Kris Holmes has helped unlock the careers of tens of thousands of people in her role as an executive recruiter. In her new book, Ignite Your Career!, she shows the best tools she’s honed over two-plus decades in her industry. Kris’s book was one I needed when I was just getting started in my career and as we spoke, I realized the same tools continue to apply as people make important shifts throughout their careers.
In our interview, Kris shares her hard-won insights on career advancement at any stage of the game.
Emily Gindlesparger: All right, welcome to Author Hour. Today, I have Kris Holmes with me, she’s written the book, Ignite Your Career! Strategies and Tactics to Unleash Your Potential. Kris, welcome to Author Hour.
Kris Holmes: Emily, thank you so much, I am thrilled to be here.
Emily Gindlesparger: I have to say, I’m really excited to talk about your book because this was the book I needed when I was a college grad just starting out. I had finished a degree in fiction writing of all things, which you know is highly useful in this world. I really just wanted someone to tell me what to do with that and there was no one. I’m really curious, what kind of experiences inspired you to write this book?
Kris Holmes: Great question. Emily, as you know, from the book, I’ve been doing recruiting for a little over 25 years now and have worked with candidates everywhere from right out of college, all the way up to chief marketing officers and senior VPs, and I’ve counseled them daily on how to think about their career, how to apply for jobs, and how to prepare for jobs.
But concurrently, for the last 15 years, I’ve been working with some colleges, including Washington University which is here in Saint Louis. I’ve worked with their business school for about 15 years, and then my three children have gone to liberal arts schools in both California, and the northeast, and I’ve offered up my services to speak to them. These are wonderful schools. I’ve done interview prep, I’ve done ‘how to negotiate’ sessions with them. What always really surprised me was that despite these schools having amazing career centers, where there were so many resources, the students were still so hungry for this information.
I started thinking, okay, if these really elite schools have these great services and the kids still love these sessions and are so interactive and involved and appreciative, what about all the other students that go to really good schools that may not have the resources and really strong career centers to help them through this? As you saw, through the book, reading my stories, I too, made a lot of miss-steps. I so wish I had this book to help me think it through and figure out my strengths to start on the right path on day one. That is a long-winded way of saying both my work experience at the O’Connell Group, combined with my passion, and going to the colleges and watching my kids experience are all that really motivated me to want to write this book.
Then the other thing I’ll tell you is my third child, Sam, went to college two years ago and when he left, there was truly a gap in my life. All of a sudden I didn’t have the high school community as much as I had. That motivated me to work with a personal coach and what came out of that was some key learnings of myself. But also, my coach Doug said to me, “You know Kris, when you talk about this book that you want to write some day, you light up. What’s holding you back?” Everything happened at once to finally motivate me to do this thing I had been talking about for 15 years.
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s fantastic. How does it feel now that you’ve written the book?
Kris Holmes: It feels beyond amazing. I feel like a mother about to birth her fourth baby. I mean, it’s exciting and truly kind of scary, but I also feel like the world has aligned. I don’t think there has ever been a time in this world where this book is needed more. With the pandemic and kids at home versus at school, and then uncertainty about what’s going to happen in the fall, as well as many internships being canceled. I think people are hungry for knowledge to help them figure out good career paths and how to get there.
Emily Gindlesparger: Absolutely. That’s the scariest thing when you’re trying to figure out what your life will look like and the world is changing at the same time.
Kris Holmes: Yeah.
A Universal Struggle
Emily Gindlesparger: Why is it that so many college grads struggle to find their footing?
Kris Holmes: Great question. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is, many schools teach you–you go to school and you take classes that you’re interested in and it might have a career path, but many times, it’s just, here are my passions, here are my interests. But in reality, many career centers are experts in finance and consulting and maybe engineering, and directing people towards med school and those type things.
But the smaller more niche segments, they just don’t have the expertise nor the resources to bring in the talent. I think it’s that, combined with the fact that there are so many choices and so many different ways they could go that often times, it’s debilitating and it’s overwhelming and it’s scary. That’s why I so believe, having lived through it myself, that if you can figure out what your innate strengths are, what I call your superpowers, what those things are that come really easy to you. Narrow the field by understanding the type of jobs where those skills are going to set you up for success, it helps immensely, and I just don’t think a lot of students know how to do that yet.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, that was one thing I so appreciated seeing in your book was this focus on superpowers and skills over the specific title or degree that you’ve earned once you graduate college. It helps open up a new level of creativity I think when people focus on what they can do versus what they are qualified for.
