Advice & News

March 29, 2021

In Your Job Hunt, Borrow the Secrets of Search Firms


Prostock-studio/Shuttestock

If you want to grow professionally, you have to get out of your comfort zone. Virtually every high-achieving professional would agree with that statement. Yet too often, executive recruiters see top-level talent stuck well within their comfort zone when plotting their next career steps -- sometimes uncertain of how to escape from a tightly defined type of role or industry.

It's the act of purposeful "job searching" itself that is keeping so many of these talented professionals confined to their safe spaces. This may shock you, but take it from an executive recruiter: In most cases, responding to job ads is not an effective way to take your career to the next level. The odds are completely against you -- you are competing against a swarm of other applicants and have little chance of outdoing candidates that a hiring manager already has been thinking about.

Instead, your best bet is to become one of those great candidates that a hiring manager has already heard about. That means putting yourself out there, essentially acting as your own search firm -- not just casually "networking," but drawing strategically on your abilities, contacts, and experiences to get your name in front of an ideal employer you might not already know.

Are you ready to go on the offense with your job search but not sure where to begin? Here are some offensive plays you might borrow from the search firms.

New Connections, New Opportunities

It's human nature to feel excited about someone you just met. When considering where to go next in your career, the term "networking" specifically refers to meeting people whom you don't yet know. Successful search firms, for example, reach out directly to as many new relevant professionals in the field for each job they are sourcing. Which of your existing contacts would be willing to introduce you to new people? Which groups or organizations might you join? The method doesn't really matter as long as the end result is that you get to introduce yourselves to new faces.

After meeting someone new, there is an unscientific window of a few months where you remain in the back of that person's mind as someone who might be worth introducing to someone else. It's a weird quirk of human behavior that the people who are the most excited about you are often the ones you just met -- feel free to take advantage of this human bias for novelty.

Leaders Will Make Introductions If Your Job Vision Is Specific

Job seekers often say, "I'm open to what's next." Or, they don't give specifics and as a result, no one has ideas for them about whom they should meet. But, when a vice president of finance starts talking about how she is craving the opportunity to be more strategic in her role, suddenly, she has the power to create a buzz in her market about her goals, because higher education presidents are consistently seeking "a finance leader who is more than an accountant." Now, matches will quickly be made.

Once you have the attention and enthusiasm of someone new, this is your shot to clearly articulate what you're actually searching for in your career. Leaders need help figuring out how to help job seekers. They do well with specifics about what a dream role looks like, or understanding the stepping stones that might be next on the way to a dream job. It takes practice to speak compellingly about challenges and satisfactions in a current job -- but you can use your accomplishments to kick-start a discussion of what you hope to achieve in a new role. As much as your new contacts will want to help you, they need to know what your parameters are.

Cast a Wide but Strategic Net

With job searching, just like with fundraising, the more relationships you cultivate, the more likely you are to achieve your desired result. But that doesn't mean you should reach out to as many people as you can without a plan. When you go on the offense, researching and purposely targeting the organizations and leaders for whom you most want to work helps greatly. Try to match your unique talents and approach (whatever they are, for you) to the right workplace or environment. The more strategic you are in your outreach, the more likely it is that you'll just "click" with somebody -- and at that point, job descriptions go out the window. You want to be in a position where your next employer writes a job description with you in mind. You want them to realize how badly they need someone just like you.

Does that sound like an impossible feat, especially in this isolated pandemic year? Don't lose hope or focus -- steady effort over time can get you to this place. If you don't want to stay in your current role for the long term, make a goal to develop genuine relationships with 10 to 20 professional contacts (i.e. people who can hire you) per year. Unfortunately, as a result of COVID-19, there are no conferences right now at which to rub shoulders, so you'll have to "work the room" on your own. Send invitations to leaders asking if they would like to discuss major trends in your industry, and come prepared to offer ways you may be able to help. If these conversations go well, there will be authentic interest from both parties to continue the discussion later.

Really Busy Senior Leaders Will Take Your Cold Call

Here's some real-life food for thought: Fundraising and communications are two industries notoriously filled with professionals who make fast career moves, because top performers in these fields naturally know how to reach out, network, and "talk shop." Well, recruiters know from experience that candidates can have similar trajectories in other, less networking-heavy fields when they are willing to make the first move.

Imagine if university finance leaders or IT administrators -- positions not necessarily known for high levels of outreach -- were to start reaching out to presidents of colleges, who are typically spending a great deal of time contemplating trends and challenges in higher education anyway, seeking a chat about the state of their field. They wouldn't have to even risk sharing that they are on the job market, but they could be expanding their fan base along the way. College presidents or provosts need thought partners and advice, too, so you will be surprised by how few ignore these requests or turn them down, especially after the second outreach. (In fact, when stepping outside your comfort zone, it's wise to assume that your first outreach will likely be ignored. It's hard to read the seriousness of a person's intentions from one message; reaching out again demonstrates a sincere interest.)

Track Your Every Move

If you're trying to serve as your own search firm, it's helpful to keep track of data like one. Your data-tracking method does not need to compete with the fancy CRM (customer relationship management) databases used by all large firms, but your records will only be as good as the information you enter. If you record on your tracker (whether it's a simple spreadsheet or something more elaborate) every outreach and job-search-related interaction you have, you will remember when to follow up. If you take notes during every conversation, details from a discussion this week will still be fresh in your mind a month from now.

Your tracker is also a good opportunity to split up your outreach efforts into strategic buckets: dream employers, "would be nice" employers, and "worth meeting" employers, for example. Each category can have its own tab on a spreadsheet and allow you to prioritize your efforts accordingly. Organization and strategic thinking are natural partners, you'll find.

Find a Way to Hold Yourself Accountable

A major reason people hire personal trainers is for the accountability: Just because exercise is good for us doesn't mean we always have the motivation to do it alone. The same principle applies to job searching -- but the good news is that you don't have to pay someone to keep you motivated and your self-esteem high. Tell a friend or loved one about your plans and goals. Say you'll check in with them once a week (or more often!) about how many "dream bosses" you've reached out to. Frankly, your accountability partner doesn't even need to provide you with feedback to be effective; just knowing that someone out there might notice if you don't follow through on your plans will likely be enough to keep you focused. (On a related note, if you fall off the wagon for a week or two or three, forgive yourself and get back on track as soon as you can - just like you would at the gym.)

I don't mean this in a cheesy, inspirational way but the most important action through this process is believing in yourself. Think like a recruiter or a fundraiser. Great recruiters don't mind calling an ideal candidate over and over until they answer -- because they've done their research and are entirely confident that this candidate will benefit from what they have to say. Similarly, fundraisers are persistent in asking for money -- something no one likes to do naturally -- because they believe in their product or organization and are certain their donors will feel fulfilled and satisfied after making a gift.

Have that kind of confidence in yourself. You are the commodity being sold here. If you believe in your abilities and know from your research that an employer seems like a great match for you, be confident that your outreach will be mutually beneficial to both parties. You are getting one step closer to your dream job; they are getting the chance to meet a talented professional who is sitting in the driver's seat of their own job search. And people like you -- job-seekers willing to step way outside their comfort zone and proactively build their own future -- do not come along every day.

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