3 Steps to a Strategic Job Search

I was drafting my latest blog post for work, tinkering with the wording here and there, when suddenly, a huge notification popped up on my Google doc in big, scary letters: You no longer have access to this document.

Well, that’s weird, I thought. I knew there had been some changes at work—nothing is ever smooth at a startup—but I assumed it was a simple mistake, nothing more.

So, when I hopped on my 10 a.m. video call to find not only my manager, but also the VP and our HR rep, my heart thudded a thousand miles a minute.

I was being laid off from a job I truly loved. Suddenly and without warning, I was back on the job market, three days before leaving for a two-week vacation abroad. I needed to find a new gig, and fast.

There’s no foolproof method for finding the perfect job, because the “perfect” job is different for everyone. For some people, that means a job that has flexible hours or the potential for growth. For others, it’s a role that allows you to dive into spreadsheets all day.

Finding a job is a job in itself. So, treat it like one. Just like you would create a plan at the beginning of a big project, put together a step-by-step strategy for how you’ll land your next big gig. Here’s how:

Step 1: Reflect on the things that matter

What do you love?

Start by making a master spreadsheet with several tabs. The first should be, “Things I Love.”

Now, it’s time to really think about what lights your fire. Start with the work that makes you happy. If you could pick your favorite part of a job, what would it be? You might love to write. Or maybe you loved planning the team’s events or mentoring the summer interns. It can be anything, no matter how small. Think about what makes you actually want to go to work in the morning, from coworkers to the coffee machine—and write them down.

What are the pain points?

Self-reflection doesn’t have to be all lovey-dovey. Once you’ve determined what you love, now’s the time to let it all out. What don’t you like to do? What gave you the Sunday scaries? This can be anything from dealing with the sales team or a terrible boss or the fact that there weren’t any good places to eat nearby. There are no wrong answers at this stage, just capture how you feel.

Get to the next step

Do you see any patterns in your lists? For instance, do you love when you get to work on your own project and hate a micromanaging boss? You’re probably looking for a role that allows you to be independent (or maybe even your own boss).

Turn these into a list of three-five responsibilities or characteristics that have to be a part of your next job and three-five red flags to watch out for in your interview process.

Step 2: It’s who you know, not what you know

Before you apply to a single position, take a look at your network on LinkedIn. Find people you know who might have some insight into a particular role. Think: Connections who work in the field or at a company you’re interested in or who manage someone in a role that appeals to you. If you’re considering changing roles or industries, it’s especially important to know: What is it really like to do this job? What is this company culture like?

Add these people to your master document with notes on what they do and why you’re interested in talking to them.

Now, the tricky part: Send them a message. Be up front about what you’re looking for—an informational interview or advice on entering the field. Remember, if they’re spending time helping you, make sure there’s something in it for them, even if it’s as simple as taking them out for coffee. A good template to try:

Hi [THEIR NAME]! I’m starting to think about doing [THIS ROLE]. Since this is something you have expertise in, I’d love a chance to talk with you about what it’s really like to do [ROLE] at [COMPANY] every day. Would you mind if I took you out to coffee to talk about it one-on-one? My treat. –YOUR NAME

When you meet, ask them everything. Do you have all the skills you need or should you take a course or gain certification? What is their job like day-to-day? Who are the types of people in that role, and are you like them?

You’re not asking outright for a job—but before you meet with them, be sure to look over open positions on their team or at their company. Employee referrals mean a lot to hiring managers, and those folks will get a kickback at most places, too.

Step 3: Apply, apply, apply

You’ve reflected, and you’ve talked up your network. Now is the time to apply. Start with the jobs you learned about through your connections and coffee dates. Next, search places like LinkedIn, Indeed, and Glassdoor. Look carefully at the job descriptions to see what language the company is using. See what the mission statement is. Now, echo those keywords and sentiments in unique resumes and cover letters for each position. you’re applying for.

This shows that you did your research and that you’re the right candidate for a job. Plus, most companies, even small ones, use software to filter out resumes based on those keywords. So, make sure if they’re looking for someone in the job description with “sales enablement experience,” you use the words “Sales enablement,” not “worked with sales team.”

Let yourself dream

Looking for a job can wear even the most optimistic person down. I officially applied to nearly 50 positions and had many more back-door conversations through my network. I had interview after interview that went nowhere. Or even worse, I’d go to a final round, three-hour, grueling interview only to get a rejection notice later that day. I was constantly hustling, feeling the financial pressure to find something fast without wanting to sacrifice finding a job I would love.

But this hustle paid off. I followed the steps above and found a job that I love in less than a month. It was a lot of work, but I let myself dream bigger: My new role is a position above my old one, with a higher salary and much more responsibility.

As you job search, don’t forget to dream. Make sure you balance the financial need to find a job with a desire to do something different. By being strategic about your job search, you’ll set yourself up for major success.

Originally published November 13, 2017

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Kayla Voigt hails from the small town of Hopkinton, MA, home of the Boston Marathon. A marketer by day and freelance writer by night, she's a passionate storyteller, reader, hiker, swimmer, runner, and eater. Like what she has to say? Subscribe to her blog or say hello on Twitter.