Kris Holmes: Right, you know, I do think in the book, I talk about FOMO–fear of missing out–which is a real phenomenon at college. People see their roommates or their friends going to med school and becoming consultants or investment bankers or going to work at top companies and they think, “I’m not cutting it because I’m not doing something at that level.” And the reality is, you really cannot compare yourself to anybody else because your strengths are what make you special. They are yours uniquely and so you have to figure out where best to leverage them. Independent of where anybody goes in their career, they’re going to be at the learning phase. Everything is new. Everything is different and you want to go someplace where you’re both setup for success, and you’re going to be able to learn from the best.
Emily Gindlesparger: In your book, you break that process or the overall career process down into three steps or three phases. Learn, do, and leverage. Do you want to give us a brief overview of each of those?
Kris Holmes: Absolutely. I think this is really critical to be mindful of as you’re making decisions. The learn phase is when you’re new in your career. It is as I was just saying, everything, in reality, is new and at first, any time you do something new, it’s hard. It takes you a lot longer than it would after you’ve done it 10 times.
At the learn phase, what you’re doing is you’re building what I call tools to put in your toolbox and the smartest thing anybody can do at the learn phase, is go to either a top training company or the best company you can go to in your field, or go somewhere where you’re learning from somebody who has been trained at one of those top companies. Because you don’t want to just develop any tools, you want to develop world-class tools. Then, after you have been in your career for a period where you know what you’re doing, you’ve built your capabilities and your skills and now you’re going to go applying, that’s when you shift into the doing phase.
In my world, which is marketing, an assistant or associate brand manager might be at that level for three and a half to four and a half, even five years, building those quality tools. When they become what is called a brand manager, where they own a brand, the profit and loss statement, all of the strategy, the marketing, all of a sudden, they’re in the doing phase. Where they’re taking those skills and they’re putting them in their toolbox and they’re going out and building something. Let’s say a brand, or in my book, I talk about now, you’re going out and building a house, at the doing phase, you want to do what I call ‘do ’ in many different scenarios. In marketing, you might be brand manager of an ongoing business or you might be working in new products. Or, being at a manager-customer. You’re learning all different skills in that doing phase.
When you’ve gotten to the point where you’re an expert at doing, that’s when you then get promoted to director or VP, and you shift over to the leveraging phase and the leveraging phase is, most often, when the work gets done by people working for you.
That’s when you are training them on best practices so that they can build tools at their learning stage. So, at this leveraging stage, you are like a general contractor where you have a lot of builders, building underneath you. The other thing about the leveraging phase, there is also a different type of leveraging, which is when you leverage expertise. This might be when you decide that instead of having people report to you, you want to be an expert in one area. And that is very important and impactful as well, and that’s also leveraging but it’s not through people, it’s through knowledge.
Learn, do, leverage is something everybody goes through and oftentimes, if you shift careers, you will go back to the learning phase of your new career.
One thing that I would love to say, Emily, for the class of 2020 and beyond, your passions are amazing and awe-inspiring but as you’re thinking about your career, remember, it is critical to building that really strong foundation.
In reality, I would tell you to keep your passions on the personal side as you focus on your career. If you can build that foundation in the learning phase and the doing phase, then, when you get more senior in your career, you’ll have the opportunity to blend your passions with your expertise because you’ve built that amazing foundation and experience.
Building Strong Roots
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, that’s wonderful. I loved in your book, you expand on that idea when you talk about the tree analogy that you used to describe what it’s like to build a strong trunk and then branch in your career. I was really struck by that description. Would you share that with listeners?
Kris Holmes: Absolutely. The thought behind this is to think about your career like a tree and your education credentials and internships are kind of your foundations, so think of them as your root. Your goal is to build a really sturdy trunk and get high up on that trunk before you branch out. The reason is, when you’re down low, if you go outside and look at a tree, you’ll see little tiny branches sticking out but they’re not a lot and they don’t overlap at all.
If though, you move up and get the experience and get to that doing phase and decide to branch out–as a brand manager, they might decide that they have been a brand manager of two brands, I’ve done base, I’ve done innovation. I think I want to branch out to ecommerce and become an expert on that.
