In the December 17, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, The Headhunter calls a year-end time-out and recaps the fundamental rules of job hunting that will help you outsmart America’s broken Employment System.

job huntingSpecial Edition!

Judging from the many questions I receive each week from subscribers, I worry that job seekers are falling into the most obvious traps while trying to navigate America’s antiquated Employment System. Let me show you how to go around!

In place of the normal weekly Q&A, at the end of each year I publish a summary of Ask The Headhunter methods to help you land the job you want. Last year’s Ask The Headhunter Secrets in A Nutshell were based on key concepts in my PDF books.

This year, I’d like to review seven Ask The Headhunter rules that address some of the most fundamental misconceptions that lead job seekers astray. Relying on job postings, resumes, cover letters and traditional interviews is the worst way to approach your job search!

Don’t miss the limited-time HOLIDAY SPECIAL! Scroll to end of this column!

Job hunting with The Headhunter

The best way to win the right job is to use the approach we discuss here every week. Let’s step back to rediscover the basics about how to handle your job-hunting challenges. These tips should help you overcome the many obstacles the Employment System throws at you.

1. Avoid traditional, unproductive methods of job hunting.

Don’t leave control of your job search to external forces like job postings, personnel jockeys, employment agencies, resume screeners and software algorithms. Don’t rely on the passive approach of chasing jobs that come along, then filling out impersonal online job applications. Don’t rely on sending resumes (or your LinkedIn profile) to people who don’t know you. Don’t wait for boiler-plate rejections or silly instructions from inept recruiters who ask you for your information all over again.

Take control of your job search.

2. Select 4-5 companies you really want to work for.

You cannot reasonably and ably chase 50 jobs or companies, no matter what Indeed and ZipRecruiter tell you. Carefully select three, four or five companies — not because they’ve posted jobs, but because they’re the shining-light organizations you really want to work for! Research these carefully selected companies online using relevant news outlets, business journals and industry-specific publications.

Better yet, identify and contact your target company’s employees, customers and vendors. Go hang out where they hang out — get insight and advice from insiders!

The goal is to learn what specific problems and challenges an employer faces. These will reveal a company’s motivation to hire you. Understand these problems and challenges before approaching any company.

How Can I Change Careers? “Put a Free Sample in Your Resume,” pp. 23-26 (It’s not just for career changers!)

3. Define what you have to offer that’s relevant.

Be able to describe your specific skills and abilities but only as they relate to a company’s specific problems and challenges. A hiring manager doesn’t need to know everything about you. In fact, sharing too much makes evaluating you more confusing, and it makes the manager’s job harder. The goal is to make the manager’s job of assessing your value easier — by communicating exactly how you will be a truly useful hire.

If you don’t understand an employer’s exact needs, your presentation will not be relevant or useful to the manager and you will not be hired.

4. Prove your value.

Managers are terrible at figuring out what to do with a job applicant. It’s up to you to help a manager focus on the objective of a job interview: How will your abilities profit the manager and the company? This is perhaps the easiest idea for job seekers to grasp, but the most difficult to apply.

You should be ready to frame your candidacy like this: “If you hire me, I will do A, B and C, which should add $X to your bottom line.” Sound daunting? The best job candidates can do it, and you must learn how. Be ready to explain and defend your proposal and your rough calculations.

5. Identify the specific manager who will benefit from hiring you.

Get an introduction to the hiring manager through a mutual contact that you developed through your research. Those people you spoke with about the company’s problems and challenges? Some of them will be your perfect introduction to the right manager! Don’t waste your time with personnel jockeys in the HR department. That’s what your competition is doing.

The goal is to “tell it” directly to the manager who will hire you — not anyone else.

6. Go to the interview ready to do the job.

Be ready to clearly and convincingly show the manager how you will help solve his or her specific problems. Make your interview a hands-on, working meeting with the hiring manager.

7. Control your interview and win an offer.

If the manager interviewing you seems to be asking canned questions, bring the discussion around to how you would do the actual work. Ask what the specific job tasks and objectives are. Then take control of the interview by offering to demonstrate to the manager that you:

  1. Understand the work that needs to be done
  2. Can do the work
  3. Can do the work the way the employer wants it done, and
  4. Can do it profitably.

In other words, show up with a mini business plan about how you will do the job — to win the job!

That’s how to be the job candidate who stands out and gets hired. Avoid the silly conventions of the Employment System that daily conspires to keep apart managers and the people they need to hire. The links above will help you on your way around the system. As you develop questions, ask them here — I’ll offer my advice and so will the rest of our community!

