The brutal truth is that while estimates vary, most jobs are never advertised at all. Openings pop up, internally and externally, and are filled through referrals. The easiest way to get a really great job is to have a rich, active network that thinks of you when they hear of new opportunities. Even jobs at places that are required to post openings and go through an open search process frequently go to someone with an inside track—all other things being equal the referred candidate offers a more certain outcome. The biggest mistake I see people make in their job hunts at any stage of their career is not building and maintaining their network long before they need it.
The trick when you’re in college is to start with informational interviews and to start asking for those when it’s clear to the person you’re asking that you aren’t secretly looking for an internship or a job. Most people want to be helpful, and are happy to talk about an area where they feel they have some expertise. Start with campus career services. They can help you find recent alumni, parents, and other people with some connection to the school. You can use your time with career services to have them help you develop some good basic questions for people about how they got started in their careers, what they wished they’d known at the outset, and what skills they think will be most needed in the future in their field. Find out what your friends‘ parents do. I refuse to grant you that this is in any way strange—I have conversations all the time with people I’ve just met about what I do and if I ask you where you are from or what you are majoring in, you’re all set to jump in and ask about my career. And if you knew ahead of time, you can just say, “Hey, I heard from Jake that you have owned your own business for some years and I’d love to find out how you got started.”
The key in all of this is timing. At LYON, we don’t generally have summer interns or a lot of room to hire new grads, so when I get requests from people in the March–June timeframe, I am more hesitant to agree. I may agree to an informational interview if I’ve got the time or have a strong connection to the person asking, but I will always add the disclaimer that we don’t take interns and aren’t hiring. The timing makes it more likely that people will just say no—they don’t want to start down this path and disappoint you. (BTW, if I ask that and it WAS your only reason for wanting to meet with me, press on—if you get caught out now as a social liar, you’ve blown the connection forever. A small waste of time now is worth it to preserve your reputation and the connection.)
Whatever responses you get, you have to be the person to follow up, in some cases somewhat aggressively. While email appears to not be very popular amongst college students, for the moment it’s still the business standard, so if you start down this path, be sure you’re using an email account you regularly check. To be really safe, I wouldn’t use firstname.lastname@example.org account—it might be helpful if you’ve got a big pool of loyal alumni out there, but you want to build a network for the long run and your college is going to swap you out of this email pretty quickly after graduation.
If you get an email introduction where someone writes to you and the hot prospect, respond quickly to both people, thanking the introducer for making the introduction, and letting the hot prospect know you’ll follow up with them separately, perhaps asking if they prefer email or phone and to let you know if now isn’t a good time. They may well respond that they are on PTO next week and then onto a conference out of town, so after the 22nd of the month would be better. Here’s where a lot of students drop the ball. They think that’s a brush off, but it’s pretty common in business to say “Hey, I’d love to meet, but I’m swamped—let’s touch base in two weeks.” That’s actually a “Yes, definitely,” not a brush off at all. That said, you’re the one asking for a favor and my to-do list is pretty huge, so not be mean, but I think if you really want to talk to me, it’s got to be on you to follow up. Is that a bit of a test? Maybe some people use it to test your commitment (which isn’t unreasonable) but for a lot of people, we’re just managing an epic amount of work and we’re not looking to add to it. Plus, to be fair, we don’t know exactly what you want, how long it will take, whether you want a phone call or a meeting, or your timeframe. You know all of that, so it’s up to you to make a plan and get it going.
If you actually get to meet with someone, keep the time required short and let them lead on whether it’s in person or on the phone. Make it easy for them—coffee before work and near my office is always easiest for me, but I’ve had people tell me 7:30 a.m. is too early for them. The reality is I don’t want to have the time slot be endless, as with a Saturday meeting and I don’t take a lunch most days. The end of my day is always in question so after work is tricky, too. You asked, I gave you a time slot, so you need to make it work.
Once we meet, you want to thank me, send me a LinkedIn invite, and stay in touch. If you line up an internship or launch your own website, that’s a good time to reach out and let me know what’s up. And if you actually benefitted from something I told you, definitely reach out and give me kudos for the genius advice! The best time to strengthen the relationship is when you want absolutely nothing. Get me invested in your long-term success—that’s only going to help you.
The biggest mistake is when you graduate, get that first job lined up and drop off the radar completely. First of all, if you’d sent me the LinkedIn invite in the first place, I’d see the update and maybe I’d reach out to you and say congrats. Either way, reach out to everyone who helped you in college. Tell professors, alumni, info interviews, former internships, friends’ parents you know that you got a great job and you appreciate their help and guidance. (Don’t send one mass email to everyone, take the time to write individual emails.) While you’re in that first job, make sure you keep taking two people a month to coffee or lunch. People who helped you before, people in the organization who might be interesting to meet, people in the area. Join local alumni events, relevant trade organizations, and seize any chance to go to conferences. Follow up with everyone with LinkedIn invites and send them links to articles they might like. The more touch points you have, the better chance that I’ll think if you when I, or a client, have an opening. The best job offers are the ones where you get solidly recommended because you’re well enough known by the recommender to be a really strong match, and you get the job without much competition.
BTW, I liked this quick video on LinkedIn use, particularly the tip to turn off the alerts that your profile had changed so you can go in and edit like crazy without everyone knowing. Of course, when you get a new position, you’ll want to be sure the privacy is off, so everyone knows.