If they branch out at that point and get that experience but don’t want to stay in ecommerce forever, they can come back to their sturdy trunk or there will be lots of overlapping branches that might be interesting. You might be able to go from classic packaged goods to hospitality or quick-serve restaurants. A lot of different areas because they have that sturdy trunk, they’ve gotten up high enough that the blend of experience is really appealing to other industries and other companies.
Emily Gindlesparger: Are there any times in your own career trajectory where you branched out too early or made other missteps?
Kris Holmes: Many. As you’ve read about my book. I mean, bared my soul and really and truly, as you read in the book, you’ll understand how I came to realize why I made decisions, but early on in my career out of college, I went into a retail training program to become a buyer and my first job was as the Water Tower store’s assistant manager of cosmetics. I loved that job. It was really fun and it aligned with my strengths. The next world I was supposed to transition to was an assistant buyer. I just decided I didn’t want to do it.
Looking back, I’m shocked because I shouldn’t have done that and somebody should have told me, “That was ridiculous!” But I didn’t have a mentor and I didn’t have this book to really understand what was going on. But I went to HR and shared that with them, that I didn’t think I wanted to do it, and luckily, they recognized my strengths from my time as assistant cosmetic manager and offered me a position in human resources, which I absolutely loved.
But interestingly enough, I missed running a business, which is what led me back to business school where I fell into marketing and brand management. Fast forward to my time at Kraft, I absolutely loved it there, it was great in some areas.
When it was time to get promoted to the doing phase, interestingly, instead of at that point, getting offered a brand manager job, I was offered two different roles. One was customer marketing, what they call shopper marketing today, which aligned completely with my skills and was something I had been doing as an ABM at Cracker Barrel. The other one was kind of training and strategy, working with a sales force and did not align, but it had a higher salary, and a little bit higher bonus and like a dope, I took it. I mean, really and truly, I look back and just shake my head.
I have certainly made missteps, and you know, that’s what I tried to do in this book is not just lay out my missteps but the strategies and thought processes. If I had them that would have helped me stop. You know, the fourth chapter of my book, which is really focusing on the long-term and thinking about where you want to go long-term, and how this move will help you get there, versus the title, the salary, or letting your ego drive you. That would have stopped me in my tracks. Yes, I have made numerous mistakes and what I’m trying to do is give students, young professionals, career changers, the tools so they don’t have to.
Emily Gindlesparger: When you took that higher salary job at Kraft, how long did it take you to recognize that was the wrong move?
Kris Holmes: About five minutes into it. Really fast. But I had accepted it and the other job had gone to somebody else, and I didn’t have a choice. I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t enjoy that job. I did, I loved the people I worked with and that job tried to grow a muscle that is not one of my towering strengths, so that muscle was only going to get so big. Whereas, the other job aligned perfectly with my strengths, but at that time, I wasn’t thinking strategically, and I didn’t have the knowledge that I have today to know that’s what sets people up for success.
Emily Gindlesparger: And how did you pivot out of that job that didn’t work for you?
Kris Holmes: Well actually, we ended up moving to Michigan. So, my husband got a job that he thought was the job of his dreams and I was lucky enough to get a job at a wonderful company called Herman Miller Furniture Company. That was really exciting because they had really never marketed their products before. So, I could bring the consumer orientation and thought process, and different innovation procedures there, and I loved them.
But Michigan ended up being too cold and where we lived was a little bit too small. So then, after that, I moved to Continental Baking, where I worked on innovation until they were sold and that was the point where the transition happened. Emily, I applied for some marketing jobs, I was lucky enough to get some offers, but my favorite recruiter, Brian O’Connell, who really was so much more than a recruiter, he had never placed me anywhere, but he was a mentor. He was a resource, he was a friend, he got me in the door and introduced me to the VP at Continental Baking without ever getting a fee. He had opened his own recruiting firm and as I was calling him to say “We’ve decided we wanted to stay in St. Louis and help me find a job,” he threw out, “Come work for me,” it was not in the grand scheme of things. I had gone to Kellogg Business School. I had spent 10 years building my marketing capabilities. So, when he threw that out, it shocked me to the core.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah that’s incredible and it felt like the right opportunity because it was the right person that you knew you’d be working with.