Okay, I listed seven rules for job hunting. What did I miss? What smart rules do you recommend that you follow on your job search? How do we beat the broken Employment System?

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For additional help, don’t miss this limited-time offer on the Ask The Headhunter PDF books!


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This is the last Ask The Headhunter column for 2019. I’m taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays! See you next on January 7, 2020! Here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year — and all my best wishes for whatever holidays you observe this time of year!

If you’re new to Ask The Headhunter, or just want a refresher on the main ideas we discuss here every week, please check The Basics — and take advantage of the search box at top right, as well as the Q&A Archive under Sections in the menu bar!

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25 Comments
  1. Happy Holidays Nick.
    Thanks for what you do.

  2. Nick,

    This is a beautiful summary of your excellent advice and I’m going to save it for when people ask me for job-seeking guidance. Thank you.

    As you probably know by now from multiple comments I’ve made, I own a small staffing company and I ALWAYS read your articles and the resulting comments with an eye toward ensuring that we avoid the dehumanizing actions of others. I greatly appreciate the honesty and insights I gain here and look forward to more helpful conversations in the new year.

    • @Annette: There are many recruiters, HR folks, resume writers, coaches, etc. that use ATH – I love having the good ones here! Thanks for being part of the community!

  3. Nick,

    I just landed recently after being cut from my old position early in 2019.
    Great website.
    Not only did I land but I had 3 offers to pick between within 2 weeks!
    Market really opened up after Labor Day.

    Much thanks to you!

  4. Overall I am in absolute agreement with Nick. The only danger I see is in being so proactive and “take charge” you may be seen as a threat.

    • @David Hunt, or you will be seen as enthusiastic and a valuable contributor, depending on your tone and approach. And depending on whether the interviewer is self-secure or prone to feel threatened … but that is out of your control. And an insecure manager is not a good person to work for, so it is good to find this out in advance.

      • @Robert Tanenbaum, “or you will be seen as enthusiastic and a valuable contributor, depending on your tone and approach”. Very true! And here in lies the problem, IMO, that you articulated with “tone and approach”. I see more and more very hyper-sensitive, insecure, and easily triggered people, and that includes HR, business owners, and hiring managers. I’ve had to sugar coat my words carefully, and watch the inflection in my voice (not that I was ever an in your face combative, rude, inappropriate, or aggressive type). Lots of fluff and “happy talk”, and either you pass muster or not, based often on this. I think manufacturing and trades still tend to be the exception here, but the white collar jobs I’ve had in recent years, a whole different story.

      • It’s important to flush the threatened ones out quickly so you can move on!

    • @ David Hunt, once again, I agree with your analysis “being so proactive that you’re seen as a threat”. Although I’m currently employed both full-time, and additionally part-time, I’ve been told to “dumb down my resume”, and marginalize my skill sets and experience in job interviews. A friend of mine at my church has removed his MBA from his resume, and has dumbed his resume down. Back in the day (I’m 62), it was considered proactive (at least I found) to follow up after an interview, and I don’t mean with an email or thank you card, I mean with a phone call, or even stopping into the work site. I actually was hired more than once by showing this initiative. Not so today. I’ve been ghosted, harshly scolded with a phone hang up, and I even had one prospective employer threaten to call the cops when I showed up at the front desk to politely inquire. Huh?? No “tell and sell” anymore. In recent years, I’ve found they want one to sit and passively listen with a “hat in hand” humility. I personally have always presented a polite and professional approach, with some tenacity and initiative thrown in. The pajama blogging on Indeed.com on Monday mornings doesn’t cut it (not telling you or anyone what they don’t know already). Strange society we are in today.

      • How dare you approach the Great and Mighty Oz! You MUST go through the proper gatekeepers!

        And don’t even THINK about peering behind that HR curtain….

      • This comment is exactly right. I was working for a non-profit that was always hiring and if people called or emailed to ask had a decision been made or dared to come by the office, they were automatically cut off the possible hire list. People were expected to be okay with 3 call backs for interviews for low paid jobs over a period of 6-8 weeks. Or they would hire someone they knew from exercise class who had no skills for the position. It taught me to be much more discerning (this non-profit had an excellent reputation in the community at that time). I have seen this same kind of stuff in recent job interviews, meaning the interviewer asked canned questions and could not discuss how I could do their job. It is very strange to not get a “serious” interview, but it tells me these jobs are not for me.

