How can I make the inside job contacts I need?

In the August 1, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an Army graduate needs help making inside job contacts to get around the personnel jockeys.

job contacts

Question

I am looking for work and I am studying your book. If you have any advice on how to build the contacts I need to land a good job, that would be extremely helpful. I recently transitioned out of the Army. I’m new in town and don’t know anyone. Without contacts, I’m at the mercy of those personnel jockeys — and I’m not having much success. Certainly someone in my area (Pittsburgh) needs an experienced information security administrator!

Nick’s Reply

Don’t worry that you’re new in town. Remember that new relationships are based on common interests. Key among these is your work. You need to identify — through the press, trade publications, local professional groups — a handful of key people in Pittsburgh who are experts in information security. The more respected they are, the better. The nice thing is, such folks are also visible. You’ll read about them in the media — it’s a free high-level professional directory. Your goal is to make them your new friends.

Study up on them.

  • What are they working on?
  • What are they most expert in?
  • What articles have they written?
  • What publications have written about them?
  • Familiarize yourself with their work.

Then call them, not as a job hunter, but as a peer who is impressed with their work and interested in what they’re doing.

How to Say It

“My name is Bill Smith. I just got out of the military where I was doing XYZ, and I’m new in Pittsburgh. This story I read about you [or your company] instantly aroused my interest because I’ve been working on related things in the Army. I’m exploring the state of the art in our field in the commercial world. So, I’m curious to know what is influencing your work — that is, what are you reading? Books, journals — materials that are influencing your thinking about security. Being new in town, I’m trying to learn where the most interesting work is being done here. Are there any local groups that you find relevant and useful?”

Making job contacts, making friends

Now you’re talking shop and making a friend. Where you take it from there is up to you and your new buddy.

A tip: Don’t try to turn the conversation into a job interview unless he does. (Leave that for another discussion.) Share your e-mail address and get his. Drop a note with a useful link to an article on the topic. Stay in touch. The point is to form a connection based on your work. This can lead to job opportunities if you’re patient and friendly without being pushy. Get it out of your head that jobs appear instantly on Indeed or LinkedIn. Worthwhile connections take time and effort!

Make job contacts anywhere

This approach works well in almost any field. You may wonder how this would work for jobs where there are no “recognized experts” — for example, a secretary’s job.

You’re not likely to find famous local secretaries in the newspaper, and they’re not likely to tell you what books they’re reading about “the state of the art.” But you will find secretaries (or programmers or sales reps) working for notable people. And you can call those notable people and respectfully ask them which managers and which companies in the area hire only top-notch secretaries (or programmers or sales reps).

People love to talk about their work, and they love to talk to others who are enthusiastic about their work. If you approach them with honesty and sincerity, without expecting a job, many will gladly talk with you for a few minutes. (Click here if you think making new contacts is awkward!)

Be respectful

This is key: Respect their time. If a discussion doesn’t pan into anything, don’t force it. Say thank you and move on to another. You need just one fruitful contact to say to you, “Hey, you ought to talk to Mary Johnson at Company X. Here’s her number. Tell her I suggested that you call.”

This is how a headhunter finds good people. You can use the approach to meet the right people and to find the right company.

This article may help you further: Network, but don’t be a jerk!

For a more in-depth look at building an honest, productive network, see “A Good Network Is A Circle of Friends,” pp. 27-32, in the PDF book, How Can I Change Careers?

I’ll bet one of the people you call using this approach knows a company that needs you. Don’t hunt for a job. Call people who do the work you do, and talk shop. That’s how you make the insider job contacts that will get you hired. One step at a time; patience and perseverance.

How do you build your network? What advice would you share with this Army vet who’s transitioning into the commercial world?

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Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door

In the April 9, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a transitioning military officer asks how to break through:

I have spent the morning drilling through Ask the Headhunter. Thank you for the time and effort you put into that forum. I especially appreciate the reasoned, personal responses you give to select comments on your posts.

