Let’s get this out of the way up front. I have never believed that career transition is a self-discovery mission, or some kind of spiritual journey. There are many popular books and articles out there that even liken this process to some kind of religious experience. It most certainly is not. The process is usually awful. In fact, it’s probably one of the few situations in life that is worse than dating. Where else can you encounter so much arbitrary personal rejection? Yes, it’s possible to learn things about yourself, and find out about careers and jobs that you might not have known about otherwise. But it’s also isolating and grindingly hard work, enough to test anyone’s fortitude. The only truly good part is when it’s over.
The following is a story about a client who amazed me. With a little creative thinking and relentless discipline she was able to overcome an extremely difficult search situation. I like to use her story as an example of how you can make your job search work for you (instead of the other way around), and actually alleviate some of the unpleasantness that can accompany this process.
To give you a little bit of background, Ann was a senior vice president at one of the major New York City megabanks (one that was too big to fail). She had been with the organization for twelve years, and was completely unprepared, like most people in her situation, for the layoff that eliminated her job.
She worked in a field that was always among the first to be cut in downturns, thereby making this a tough transition in the midst of difficult economic times, even for someone as quick, verbal, and high energy as Ann. To complicate matters further, she was 58 years old and single, with a small personal network, much of it internal to the organization she was leaving.
The situation did not look promising. When she first came into my office, my immediate thoughts centered on alternative, probably less well paying and less challenging, career options. But, I didn’t yet know about her strength and determination in pursuing her goals. Forgive the spoiler, but this is a success story.
Her success was largely based on the use of social media, whose existence I was well aware of, but not how it could be such an important foundation of a search. I had previously thought of LinkedIn as one of a wide variety of tools that job seekers could utilize; with Ann, it was the method that made the difference.
Here is her story.
Like many who have lost their jobs in large organizations, Ann felt she had plenty of time, and a decent severance package as buffer, to look within the organization. She was encouraged by colleagues, Human Resources, and friends within the organization, which is typical in these situations. But I was skeptical about her chances, having heard many stories on this subject from other clients. And the people who encouraged her certainly did not want any of the laid off employees to feel that they had no chance.
In these situations, I frequently tell clients to focus on both the internal and external markets, knowing that the internal searches during a time of mass layoffs are going to be difficult.
Often, internal recruiting perceives the employee as “damaged goods,” whether or not that has any validity, helping to explain most companies’ preference for outside hires over internal. The new seems somehow preferable, or maybe more exciting, than the old. For some reason, there is a mystique that the outside candidate will be superior to the talent they could develop internally. The significant culture knowledge of the internal candidate may be overlooked. Sometimes, the problem with the recruiting process in general is rigidity, and prospective employers and recruiters may rely too much on the entries in a spec list.
But it’s emotionally wrenching to separate from an organization in the first place, even more so when you’ve been there for twelve years. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that clients are ready precisely when they are ready, despite any insistent pushing on my part, or anyone else’s. Ann stuck too long with her internal search. And when she reached a dead end, she was ready to start her external search.
Ann began by researching all the financial services and financial services-related organizations that would have the kind of department – with both the size and sophistication she wished to join. She wanted to stay in her field, despite knowing that it would be tough to find something appropriate. She used Hoovers and several other databases to begin compiling lists of companies. She updated her profile on LinkedIn, utilizing various online sites that helped her learn how. She contacted executive recruiters, not a very high-odds proposition in a bad market, but sometimes useful. She joined professional associations, to help her build her small network – beyond her former organization. Two of these were particularly useful, and continued to be throughout the search. Professional organizations with regular events and committees one can join are a quick way to build networks. They frequently provide a great jump start for someone like Ann, who might not have an extensive personal network.
She developed approach emails, and worked hard on developing a self-marketing pitch. Developing the pitch, as well as editing her resume and emails, helped her realize that she had a great deal to sell. Job loss can have a terrible effect on self-confidence -- one of the critical needs is to develop self-marketing materials at the outset. The result of a well-crafted email approach, a well-targeted pitch, and an easy to read resume does wonders for confidence. After they have reviewed and practiced self-marketing techniques, I love to ask clients and students, “So do you actually BELIEVE this now?” Of course, they do; it’s a matter of reconnecting with what they’ve accomplished in their careers.
