Recently, a C-level executive—someone who knew someone who knew me—asked me for advice on her job search. Given her expertise, and her more than $1 million salary, I expected her to have a ready answer to my first question, “Where do you want to work?”
She surprised me by saying she wasn’t sure. I tried again: “What industry, what companies interest you?” Nothing. Then I asked, “Where do you want to live?” Her answer: “I suppose I could go anywhere.”
In my thirty-five years of professional life and more than a decade as CEO of a publicly traded company, I am continuously shocked by the naivete of people—even seasoned executives—when it comes to their career paths.
They tell themselves that all they need to do is update their resume and send it to people like me, who, they think, walk around with C-level jobs in their back pockets. In reality, the first step to finding a job is understanding what kind of job you want, and why you’re a good fit for it—and only then looking for a very specific connection. This process involves not casting a wide net, but rather:
- Targeting: Determine geography, industry, and potential employers at the start of your job search. List the companies you admire and why—purpose above all. The more you target your search the more you can help people help you. Asking someone, “Do you know anyone at XYZ Corporation I can talk to?” is a much different request than “Can you help me get a job?”
- Knowing yourself: Know who you are and what you stand for. Your purpose, passion, and values must match your work environment. Identify your strengths and accomplishments. What do you have to offer to meet the needs of your next employer? What do your previous experiences tell you about the kind of company where you’d fit best?
- Not relying too much on your resume: People think their resume is 90% of what it takes to get a job. In reality, I’d estimate that it’s more like 10%—or less. Getting a job is more about identifying your core accomplishments and getting a warm introduction to the companies where you want to work.
The same week I met the C-level executive, I also met a recent graduate who was looking for a job. After graduating with a degree in computer science, he’d been working at a startup for only a few months when he realized it was at risk of going out of business.
He started his job search by analyzing his background and accomplishments, as well as what he liked about the work he was doing. He identified the kind of company he’d like to work for (a more established and mature firm the next time).
Then, he identified all the companies in his geographic region that interested him. (Given his technology background, he looked at multiple industries.) He applied the same criteria to each company: culture (where he’d fit), purpose (the mission), and the contribution he could make, and he narrowed his list down to the top-three: one in healthcare, one in technology, and one a boutique professional services firm.
At that point, he could effectively approach people in his network for help in getting introductions to people at his targeted companies. Within a week, a contact introduced him to someone from church who worked at his first-choice company, who put him in touch with the head of HR. A breakfast meeting was quickly arranged with someone from his second-choice company, and another meeting with a person from the third company was scheduled in the next few days.
Despite his limited professional inexperience, the young graduate intuitively understood how to be targeted in his job search. While the C-level executive is still spinning her wheels—because she doesn’t know what she wants and hasn’t put in much effort to figure it out—he just landed a job.
Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry and author of “Lose the Resume, Land the Job.”