When I graduated from college in the mid-90’s, standard office supplies that I kept on hand included fancy resume paper, matching envelopes and plenty of stamps. Applying to a job was akin to mailing a personalized invitation to a formal event, so great care was taken to ensure the presentation screamed professionalism.
With the level of precision required, it was no wonder companies received far fewer applications and applicants took great care to choose wisely. Afterall, tailored cover letters were time-consuming and postage costs money.
So, you can only imagine how fantastic it was in the late 90’s when online job boards emerged and emailing resumes became standard. Now, two decades later, we can simply upload a resume, allow the Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to autofill our information (poorly, unfortunately) and skip the cover letter since it’s rarely required.
Is it any wonder that applications have skyrocketed and responses to candidates are practically non-existent?
The internet is saturated with more jobs than we can fully consider, more applications than a company can realistically process and more garbage than we’ll even realize.
Today, the average candidate only receives about a 2% response rate from online applications, which is more of a reflection of the inadequacy of our hiring systems, rather than the alignment of our qualifications.
Still, if you’re in a job search, these odds are depressing. Getting in front of decision-makers is the hardest part of the job search because it feels like it’s completely out of your control. You can actively build skills, earn certificates, prepare for interviews and research companies, but the opportunity to meet with someone who can help you progress to the next stage feels ambiguous and based on luck.
Here’s how to create your own path for getting in front of decision-makers:
Be focused: If your strategy is to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks, this isn’t going to work. In order to stand out in a job search, you need to be targeted and invest in your audience, which can only be successful if you have a narrow focus. Reflect upon what problem you want to solve, research what companies are solving this problem that have a culture aligned with your values, and then build a brand (online, resume, network, etc.) using your strengths as the person who can solve this problem. Outcome: A list of at least 15 - 20 companies to target.
Be patient: This isn’t a quick process, but neither is completing 100 applications only to potentially get two interviews. However, this is an effective process. Once you have your list of companies, begin to engage your network, LinkedIn and online research to learn who the decision-makers are within these organizations. You may need to begin with peripheral connections (e.g., in adjacent departments, different geographies or even external vendors or past employees), which can help you learn more about the organization and expand your circle of connections related to it. Be genuine, curious and generous. Outcome: A broader network in connection with your target.
Be bold: As an introvert, I understand putting yourself out there (even online) can be scary. But what are the alternatives? Do nothing, get nothing, so acknowledge your anxiety, and have the courage to proceed anyway. Social media has created a simple way to both access and get noticed by decision-makers. As a first step, follow their content online and engage with it. Share, re-post and comment on content that resonates with you demonstrating your interest, expertise and support. Attend their LinkedIn Live events, subscribe to their newsletter, listen to their podcasts and take note of the information you learn about the company, individuals and mission. Over time, your engagement (if genuine and consistent) will be noticed and you can take the next step. Many people in my inner circle came from this strategy (either they followed me or I followed them). If you’re sincere, it works. Outcome: Build deeper relationships within your target network.
Be decisive: Once lost, time is one asset we can’t get back. So don’t waste someone’s time because you haven’t done your homework. At this stage, you’re ready to ask for a 15-minute phone call and if you’ve invested consistently and graciously, there’s a great chance you’ll get it. Prepare with the same vigor you would for an interview. Do your research, practice your introduction, and have 2 -3 insightful questions ready that this person is uniquely positioned to answer (e.g., don’t waste their time). Your contact likely knows you have an agenda, so don’t pretend that you don’t. Be clear up front about your goal and the information that would help you, which is likely learning specific points about their company, role, industry, career path, etc. Take notes, be curious and let them know you’d like to stay in touch. Outcome: The start of a long-term relationship with a potential decision-maker or referral.
Be proactive: Send a thank you note, connect on LinkedIn and follow their suggestions. If the meeting went well, they likely gave you a next step (e.g., join a group, read a book, take a course, etc.) and this is the perfect way to pivot to your next contact point. After taking their advice, send a note letting them know what value you gained from the action steps and thanking them again for their insights. You need to be the one to drive the relationship, so continue to engage with their content. And remember, networking is part art and part science. So, while you may be eager, don’t overdo it and risk coming across as desperate or clingy. While it’s okay to be a fan of their thought leadership and accomplishments, as a guidepost, consider your long-term goals (e.g., a job on their team) and position yourself as a professional colleague. Outcome: You’ll be more confident and begin to gain respect as a peer.
Be relational: Not every lead will turn into something, but the fact that someone cared enough to help in any small way is something to be appreciated. If you’re just looking for a stepping-stone to your next job, stop reading now. This is about building relationships, not being transactional. Someone you connect with during this process might be the person who hires you three jobs from now or you may be able to help them in some way. When you view networking as a long-term strategy in your professional journey, you create opportunities for a lifetime, not just a job in the moment. Even if you’re focused on a specific job search currently, recognize this will be one of many more searches, so treat your connections well. Outcome: Mutually beneficial relationships with decision-makers and contacts in your field.
Be resilient: Since networking is part art and part science, there’s no foolproof formula that works 100% of the time. Humans are complex, and even with the best planning, it’s possible to have poor timing or a bad day. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll miss opportunities. You won’t build a relationship with everyone, but track your progress, learn lessons and improve over time. The best networkers develop a strategy, and then are able to flex in response to the ongoing dynamics of the interaction. If you can learn to listen and tap into nonverbal cues, you’ll be able to respond in the moment and shift to meet the needs of the other person. That’s, in part, what building relationships is about. It takes two people, and those individuals come with their own values, interests and assumptions. Outcome: The more you practice, the more attuned you’ll become.
Be open: There’s a saying by Norman Vincent Peale: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” Clarity comes through action, so recognize that while you have a clear career target, sometimes unexpected, yet related, opportunities emerge along the way. Consider these possibilities, as they might be exactly what you’ve been looking for all along. Outcome: Find meaningful work that aligns with your interests and values.