As Ann said repeatedly, she was “relentless,” never reaching out just once to someone she wanted to meet, but at least three times. One technique she created was to resend an original email “with a twist,” something she has called her “apology email,” which she estimates received a positive response at least 95% of the time (“I do apologize for yet another email. However, I am doing some market research for my job search, and welcome the opportunity to meet with you.”). I don’t know why this worked so well, but I cannot argue with its consistent success. This is a great example of that “out of the box” thinking that is a major asset in many searches.
Ann was highly organized; being an MBA, she used spreadsheets to track all her job search activities. This is one of those easy parts of search that helps a great deal; it’s a way of feeling more control over a situation in which it’s tough to feel much control, and to never lose track of important follow ups. As she has said about her search many times, “Networking became a way of life.” At one point, Ann had more than 500 contacts, which ended up in about 200 job leads overall.
Ann proved that LinkedIn can be a powerful job search tool. She started with maybe 20 connections and quickly built that to 150. But numbers of contacts don’t mean that much. Many think that the “500+” imprimatur on LinkedIn actually means something significant, and it doesn’t. She connected with those people she felt could help her directly, and joined several groups – not necessarily to discuss issues, but to find potential leads.
What is interesting is that many think that the purpose of LinkedIn is to make direct contacts with that friend of a friend of a friend, to get introductions. This technique does work for many people, but it involves getting introductions from that “level 2” person to the “level 1,” and takes time and patience. Ann figured out how to find email addresses and phone numbers (“switchboard research” involves calling the general company phone number and figuring out emails from a prototype on a company website) for those that were not listed on LinkedIn.
By sheer determination, and the realization that this is largely a numbers game, she found that some contacts took an interest in helping. Sometimes these contacts had been on job search themselves recently; these are often people who may have excellent ideas and further connections that are viable and current.
Ann spent hours a day “trolling” through LinkedIn connections. She would sometimes see an email address of a major department head through other connections. She was able to get an excellent informational interview and contacts that eventually led to her two job offers – both of them from people she had not known before. She did not use introductions in most of her LinkedIn reaching out. Her approaches on LinkedIn were almost all direct.
I think it’s important to mention here that Ann did not sit in her apartment researching LinkedIn and her other resources 16 hours a day. She was determined to feel good, look good, and lower the stress level by going to her gym almost daily, seeing friends, etc. Maintaining a good work/life balance during search is critical. It’s one of those components of search that many simply don’t pay enough attention to; the ensuing stress level from not paying attention to balance often result in less productivity.
Ann says she prepared for her meetings “as if I were studying for a course.” Her research was extensive, sometimes resulting in a better knowledge of a company than the people who worked there. Part of her preparation for an informational meeting was to check out the company website for job openings, and if she saw one that was relevant, gear her pitch to that job. She also checked out the investor relations presentations on the websites, which gave her further valuable information. Most important of all, Ann, who is an excellent active listener, used what she heard in order to craft appropriate questions and follow ups that demonstrated how she could add value to a company or a referral. Ann also took detailed notes, and kept records of all her search activities.
Ann even handled the roller coaster of search well, usually one of the toughest parts as one is functioning in isolation and getting little in the way of feedback. It’s difficult to keep the energy going. Many drop out during the summer or during the holidays in December – a critical mistake, resulting in lost momentum and lost opportunities for building networks. Ann made the best of what normally is one of the hardest times of the year for job seekers, the second half of December. She thought of a way to get past that, which was her “Happy Holiday” email campaign. She saw it as a great way of putting herself in front of her contacts, and personalized every message. Her notes led to a few interviews and meetings, one of which turned into an offer.