      • Yes, I totally get the “sugar-coating” and having to be hyper-aware of how I come across to the sheeple who are not comfortable with a woman (“girl”) talking in an assertive manner. If I was a man perhaps eyebrows would not be raised but I think I’ve come to the conclusion that throughout my entire work-life, and of course in interviews, I am the one with more integrity and honesty. While I find this refreshing, many people do not “get” those who have the COURAGE to go outside of the proverbial box. Ideas which are sound but stray from the usual way of doing things, are quickly shot down because “we just don’t do things that way.” Seriously??

        And a female must be “nice” – damn it!! Assertiveness is so easily misconstrued as “she’s too aggressive” in women yet a man would be seen as having a backbone and in control.

        Many people get easily offended for naught! This sensitivity is partial to women who are insanely petty and self-righteous, IMO. In some work environments, the BS-level is so high that trying to maintain the status quo (job security) while being true to myself is utterly exhausting by day’s end.

        I’m so glad to read that there are others who are of the same train of thought/behavior and I am not alone in my truth and courage.

        • “Sensitivity from insanely petty and self-righteous women”. TRUER words have not been spoken, and you being a woman validating it! I’d add the mob mentality of women ganging up on other women, and men (been through it, and seen it), which can result in a soul sucking work culture, and even termination of one’s employment. I’ve seen a trend of “feminized” men (I’m no red pill proponent, btw), and I’m not saying just younger men, but middle age men in management or ownership roles, particularly, who act act like “catty girls in a sorority house”.

  5. How do you find out where they hang out? Further how do you fight-confront racism, ageism and sexism -well going round to another door-window does help but not always-yes you a better off without the “bad Boss” When you must work to keep body and spirit together any boss with do until you can get the good boss and good job!

  6. Yes, these steps are terrific and if dealing with sane and reasonable people, have a great chance of breaking through the noise. I’ve been in the professional job market for 20 years now and more and more I find you’re largely not dealing with sane and reasonable people.

  7. I definitely think your advice works when it can be followed. But, if I have a criticism, it is that your method glosses over the hardest part, that is: “… identify and contact your target company’s employees, customers and vendors. Go hang out where they hang out — get insight and advice from insiders!” as part of “go[ing to] hang out with people who do the work you want to do”. That’s especially difficult when you are aiming for a company you want to work at. If I’m looking for jobs that fit me, I can leverage associates, neighbors, friends of friends. But, aiming for a company, most of the time there will be no initial meaningful contact to leverage.

    In these days of HR moats, and companies hyper sensitive to liability and corporate security, cold calling someone on linked in rarely garners a response. Especially in the case of vendors or customers, who would rightfully be concerned about violating confidentiality (agreed or implied).

    If I’m, for example, trying to get into the planning organization of a mid-sized CPG company I’ve identified, how would I even get in contact with someone, let alone figure out their internal organization in order to identify a specific manager to work for? It’s unlikely that an employee would have authored a white paper or a trade article. It would be extremely unlikely to run into someone from this specific company at a trade show or whatnot. Where would I begin?

    I love your approach, and think that 95% of what you say is spot on, but I’ve always felt it was a little backwards to identify a company first then try to get the ‘in’, instead of the other way around. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • See Nick’s Tip #2 above about researching an employer’s customers and vendors. A typical mid-sized CPG company utilizes a bevy of subcontractors in order to get products on shelves: flavor and fragrance specialists; package design firms; advertising agencies; sales promotion/shopper marketing firms; market research providers; and so on. A CPG company’s distribution channels (i.e., wholesalers and retailers) are also inextricably linked to the selling equation. Any one of these resources could provide a direct connection into the company’s planning organization, but the challenge is actually doing the research. Some of it can be done online for free, some of it can be done online for a fee (ask your local public library’s business reference specialist if they provide complimentary access to certain subscription-based research tools such as Bloomberg, LexisNexis, etc.), and some of it just needs to be done the old-fashioned way by paging through back issues of trade periodicals, making phone calls, or querying current/former colleagues. When it comes to job hunting, I agree that you can’t always get in through the front door, but there’s likely a hidden side door or back door that’ll work better.

