Written by Russell Johnson
There’s a story I hear all too often, in which the characters and details change but the core remains the same. It’s the story of a highly capable person whose career is crumbling because of a key mistake. I heard it again just days ago, and am sharing it with the goal of helping others avoid just such a disaster.
Brian (name and some details changed to protect privacy) is a former expatriate. He has excellent academic credentials from universities in Australia and the UK, gained a solid executive background overseas, and returned to Australia over a year ago.
He did some renovations on the home he had rented out before going overseas, then began applying for jobs at or just below his natural level. After several months without an interview, he sought the help of a resume writer. When that failed to improve his results, he began lowering his sights and applying for a wider range of jobs, many of them far below the level of his experience and skills.
Going in Circles
With every change in his approach, he became more lost.
Now, after many months and with only one interview to show for all his efforts, his resources are severely eroded and he is desperate to gain an income.
His desperation is apparent to others; unless this is resolved, his career will be irreparably harmed.
The Central Mistake
Can you spot Brian’s central mistake?
It comes down to this: he has been attempting to address a strategic issue with a non-strategic approach. He ran down his resources and then, seeking to move into a fiercely competitive market where he is at a disadvantage, he launched a head-on assault on the advertised job market.
It’s like sending a platoon of foot soldiers across an open field defended by land mines and machine guns. The very first thing a recruiter will do in reviewing applications is to cull applicants who don’t appear to be an obvious fit. Brian’s lack of recent Australian experience has allowed his applications to be rejected, immediately and consistently.
If he has had a strategy at all, it could be summarized as ‘too little, too late’.
Does this mean that recent local experience is vital? Not at all. The point is that he has had no means of neutralizing the obstacles to his success.
What Should Brian Have Done?
Instead of focusing on selling himself he should have recognized that, especially at executive levels, a job search is a marketing exercise. As Peter Drucker put it, the purpose of marketing is to make selling unnecessary.
A candidate without a marketing-based strategy and the skills to conduct it will usually become commoditized.
And commoditized candidates only get jobs that are unattractive and hard to fill. Which makes the unfortunate ‘winner’ less marketable in the future.
The Employer’s Keys to the Hiring Decision
How do employers decide on the candidate they want for a key role? Ultimately, they assess three factors:
- How well can this person do the job?
- How motivated are they to achieve the results we want? (and not just to get a good job)
- How will they affect the culture we want to have around here?
The question of how well the applicant can do the job can be answered with at least some objectivity if past results can be verified. But the other questions are harder to be sure of. A stranger – especially one who is between jobs – is considered riskier, because their desire to get the job can mask a lot. The hiring decision thus becomes largely subjective – a decision based on feelings more than facts.
Every senior executive has been bitten badly by wrong hiring calls. So what’s their solution? It’s generally to avoid offering a key role to a stranger if possible.
Why a Strategy to Access the ‘Hidden Market’ is Key
The available data shows clearly that the ‘hidden’ job market is responsible for at least around 3 of every 4 hires. This is because it’s largely based on relationships (which can be brief but need to be forged in a context other than a job interview).
Relationships eliminate much of the ‘trust barrier’ that the interview context sets up where strangers are concerned. So if you are seeking a new role, it’s usually a good idea to devote at least three quarters of your efforts to this part of the market.
And if you’re facing a disadvantage of any kind – age, gender, ethnicity, lack of obviously relevant experience, unemployment, change of direction, limited formal qualifications or anything else – then it really should be more than three quarters.
Why would you put a lot of your effort into a part of the market where you’re at a fundamental disadvantage?
What’s Really at Stake
Brian’s situation is difficult because he is facing a major disadvantage. But the great majority of salaried employees – right up to senior levels – are disempowered by lack of ability to easily translate their value into a satisfying and economically appropriate result in the market.
This disempowerment is ultimately what leads people to accept working in low-quality organizations and allows situations such as corruption, bullying and other forms of unethical behaviour to exist and fester.
There’s no need to accept it. We can each claim and enjoy a fulfilling career, while contributing to a better world of work.
So what’s the basis of strategy for the hidden market?
It’s to think like a buyer, not a seller.
You’re not trying to get a foot in the door so you can sell yourself. You’re seeking three things: information, advice and new contacts – so you can research further before making a decision to accept a position. This allows you to be discovered. With a fact-finding approach, you’ll become:
- Well connected (it can happen quickly with the right strategy)
- Well informed about your market/s of interest
- More polished
- More confident, and
- More credible, because you’ll be seen as strategic and not trying to sell something
And if you happen to be between jobs, you’ll tend to attract contract opportunities, increasing your marketability while you’re seeking your ideal job.
It comes down to this: for anything other than low-level jobs, employers are attracted to hiring the person who is clearly strategic, rather than the eager seller. Methodology and marketing skills are key to the best outcomes.
And if you’ve been trying for a while and are not getting anywhere, then don’t go on waiting for the job that always seems to be just around the corner. It’s usually a mirage. Recruiters and employers have their reasons for keeping a pipeline of candidates ‘on the hook’.
You might be in a hurry to get your next job, but employers prefer to take their time. The hiring process typically takes months. And you need to get onto the radar of your target employers early.