How to Find a Job Without Losing Your Self-Respect

How to Find a Job Without Losing Your Self-Respect

I received a lot of great feedback both on and offline about my last article regarding the state of recruitment. It’s a tough subject for a lot of folks because hiring (or the lack of) is something that hits home for a lot of us. Well, I know that a lot of you are freelancers and it’s not enough to agree that recruitment’s a mess…what you want are answers on how to navigate these increasingly turbulent waters so that you can land a gig. So I’m going to tell you what works for me.

Warning: This is a long post. But it’s worth it. Go get a coffee, come back, and settle in for a bit.

1. Stay the hell out of the meat grinder.

Forget looking for a job. Look for a problem.
If you read nothing else on this page, read this. Keep away from online job boards, corporate recruitment systems and headhunters. “But Geoff,” you say, “if we ignore those things we won’t be considered for jobs.” Here’s the big lesson I want to teach you: you won’t be considered for jobs via those routes anyway. If you go down these paths, here’s what will happen.

You’ll send in your resume, which will be lumped in with a slew of other applications. People who aren’t doing the actual hiring will search the resumes for keywords that may or may not have been part of the posting (and so you may or may not have included them in your application). Chances are, unless you’re very lucky, your resume will be ignored. Time will pass while you wait for news one way or another that isn’t going to come. Your hope will fade. When you’ve been completely ignored enough times, depression will kick in and then you won’t be motivated to look for work anymore. I know this feeling intimately and I will do everything in my power to spare you from that.

Today’s recruitment process is an ugly, vicious, impersonal machine that leaves more human carcasses by the roadside than it finds happy new employees. Don’t let it take you, too.

2. Stop looking for a job.

Forget looking for a job. Look for a problem.

If you keep looking for a position where you get paid money for having a pulse, you’re in for a long wait. As much as I’d love to say your body heat should be worth something on the open market, the fact is most people really don’t want to pay for something they already get for free. When you passively look for a job without creating value in the process, you’re basically just peddling the space you take up.

What people will pay for though, is someone who can solve a problem.

And that’s really what a job posting is about, isn’t it? The hiring manager has identified a problem of some kind, that they believe requires a warm body to help address. Is that the right solution? Maybe. But until the moist, warm mass of human tissue they bring in starts to produce results, that remains to be seen.

However if you knew what the problem was that prompted a job posting in the first place, you might actually already have the perfect, ideal, best-idea-ever solution! Will that show in your cv? Unless you can read minds, you’re unlikely to answer a question that nobody’s asking.

But maybe if you could talk directly to the person who’s struggling to find that right answer, you could sell yourself accordingly!

3. Don’t be a jar of pickles.

Don't be a jar of pickles to a hiring manager.
Labels are a big part of the recruitment process, aren’t they? A job posting advertises for a “project manager”, so it’s logical you introduce yourself to a prospective employer that way. The thing is, as soon as you accept the label, you stop being Ernie, or Nadine, or Tula, or Seymour. Instead, you become a commodity not unlike a jar of pickles on a supermarket shelf.

That’s not where you belong. Why? Because you are a human being with a rich history. You’ve made decisions and solved problems and inspired others. You’ve had your share of successes, and probably struggled too. These experiences…they make you who you are. So why shouldn’t you shine as bright as you possibly can?

Think and speak about yourself in your own terms and not in the terms your industry wants to tar you with. Don’t be a jar of pickles.

4. Set your sights on a target (or two)

Set your job searching eyes on a target!

Your next gig doesn’t have to be the one that lands you international fame and recognition. It just has to be something you think you’d like to do, using the skills you enjoy. Think of what you have to offer, and then think of a small handful of local companies who could benefit from hiring you. Don’t pick more than five companies to start, because you have a lot of work ahead of you. At this point, it doesn’t matter if they’re hiring or not. Even companies operating under a crippling hiring freeze will cough up money if they believe you can help make their lives better!

5. Research until you need glasses

Research potential jobs until you need glasses.
Okay, so you have a short list of companies you’d like to work for, and you know that if you’re able to find a problem you can sink your teeth into at one of those companies, you can offer an awesome solution. Except…you don’t know anybody at the organizations on your short list. And you have no idea if they’re struggling with anything specific you could get a good handle on. Well that’s crap, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Executive Changes

Creative employment: CTOs on the MoveWhen senior officers move around, they generally discover problems in their new position, or leave problems in their wake. This is a normal function of business, and it spells opportunities for anyone savvy enough to discover them. CTOs On The Move is a fantastic website that lets you research IT executives who are changing positions. The best part is, you can search by company. Just plug in the short list of organizations you identified in Step 4 above and see what bubbles to the surface!