I would like to ask you for some advice if you have the time. I am retiring from the U.S. Army after 24 years as a senior commissioned officer and rated aviator, but I want to work outside the defense industry. My skill set is very broad and leadership-focused. I’ve been looking for jobs at the executive level, and over the last three months I’ve selectively submitted resumes for jobs (7 total) that I think would rock my world. My evaluation of these job postings put them right in my round-house. I’m not getting any responses to my resumes, though, and I don’t know how to break through. Any advice you have would be appreciated.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words about Ask The Headhunter — glad you’re finding it helpful. And more important to me, thanks for your service to our country and to all of us. I’m particularly troubled by how difficult it can be for military folks to transition into the commercial world.

I’ll try to offer a few suggestions.

First, please keep in mind that the average manager spends an average of 30 seconds reading a resume. That means you need to tell managers quickly how you’re going to address their specific problems and challenges. Here are a couple of short articles that might drive this home:

Tear Your Resume In Half

Resume Blasphemy

triangulateI recently gave a presentation to Cornell’s Executive MBA Program — these are managers who’ve been running companies for 7-15 years who invest about $145,000 for a two-year business degree. I’ll tell you what I told them:

When you hand your resume to an employer, what you’re really saying is this: Here’s everything you need to know about me. My education, my credentials, my work history, my accomplishments, my skills — Now, you go figure out what the heck to do with me!

Managers suck at figuring this out. Just consider that they’re looking at hundreds of resumes — not just yours.

In How Can I Change Careers?, I talk about how show a manager that you’re the profitable hire for his or her specific organization. This process can be used to produce a “blasphemous” resume — but the work involved essentially eliminates the need to use a resume to get in the door. It’s all about doing your homework on the problems and challenges the manager faces, by talking shop with people connected to the company. They will educate you and tip you off on what to say to the manager. The objective is to let these contacts lead you directly to the manager, while your competition is sending in resumes.

This set of articles may also help you get started: The Basics.

You have already selected your target companies, so you’re already ahead of the game. Most people can’t do this. They insist on applying for jobs they find.

Please also check this article: Pursue Companies, Not Jobs. Having specific targets is more than half the challenge. Honing in on them is the rest. If you do it this way, it almost doesn’t matter if they have open jobs. Believe me, managers open up jobs when they meet someone who can drop profit to their bottom line. It’s what a consultant does when pitching services to a prospective client. She shows up with very specific solutions.

One caution: Don’t deliver so much up front that you’re doing free work they can poach from you. Offer a plan for solutions, but leave them hanging a bit, until they make a commitment to you.

The best way to “break through” is to triangulate. Find and talk to people near the manager: customers, vendors, other employees, consultants — anyone who touches the operation. Never ask for job leads or to “take my resume in.” Instead, ask for advice and insight about the manager and his operation. Then close by asking if there’s someone in the operation you might talk to, to get more insight and advice: “I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to get ready for a job in this operation.”

Finally, avoid HR at all costs. See last week’s column: Why HR should get out of the hiring business, and this audio segment from KKSF talk radio: What’s HR got to do with it?

I hope you land the job that rocks your world!

How would you advise this military officer in transition? Please post your suggestions in the comments section below.

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Military transition & discipline

My office is nice and cozy. I have a big cherry-wood desk and a great chair. Views of woods and grass through lots of big windows. It’s a peaceful habitat.  No one bothers me. I know I’m safe, and in a few hours I’m gonna see my wife and kids. So now I’m going to try and show my gratitude to one guy who foregoes everything I just described, every day and every hour, to ensure that I can enjoy what I have all day long, every day. That, and my thanks, won’t make him one bit safer where he is, but I hope maybe it’ll help him through his military transition into a good job when he returns home.

military transitionQuestion

Nick,

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog in my free time over the past week. I’m a Captain in the US Army, currently stationed in Iraq and making the transition to civilian life in the next 6 months. I was wondering if you had any tips for someone in this unique situation that could smooth the transition from a mid-level military officer to a managerial or leadership position in the business world?

I’m currently serving in the Logistics branch, so I believe my skill set will translate well, but I need some pointers on how to sell it. As officers, we are bombarded with spam from headhunting firms and database job mills (often to our professional email addresses). The majority of my peers have used these services with mixed results. Perhaps you could give some guidance in one of your upcoming posts?

