this is no reason not to start your professional life story. It may sound strange – starting this series by discussing portfolios, when surely, the c.v. must come first? However, your story needs to begin as early as possible. Although it may be the final document in your file, it is the one that requires some history and research. Depending on your age and experience, you may wish to include your school academic reports, especially if you have a fistful of A* Grades. Think back to your past experiences. If you have, at any time, worked with a particular expert, even as a subordinate, and feel that you learned valuable lessons from that encounter – add it to your list. Name the person and the time and place of the event. Perhaps you worked in a citrus or orchid house, or have constructed a rockery and worked with alpines, or created a wildlife pond or meadow – anything outstanding and memorable in your career, complete with dates/years, as all of these facts will form the foundation of your portfolio.

Think of the portfolio as being your personal version of ‘This Is Your Life’, or a formalised scrapbook of memories, documents and photographs. Remember, this is your opportunity to shine during the interview. The panel will have already seen and liked your c.v. and there is little point in duplicating that document – or indeed, any part of it.
What we are looking for is your personality, your individuality, and your personal experiences.

One of the most difficult questions that you may be asked at interview is ‘Tell me about yourself. Who are you, what is special about you’. So often, the interviewee is flummoxed, and starts to repeat the information on their c.v. documents. If you have your portfolio to hand, begin by talking about your hobbies (not those on the c.v.! Ballroom dancing, Eating out, Films, Travelling and suchlike are so hackneyed – even if true!). If you love Elvis Presley,  Status Quo or uni-cycling – say so! Please, just be yourself. Just relax and enjoy this part of the interview, as it is the one time you can be truly open and in control of the discussion.

I have mentioned photographs, and these are a vital part of your portfolio. Around twenty or so decent pictures, especially those showing you actually working (not posed, these always look faked even if they weren’t) at a variety of jobs. Avoid group photos, even if they were taken at (say) Chelsea Flower Show if you were a member of a College Team, if they only show the group, not you as the skilled artisan. A couple of shots of you knee deep in a fish pond, covered in mud and silt are indicative of your willingness to get involved in unpleasant tasks.

Anything that marks you out at being a conscientious person – bee keeping, poultry or horses, sheep or fish welfare are all indicators of someone who is used to responsibility, and they reinforce your suitability to take on new challenges. Please remember to be prepared to answer questions on your chosen subjects, as the interviewer may be genuinely interested in one or more of your claimed skills, and the greater the knowledge, the deeper the rapport.

Also include future plans, especially if they include further education or career development. If your ambition is to take the RHS Level Three or Four, or perhaps attend a course in Management Studies, make sure you have the relevant information to hand (not in the portfolio) as the employer may well decide to offer that as part of your package. If you are uncertain in your answers regarding costs and availability you will lose the initiative.

One final word on presenting photographs – please ensure they are in a decent folder or specialised booklet, as this makes them easier to see and appreciate. The panel will not be so impressed with a memory stick presentation that requires additional work on their part. Remember, for most job interviews, the panel will have read (probably) several dozen packages of application, and the thought of undertaking extra work by accessing somebody’s memory stick will not be welcomed!

To recapitulate – the portfolio should date from as early a period in your career as you feel comfortable with. If you are (say) mid 50s, having left school forty years ago, A Levels and similar awards will not be particularly helpful, so you should tailor your material to suit. Unlike a c.v., any breaks in your career are not important. Presentation is everything, and a set of quality photographs with interesting short descriptions showing you at work is worth many thousands of words.

You may also be surprised at the number of applicants who produce truncated versions of portfolios which include the words ‘ photographs and references are available on request’. Surely the opportunity to sell yourself has been lost with these words! If you cannot be bothered to include important – critical to your chances – information with your portfolio, you should not be surprised if the panel decide against wasting further time and energy on you – no matter how promising you may have seemed!

Next time, I will be covering the production  of your curriculum vitae, offering advice that will hopefully set you apart from your competitors and ensure that you are offered an interview.

One final thought – employers go to great lengths to try to find the right person for the job. Each job interview process costs a lot of time, energy and money, and is not undertaken lightly. In my experience, employers are delighted to find their problems solved by taking on someone with initiative and enterprise. An obvious statement maybe? Finding the right person to do the job is by no means easy, any more than it is finding the right job for the right person!

Gardening and amenity horticulture are far removed from standard types of job, and they demand a special style of approach from both the employer and employee. Simply ticking boxes and answering formulaic questionnaires is not the right way to find that perfect marriage. Which is why ensuring that your personality shines through – Selling Yourself – is so important.