  8. The points in this article are valid, especially #1 and #3. This assuming you are qualified, and are soliciting, or interviewing with, a savvy hiring manager or business owner, and have been able to carefully by-pass the dreaded HR. On a personal note, in recent times (and I’m conducting a clandestine job search while being currently employed), I’ve cut to the chase (politely and professionally) in the phone interview, or in the face-to-face interview, and have told them why I’m looking after 7 years at my current employer (company is having financial problems, and I’m concerned about the future, all true), and this is what skills and experience I have to bring to the table, all done in a few minutes without interruption. After that, I leave the ball in their court. Few if any respond well to such candor. What I ask for are the expectations for the first 90 days, 6 months, and year, and what the culture is like (which I seldom get an honest answer, but I’ve learned to trust my gut here). Being employed, I’m no longer so willing to play along with shenanigans and mental gymnastics these employers dish out heartily, jump through multiple hoops and interviews, and feel no reservations about ending a rude and unprofessional interview quickly. Gorilla job hunting. Harsh words perhaps, but realistic and learned the hard way.

  9. I am very discouraged after having spent 14 months doing nothing but short term contract work for employers. For context I had 6 jobs with 6 different agencies in the past year. Each assignment was incredibly short sometimes only a few days.

    For context this is the legal field in New York City and I am a lawyer. Before this I was on a 18 month job with a prominent investment bank before the entire dept got outsourced.

    What advice do you give job applicants who have worked for nothing but through staffing agencies ( eg never a full timer)? I know employers discriminate against temps but the work needs to be done to pay the bills.

    -signed Depressed

    • So sorry to hear that, JP. One option is bundling all staffing work together. The employer is “Staffing Agencies” or “Temporary Assignments” and then you can list your contributions and experience gained. This is truthful and doesn’t give the appearance of job hopping, which you aren’t doing – you are staying with each position through the end of its assignment.

      Good luck, I’m rooting for you!

    • You’re asking my personal thoughts and opinion regarding your situation? Or is this to the general posters and editor? If you’re asking mine; disclaimer: my no nonsense candor is not popular with some, especially on this site. This is the very dark and sleazy side of employers today, pimping talent for the “gig” economy. As you’re discovering first hand, you are being pushed into a pigeon hole rut, and if you’re an older worker, the ugly face of ageism exacerbates the situation. You may well need to go in a different direction. As an attorney, here’s some options I’d look at. 1. Check about adjunct teaching opportunities at community colleges in their paralegal and business programs. Sometimes (sadly, not too often) adjunct positions can lead into full-time teaching positions. You may be able to pickup day or evening adjunct teaching classes, maybe even at multiple CCs. Also, online teaching opportunities. I’ve been teaching in a welding program in the evenings for the past seven years at a CC as an adjunct to supplement my day job income. Since 2010, after a lay-off, my income dropped significantly. Adjunct teaching pays decent for minimal effort, is gratifying for me, and I’d be in a world of hurt if I didn’t have the extra income. Real world experience and age still have some value with teaching in career/vocational programs at CCs. Students can immediately see the value in a seasoned real world experienced professional, as opposed to an ivory palace educator who has book only learning. 2. Check insurance companies. With a legal background, there are opportunities in claims adjusting, loss prevention and safety, fraud, etc. 3. Target small to mid-size companies of all types that may well have need for a diversified multi-tasker/cross functional type with a legal background. Like Annette, Show the temp work as you’ve at least been doing something. Long-term unemployment/under employment is shaking the career death rattle.

  10. Two “sub” ideas I am compelled to offer that “newbies” somehow miss.
    1) For free (no charge) interact with http://www.onlineIDcalculator.com and see how your online profile stacks up and what you might do to improve it. Many “headhunters”, maybe even Nick, might agree if you can’t be easily and professionally found online, you “don’t exist” and if you don’t you may technically be invisible. Not good.
    2) While there may be a charge and you may (with pro advice) gain an IRS deduction, invest in you to gain access to one of the best live updated resource owned now by Dun&Bradstreet http://www.hoovers.com. For profit and many not for profit organizations are listed including names, titles, phone numbers, e-addresses of potential bosses.
    I have received thanks, even raves about both and nary a complaint. PS – I am not a tax adviser. Check with your favorite CPA or tax expert. I am not one of those folks. sQs Jan 1, 2020 on leave from the kitchen that is being re-organized as we speak!

    • I get the impression that Nick finds the right candidates by actually meeting them in person, rather than going down the Linkedin rabbit hole, looking for impressive profiles of those who have 50,000 connections.

      Some folks might have a good reason for not being online, such as this example: https://www.askamanager.org/2017/02/i-manage-someone-who-was-terribly-harmed-by-my-family-what-do-i-do.html

      Why should she be penalized for staying offline? If she had a Linkedin profile stating that she worked at a certain company, those who harmed her as a child might seek to harm her as an adult by bombarding her employer with calls to have her fired etc.

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