Kris Holmes: Yeah, I adored him, I respected him, I loved how he operated. As I really set back to think about my career and why this head-hunting gig was kind of exciting to me, I sat down and pulled out two pieces of paper and wrote down everything I hated and everything I loved and it all kept coming back to the people part. I loved working with people. The other thing that I became very aware of, like when I was supposed to become an assistant buyer. It made me really anxious, looking at the director role in marketing, which would have been my next step and also made me anxious.
You know it is an amazing role and it is great leveraging, but it also relies a lot on the analytics and the ability to navigate politics and less on the people interaction. So, I was uncomfortable about the career path in marketing and as I looked at my loves and hates, everything kept coming back to people and working collaboratively.
And then the last thing I did was I reached out to mentors, past bosses, and people I have worked with and for and told them what I was thinking and asked their advice and they came back saying two things which really stuck with me. One was, “I think you’d be really good at it. I think it really aligns with your strengths and what makes you special.” And then the second thing was, “If it doesn’t work you’ll know in a year. If it doesn’t work you can always come back to marketing and you will have built your sales capability.”
And with those two things in mind, I felt like, “All right, let me do this,” and so I joined the O’Connell Group. I was the only person working remotely. Everybody else was in Connecticut and yet, Emily, from day one, it felt natural. It felt easy, it felt comfortable, and I kept on saying, “I can’t believe I am getting paid to talk to people on the phone,” and to give people advice and to help them with their careers. That was 25 years ago and I still feel that way.
The Importance of Networking
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s incredible. I am really struck by what you said about reaching out to previous mentors, previous people you’d worked with. I know that when I had just graduated college, I understood how important a mentor was particularly as I was pursuing writing and yet I was so shy and terrified of becoming actually vulnerable enough to reach out to people and feel that I was worthy of those people’s time. Do you find that that’s a common problem or is it just me?
Kris Holmes: Oh, believe me, it is not just you at all. In fact, there is a whole chapter in my book on networking and why it’s so important and how they do it. In reality, people really like to pay it forward, whether it is with people who were from their high school or from their college or from their graduate school or friends of the family or people in the industry.
I have not come across one person who I have reached out to–and interestingly as I have been on this journey to write this book, as I have seen people from different lives who have been authors or see something about an author on LinkedIn–I have reached out to them personally and asked them if I could take 50 minutes of their time to learn from their expertise and not one of them has said no. So, people are really open to doing it. It is something that not just students and young professionals should do but people really should do throughout their career.
In the book, I talked about it as a muscle that you really want to develop and it can be life and career-altering. When you have these people in your corner as a resource to reach out to as you’re considering different career moves, just to be able to offer you advice and point you in the right direction. Those relationships, if you network well and by that I mean it’s not a one-way street, it is a two-way street, you are really appreciative. You keep them up to date in your career and what is happening. They can make your life–not just your professional life but your life–so much richer.
So first of all, know you are not alone. Second of all, I think it is a huge tool that people should use and many are uncomfortable with. Three, people are really open and willing, and especially right now when people are working from home, I have found that CEOs and chief marketing officers, very senior level people, are hungry to connect and are really excited to chat. So yeah, I think it is critical and it’s a great thing for people to do.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah that’s incredible and it is funny, reflecting on how shy I was personally in the beginning of my career and now, many years later and a decade of writing experience and editing experience later, I am more than happy when people ask for my advice. You’re totally right, we’re all very willing to give, and yet it can feel so vulnerable to ask.
Kris Holmes: Absolutely.
Emily Gindlesparger: I was really struck by all of the tools that you have in part two of your book. You dive in deep on how to build a resume, how to build your skill sets around networking, interviewing, and negotiating. And of all the tools that you describe in your book, which ones do you think are the most underutilized ones?
Kris Holmes: Well it’s a really interesting question. I get a lot of resumes that come across my desk and a lot of them try to be cute or fancy or different, thinking that that’s a really good thing when in reality it’s not. So, while there are certainly some people who have great resumes, I think that is a need out there.
The knowledge of how to write a resume that is really clear and concise but conveys the appropriate information in a meaningful way–that differentiates you and also structures the interview. So, I think it is out there, but I am not so sure it’s great. The networking we already talked about. I think that is beyond critical and can open doors for you for advice but also for potential jobs down the road. I think how to apply for jobs is obviously changing as technology evolves and many times people apply for jobs in the wrong way. They see a job, they push a button saying submit when it is like a crapshoot.