Quarterly Reports

Creative employment: Quarterly ReportsThe best source of information about what’s going on at a company is the most recent report they presented to their Board of Directors. These reports are often publicly available, although sometimes they take a bit of digging to find. Within these documents you’ll find specific issues the company is trying to address, and high level details of some of the plans they’re putting in place to resolve them. You were looking for solutions to offer? Look no further! In addition to the details, many of these reports contain the names of the people tasked with execution. So if you were wondering whose prayers you might answer, their names may be right there in black and white!

News Feeds

Creative employment: Yahoo PipesIf you can’t get a hold of a company’s quarterly reports, you can still pick up the newspaper. Instead of heading straight to careers, go to the business section to find out what’s going on at the organization. Any new press releases? Have they found themselves in hot water? Any important personnel or direction changes? All of these can help you formulate your plan of attack.

Better yet, why not subscribe to RSS feeds from local and regional websites? You can subscribe to the latest news from the companies you’re monitoring, and also from those journalists, pundits and analysts who follow them.

If you want really to harness the power of RSS, start messing around with Yahoo Pipes. This service will allow you to cut some insanely tailored feeds from sources all over the web. As you become proficient with Pipes, your research will become razor sharp, and incredibly current.


Creative employment: LinkedInOkay if you’ve managed to find both a problem to tackle and the problem’s owner, the next place to stop is LinkedIn. I had one of the first 100,000 profiles set up, going way back to 2004. Despite that, I never really understood its value until recently. There’s loads and loads of websites devoted to this service, so I won’t go into all the details. Suffice it to say that if you have the name of a person you want to know more about, LinkedIn should be your very first stop to find more information. You can learn not just about their current position, but about where they’ve been before, and how they got to where they are now. And the best part? You might already be connected to them through one of your friends or colleagues and not know it! There’s no better place to get honest input on another person than from a trusted contact.

Job Boards

Creative employment: Job BoardsWhat? But Geoff, you said to stay away from the job boards! Silly rabbit. The job postings aren’t for you! They’re to help you see what your prospects are trying to do about the problems you’ve identified in your research. The first place to stop should be the career section of the company’s website. They’ll often be updated before third party sites like Job postings will usually be written in the hiring manager’s own words (although possibly revised by a well-meaning HR department).

You’ll also want to know about these openings because when you finally make a connection, you don’t want them to shut you down by saying, “yes, we know, and we’re already taking steps”. Compare what you know about the company already to the positions you see advertised. Are they doing the right thing? Do you have a better solution? Here’s where your years of experience come in to play and you can demonstrate some real value.

Plan and Contact

Plan out your job search communication and then...make contact!

Okay, you’re almost ready. You’ve got all the information you need to be able to put together a great pitch to your prospect…but if you don’t sit back and think about how you want to make the approach, you might lose the whole schmeer. Before you make that phone call, spend as much time as you feel you need preparing the following checklist:

1) Can you summarize what you think you could do for them in 20 seconds or less?

2) Do you have a few short, non-invasive questions you can ask that could help set the stage for your pitch?

3) Are there any “gotchas” that could knock your plan out the window? Do you have ways of addressing them?

4) Although your initial contact should be high level, can you go one or two levels down into details if asked?

If you think you’re ready, take a moment to catch your breath, pick up the phone, dial the company and ask to speak with your prospect.

An important note about cold calling: ASSUME NOTHING!!! However up-to-date you think your research may be, it’s not as up-to-date as your contact’s is. The person you’re about to speak with should know a lot more about the issue than you do. If you go in there spewing your preconceived ideas all over them like you just contracted Linda Blair disease, they’re going to ask you to leave. All your hard work will have been for nothing.

Take your call in little baby steps, pause to ask questions, and let them do most of the talking.


A final word

Recruiters, human resources and technology companies aren’t 100% responsible for the mess that is modern recruitment, but they certainly help perpetuate it. They may not really like the advice I’m dishing out here. But I can tell you that the above does work. Even if you don’t get results right away, you’ve identified specific things you can do to help others, and have made valuable connections that can eventually help get you there. Congratulations, you’ve just created way more traction for yourself than 90% of the job seeking public!

And unless conventional companies are prepared to guarantee you a personalized and well-managed job search experience throughout your interactions together, I say this:

FUCK ‘EM! Do what’s right for you!

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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  • craigada

    Geoff, why hold back on this issue, Hehe. Rapier wit, talking images, how do you get it so right??

    Love your work!

  • Bruce

    I hope you’re sharing this EXCELLENT point with your students: “Stay the hell out of the meat grinder.”

  • Kristen

    These are excellent points. Job searching can be intimidating, and keeping some of these points in mind for the future will hopefully make it a little easier!

  • The job search is an ugly part of life these days. Collectively we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner where barriers to entry are harder than ever. Change is required.