Ann also had her share of disappointments, particularly with one company for which she actually assisted the Human Resources Director in writing the job description. She developed what appeared to be a strong relationship with the Human Resources Director, with whom she maintained constant contact throughout – until the end. Ann had done what is so important in developing new opportunities; she followed through on her quid pro quo promises. (“If I ever can be of help to you, as you were with me, please do not hesitate to call…” ) Eight rounds of interviews. The company never got back to her, despite her several attempts at following up, and apparently never filled the position. That one was tough to get past, and extremely discouraging. Ann had done everything right; one of those awful lessons of search is that doing it right doesn’t necessarily mean every situation will work out.
In situations like this one, where the company handles the recruiting process in a less than professional manner, it’s usually better for the job to fall away than to have received the offer. In this case, the company’s bad behavior indicated what was probably a corporate culture issue, as is often the case during the recruiting process.
Through a series of referrals, Ann met with a major consulting company. The Managing Director thought she should broaden her pitch, and that she wouldn’t be a good fit in his area. He did, however, question his own initial impression, and referred her to several people on his staff, intrigued by what she might bring to the company. At the same time, she found another consulting company opening, where again it was suggested that she broaden her presentation.
After many interviews, Ann received an offer from the first consulting company – and she turned it down. This was surprising to me, after her ten month search. But she was not happy about the amount of travel involved. While this took an enormous amount of courage, she felt that she had figured out exactly what the right setting would be and didn’t want to settle for a position she knew wouldn’t be the right one.
The second consulting company, where she is now completing her sixth month, offered her a position, as well. The interviewing process was long and arduous, seven different interviews, and a shift from one area to another in the company. The job is paying her more than she made at the bank, and although it was initially overwhelming, she is thrilled to be with an excellent organization in an interesting and diverse culture.
Here’s my favorite part of the story. As a result of her prodigious efforts, she had at least two or three potential job situations in the works at the time that she accepted the consulting firm offer. She feels, with great confidence, that even if this new job didn’t work out, she would land another quickly. I don’t doubt it.
Of course, someone reading this article might think there was no way they could do what Ann did. I would never suggest that a job seeker has to do things the way she did. She was guided by her own style and inclinations, and utilized tools that suited her.
Over the years, I have frequently been asked about the “right” way to do a search. Many are seeking the perfect formula, when there isn’t one. They want X+Y=new perfect job, when in reality this process is much more art than science. Yes, there are certain basics that need to be learned (correspondence, resume, pitch, skillfully utilizing networks, interview technique, negotiations, etc.). But putting it all together requires some creativity, an expression of the individual’s unique style. That’s exactly what Ann demonstrated.
- LinkedIn is a great resource for information, not just connections.
- Follow up is the key to success in making connections.
- A job search is a sales campaign.
- Know your audience. Adjust your marketing materials and presentation to each one individually.
- Discipline and consistency make all the difference.
Note: For those who want to get up to speed quickly on using social media for career transition, I highly recommend Rob Hellmann’s e-book, Your Social Media Job Search (robhellmann.com).
Ellis Chase has had a diversified, extensive experience in career and executive coaching, management consulting, and training in corporations, consulting companies, private practice, and colleges and universities.
He currently maintains a varied consulting practice. Corporate clients have included Deloitte, General Electric, Estee Lauder, Goldman Sachs, The Gartner Group, Purdue Pharma, Swiss Re America, ING Capital, Hanger Orthopedics, Penguin Putnam, American Civil Liberties Union, Hess Corporation, and Citigroup.
His employment history includes several years as Managing Director at Right Management Consultants and Systems Staffing Officer with the Chase Manhattan Bank.
His guest speaking appearances have included numerous professional association and media panels. He was an instructor with the Center for Career, Education, and Life Planning at New York University from 1987-2006, and, since 2001, has been a retained consultant to Columbia Business School in Alumni Relations, Career Management, and the Program for Social Intelligence. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, and several radio programs, and has been a regular contributor to career websites and newspapers. He is a founding member of the New York Chapter of the Association of Career Management Professionals International
Mr. Chase holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Masters Degree in English and Secondary Education, both from New York University.