Your chances of rising to the top and getting a human to see you are very minuscule. By tweaking how you apply for jobs, and if there is a great recruiter working on a job, that is the best option because they are talking to the hiring manager and the company wants to fill it through them and they are the filter. So that is the best way.
A second way is people you’ve worked with in the past who know your expertise and your capabilities, as well as how you’d fit with the company–having them get the resume to the right person. Another way is through networking and those people you’ve connected with. If you had impressed them, they may be able to get the resume. Then the last one is pushing the button and applying because again, the odds of that ever paying out are really minuscule.
So, that is important, but I am going to keep going because Emily, interview prep, you know getting to that point where you have been invited to interview and then not doing your homework is really like going to Harvard and leaving without your degree because you’re one class short. I am a huge believer that preparing yourself, knowing yourself inside out, knowing the company, and having done your homework is critical to set yourself up for success and differentiate yourself. So, the book lays out the process.
Then both negotiating and resigning are things that people really don’t know how to do well. And it makes them really uncomfortable and so the book lays out how to do it. The other thing I will share is through the book, hopefully, people would get the knowledge they need but we also have three different services that we are offering to augment what they have started. So, we are going to help people finalize their resume, do interview prep, do mock interviews, and make sure that people are really prepared. In the third stream, an option we have is what we’re calling just in time negotiations. So, somebody’s gotten a job, not through a recruiter. They don’t have anybody in their corner to help them figure out how to negotiate in a win-win manner that has the company feeling even better about you after negotiation.
So, if people find that they still want more help, we’re going to be there to help them in those three areas.
The STAR Plus Framework
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s wonderful. I especially appreciate in your book that for each of these steps, that can feel so intimidating, such as sitting down for an interview for a job that you really want or negotiating salary and benefits, these things that people often really experience a lot of trepidation around, you turn them into really simple elegant steps. One of my favorites was in the interview piece. You talk about using the STAR framework to tell stories about your accomplishments. Walk us through that.
Kris Holmes: Absolutely and we call it the ‘STAR Plus’ and my belief is if somebody says to you what are your strengths, what are your accomplishments and you rattle them off and then somebody else asks that person what you said 10 minutes later, they’ll look at them like a deer in the headlights. They will remember nothing. But if they say, “What are your strengths?” and you say, “Here are my top two strengths and let me give you an example of how each one allowed me to achieve my goal.” And you tell a really concise story that paints a vivid picture, there is some chemical reaction that happens in the brain that allows people to remember it and believe it.
So, what I tell people to do is to grab some index cards and a copy of their resume, if they have any past performance reviews, those can be helpful. The reason I tell people to do index cards is it forces you to be concise. If you are typing on the computer or you have a pad of paper, you can go on forever. And that’s not what you want to do here. What you want to do is write a strength like leadership. Think of that example where that strength allowed you to achieve your goal and you want to write it out. The S is the situation, what was going on. The T, I tell people to use is thinking and the thinking might be the analysis. In the marketing world, it might be the trends you noted, what the sales guy told you, it is that aha, that light bulb going off–that eureka moment. That takes you to the action, which is, ‘What did you do?’ and R is the result.
So, situation, thinking, action, and result. The plus or the learning is if having gone through that you learned something that will have you shift what you do next time, you share it because, in reality, we all improve by making mistakes and course-correcting along the way. If you have something that’s really meaningful you share it–if you don’t you stop at results.
Emily Gindlesparger: I love that so much and I love the idea of using an index card to constrain your thinking and make sure you get really concise. As a writer, you can imagine, that sings to me. Yeah, that is wonderful.
Well Kris, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you and I’ve been so excited to see not just how your tips help people who are newly on the job market but can help people who are at any stage of their career and building from where they are.
So again, your book is called, Ignite Your Career! Strategies and Tactics to Unleash Your Potential, and besides checking out the book, where can listeners find you?
Kris Holmes: So the other place that they can go is to our website, which is and there, we’ll have more information on the book, a little bit about my background, as well as the services I offer. The other place they can go check me out is on LinkedIn and there you can see my work history. I would also tell you to go take a look at my recommendations because they’ll very clearly outline how I work with people, the long-term focus, and hopefully the benefit that we have been able to afford people throughout their career.
Emily Gindlesparger: Fantastic, well, thank you so much.
Kris Holmes: Thank you. It was lovely talking to you.