Conducting a job search these days can be bewildering and frustrating. The competition seems fierce, the economy is slowing, resumes submitted online seem to fall into a silent black hole, and as a woman of a certain age, even if you get the interview, you often hear that you’re over-qualified. What is a midlife woman to do?
Never fear, help is near.
WomenBloom talked with Kate McLagan, VP of Client Services for Right Management in Austin, Texas, a large outplacement firm helping people in job transition. Kate has a wealth of information and tips for those of us looking for employment.
Why does it seem so hard?
Kate points out that if you haven’t looked for work in the last few years, or, if your job has always come to you through promotions or head hunters, you probably are out of touch with what it takes these days to conduct a successful job sales and marketing campaign for yourself. Yes, you read that correctly, gentle readers, the job hunt is really a sales and marketing campaign for yourself.
It helps to understand that there has been a major shift in how to think of the job-hunting process. Nowadays, we need to have the mindset of seeing ourselves and our career as our “business.” No longer can we just show up for work, do it reasonably well, and expect it to be there for us as long as we want it. Those who are most successful are proactive and take responsibility for themselves as their own business, even if they are someone’s employee.
It is the era of You, Inc. That means you have to differentiate yourself from everyone else by identifying and cultivating your personal brand.
To understand the job hunt landscape, Kate likes to use the metaphor of an iceberg. The jobs you see—those listed on job boards or Web sites, in newspapers or professional journals etc.—represent at most only 15 percent of the jobs that are obtained. Eliminate the postings that were filled long ago, or the job postings that are just “teasers” (postings that don’t really exist and are meant to keep the company’s name in the public eye) and that number shrinks further. And, since those jobs are visible to everyone, competition for them is bruising.
Tapping into that 85 percent of the hidden job market is the key to your success. How do you do that?
It is a four-phase process:
Phase I: Lay your foundation with diamonds.
Your first task is to thoroughly understand yourself, your core strengths, and your objectives. After all, if you can’t articulate these to yourself, it will be impossible to communicate them effectively to others. Take an inventory of your core strengths and talents, or, as Kate likes to call them, your “diamonds.” These are usually found as the basis for your accomplishments, at the heart of kudos or feedback you get from others, and in the kinds of activities you consider the highlights of your day.
Taking the time to identify your “diamonds” is critical. Not only can you then clearly market yourself to others, but reviewing your accomplishments, performance reviews, and highlights also prepares you for activities that will come later such as networking and answering behavioral interview questions. For example, “Tell me about a time you were able to convert an irate customer into a loyal customer.” Hint: it’s important to think in terms of the issue, the actions you took, and the results you got.
Everything else proceeds from this discovery exercise. That includes your objective, your resume, your one-minute “elevator pitch,” other written marketing materials, and preparation for the interview when it comes.
Phase II: Learn the lay of the land.
Now that you know yourself and your objectives, it’s time to look externally and begin figuring out who your likely targets are. Very different from the old approach of passively waiting to see what floats by on the job boards and company Web sites, this phase consists of networking in the form of informational interviews. Your end game is to identify companies or industries where there may be opportunities.
You already know your objectives and can support them with your elevator pitch and your diamonds, right? You begin working your way through your network by calling friends, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances to say you’re in career exploration and could really use their counsel and advice. It’s important to phrase your request as seeking their help and wisdom at this point, not asking if they know of any jobs. During this process, if they have any openings or know of any, and they think you’re a possibility, they’ll suggest it. But otherwise, don’t ask. Approached in this way, 9.9 people out of 10 are happy to help.
Keep in mind that the quality of your questions determines the usefulness of the information you receive. Lay out your objectives, tell them where you are with the hunt so far, and ask them their thoughts and what they would do if they were in your shoes. If you have a particular challenge, ask them how they would address it. And always, the last question you ask is who else they know that you could talk to. These conversations yield what Kate calls “nuggets of gold.” People suggest you talk to someone, or they tell you about a company that seeks people with your talents, or suggest you go to a certain meeting or get involved in a particular group. By the time you’ve done a number of interviews you begin to see the trends and opportunities that may lie out there. Kate often sees jobs drop into the laps of people who follow these guidelines diligently.
Another benefit of this approach is that because you are being proactive you have more sense of control. That can help even out the emotional ups and downs that often accompany a job search. You have a plan for your day; you have a purpose, and activities and goals to accomplish.
Phase III: Identify and approach your targets.
Now that you’ve identified the companies and opportunities you’d be interested in pursuing, it’s time to turn to your network once again. Who do you know at Whole Foods? Do you know anyone in Human Resources at Dell? Typically, if you’ve done a thorough job in Phase II, you can find the people who can help you get in to your target companies.
LinkedIn is a very popular online professional networking site that can also help. It makes the hidden networking connections that exist between our friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and colleagues visible to us. Maintaining and using this tool effectively can be a big help in finding people who can ease your way into target companies.
Phase IV: Find an opportunity and interview.
This is where the work you did in Phase I begins to pay off. You’ve reviewed your accomplishments, the challenges you overcame, and your special gifts and talents. Phase I should also have helped you understand the role you could fill in a company.
This goes beyond a job title and description. Perhaps you have a special talent for diplomatically and effectively introducing change into a team or organization. You could think of your role as a change agent, rather than a Project Manager. Maybe you have project management experience, but with your talent there may be other roles within the company for which you would be a good fit.
The most common mistake Kate sees women make is that they don’t know how to “sell” themselves. That is a critical skill. Between two equally qualified candidates, the one who is best able to convince the hiring manager they are best for the job by demonstrating it (using the diamond foundation) rather than declaring it (for example, listing it in a resume but without the action and result) is the one who gets the job.
Having laid your foundation, you are prepared to go into an interview able to talk clearly about how you could fit into the organization. You are prepared to supply plenty of concrete examples of how you’ve used your diamonds to get specific results. You can talk about challenges and how you overcame them.
You are prepared to sell yourself.
Kate offers a few more words of wisdom:
Skip laying the foundation and double your unemployment time. Skipping the foundational piece and immediately applying for jobs is likely to mean doubling, possibly tripling, the time you’ll be unemployed.
Think of ROI (Return on Investment) in how you spend your time. There are a number of strategies you could use, but spend your time at the ones with the highest pay off. For example, getting in front of people by networking always pays off big.
Find the hidden jobs. Women who can sell themselves and can communicate their value to an organization often find the jobs that aren’t advertised, or the jobs that have only been discussed but not yet officially posted, or even have a job created just for them.
Think about your personal brand. Remember You, Inc.? If you think of yourself as a business, that means you’re always thinking what you do better than anyone else, what you want to be known for. What “products and services” should you add to your line up? What skills will you need in order to deliver those products and services? What are the trends driving changes in your company or industry that will affect your business? Where could you go work tomorrow?
Get up every morning choosing whether or not to work at your company. You are the CEO of You, Inc. and the CEO runs the show. You decide whether the time and resources you devote to your job are paying off. Applying the principles we’ve discussed throughout your professional life gives you much more control over your career destiny. You’ll always be prepared to find the next position whether out of necessity or for any other reason.
Now you should be prepared to go forth and become employed. Following this process is like painting a room: the initial preparation is critical. It takes time to tape, clean walls and put primer on, but if you invest in the prep time, it makes the rest easy. It can save significant time in the long run and improve your chances of finding the right fit for you talents and your desires.
Kate’s final word of advice? Help your children develop their own You, Inc. brand. One of the best gifts we can give them is to help them notice trends that affect their workforce readiness. Giving them the skills and tools to be professionally successful can make a tremendous impact in their lives.