Thanks for your time,

Kevin W. Ryan
CPT, LG
ISF Logistician

Nick’s Reply

Hi, Captain Ryan,

Thanks for what you and all our military do for us — I’m glad to offer any advice I can, hoping it might be useful.

Here’s the best initial suggestion I can make to you:

  • Don’t go looking for open jobs.
  • Avoid the job postings and ads.

If it’s open and posted, the competition is already so huge that your odds of success have dropped like a rock. The quality of your credentials and skills is almost irrelevant because the systems (human and otherwise) used to sort through applicants is not good at separating signal from noise.

Your best bet is to figure out what you’d like to do, and who you’d like to work for. Start with industry — which one? It helps to start with good targets. Don’t waste time with second-tier companies. Start with the best, the shining lights, whether they’re big or small. Research their operations, figure out what job functions might match your skills and interests. (Don’t get too specific. Like the guy said, most of what we know we learned in Kindergarten. The rest is about riding a fast learning curve without falling off.) The key is that it’s up to you to map your skills onto the work, as best you can.

That’s how you pick the job(s) in the company — not from ads.

Once you’ve selected a handful of companies, and identified some functions and jobs, you need to make new friends. Something like 40-70% of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. So don’t waste time with other channels. The next task is to work backwards from contacts you already have, and ones you can develop quickly, to meet and talk with insiders — people connected to each target company. They need not be employees. They might be vendors, customers, attorneys, accountants, landlords, bankers, etc. Find them any way you can — one good way is business articles about the company. Look for names of such folks. Google them, email them, call them. Be brief and respectful. Explain you’re considering working for company X, and you know they do business with X, and you’d like their insight and advice. Have a few good, friendly questions to ask about the company.

You score when the person personally refers you to someone in the company for more information. That’s when the real fun starts.

Use these introductions (you need only a handful, and you may have to talk to lots of folks to get them) to more closely map yourself to the work and function in the company. The best way to tackle this is to ask:

“What problems and challenges is your company facing in [logistics, purchasing, marketing, whatever]? Can you give me a little insight? I’m interested in working for your company, but I haven’t yet identified where I can contribute the most to the bottom line.”

It takes only one savvy manager to hear the words bottom line, and you’re in.

This is actually a lot of fun, because you’re meeting new people, learning new things, and getting into the circle you want to be part of. If you’ve got six months, I encourage you to start now. It takes time. But it’s the only reliable way to get in the door and find the job right for you.

Employers are lousy at figuring out what to do with job applicants. Most of the time, they realize people are just looking for a job, any job. If you start by picking an industry, a handful of companies, and then focus on mapping yourself onto a company’s challenges — that’s how you use your brain to create your own job opening. More likely, you’ll identify something that’s about to come open, and you’ll be the first candidate to interview. No competition. And due to the research you’ve already done, your motivation will translate into very effective dialogue in interviews. While your competition is answering questions like, “What’s your greatest weakness? If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?”, you’ll be busy explaining how you think you could add 10% to the department’s bottom line. Big difference!

Do me a favor and stay in touch. I’m glad to help. You’re ahead of the pack already because you took time to make contact in the business world. Keep doing that. Reach out to insiders in your target industry and companies. Forget the job applications and resumes. Do this right, and you won’t need a resume. The conversations you have will evolve straight into interviews.

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention military transition once except in the title of this post. That’s because the same methods that work for everyone else will work for you, because this is all about delivering profitable work, no matter where you’re coming from.

The edge you have is discipline. The military has given you that in spades. It’s something every job hunter in the civilian world needs, because roaming the job boards isn’t a task. Identifying your objective, focusing on it, pursuing it, and not stopping until you attain it requires… well, you get it. You don’t need to transition. Just apply your discipline to the task at hand and don’t abandon what you learned in the Army about getting the job done. Not to be rude, but civilians won’t be much competition.

Start with The Basics: Pick your targets. You know the old saying, you can’t get there if you don’t know where there is.

Be safe. I’ll be thinking about you.

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