Ask the Headhunter: The Three Best Ways to Land a Job

BY Paul Solman  December 18, 2012 at 11:40 AM EST


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Nick Corcodilos is an expert on how to get a job. We ran into him while doing a story on the relative futility of Internet job boards and asked him to post his own job search secrets. It became a palpable hit, so we asked Nick if he wouldn’t mind taking some questions from our readers. It turns out that in addition to giving interviews to PBS, Nick hosts a website called asktheheadhunter.com, and publishes a free weekly — the Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter.

Wonder how others “get in the door” for interviews while you can’t? How can you make the “inside contacts” you need? Do employers interview you, then never call back? How can you change careers mid-stream? Nick Corcodilos answers your questions here in our weekly feature, Ask the Headhunter. Submit your questions in the comments below.


James Isaman: I have been unemployed since 2007. During this time I have had a few short-term jobs while I was attending school. I am out of options and broke, no unemployment check coming in, haven’t had any for years now. Can you help? I am desperate!

Nick Corcodilos: I wish I could offer you some magic after you’ve been unemployed so long. I know you just want your problem to end and for a job to appear. But a job-hunting strategy takes time and a lot of effort. I can’t teach you everything you need to do to land a job, but I can tell you in a nutshell the three best ways I know to be successful in your job search:

1) The best way to find a good job opportunity is to go hang out with people who do the work you want to do — people who are very good at it. Making Sen$e reader Oklahomabarry agrees: “I know these tips work because this is the way I’ve always conducted my own job searches. You gotta meet people to make a case for yourself.”

Insiders are the first to know about good opportunities, but they only tell other insiders. To get into an inside circle of people, you must earn your way. It takes time. You can’t fake it, and that’s good, because good employers don’t promote (or hire) the unknown. This approach is a lot of work, but it also eliminates much of your competition, because they just won’t do it this way.

2) The best way to get a job interview is to be referred by someone the manager trusts. Between 40 and 70 percent of jobs are filled that way. Yet people and employers fail to capitalize on this simple employment channel. They pretend there’s some better system — like job boards. That’s bunk.

If companies took more of the money they waste on Monster.com and CareerBuilder and spent it to cultivate personal contacts, they’d fill more jobs faster with better hires. There is nothing more powerful than a respected peer putting her good name on the line to recommend you. Deals close faster when the quality of information is high and the source of information is trusted. That’s why it takes forever to get a response when you apply “blind” to a job posting.

3) The best way to do well in an interview is to walk in and demonstrate to the manager how you will do the job profitably, for him and for you. In the PDF book, How Can I Change Careers?, I offer this suggestion.

Don’t behave like a job applicant in the job interview; behave like an employee. Show up ready to do the job in the interview … show how you will do the work and contribute to profitability. By defining the work an employer needs done and showing how, exactly, you will apply your skills, you can demonstrate your value … While others show up asking for a job, your demonstration of how you will do the job actually helps the employer justify hiring you … While your lack of experience may be an obstacle, this demonstration of your motivation and thoughtful planning can earn you a place ahead of your competition.

This advice works well whether you’re changing careers, or just changing jobs. It’s how I would re-start your search for a job.

Han: I want to move from the biological sciences to the political sciences. I do have the education necessary to facilitate the move. I am now working at a company that is loosely affiliated with a large university that happens to have a prominent think tank. My plan is to leverage my boss’s university connections to get an internship (or job) at the think tank. How do I go about asking for a recommendation or a contact?

Nick Corcodilos: It sounds like you’re fortunate enough to have a boss who is willing to help you with your next job. Good for you for using a contact to get introduced. I like your approach — go for it. But remember that career change is challenging. Just because a person has the right education doesn’t mean he or she is useful to the employer. You must prove it.

However, I would not ask your boss for a recommendation just yet, because giving out names of personal contacts makes some people nervous. I’d start by asking your boss for “advice and insight” about the think tank. People love to share their advice.

For example, ask your boss, “Where do the big thinkers at the think tank come from?” Or, “Do employees at the think tank all have political science background, or does the think tank hire more broadly?” Then be silent and let your boss talk. Let the discussion evolve and center on how the tank operates, what skills its people have, and so on.

Gradually, your boss will get the idea and the topic will shift to a referral. My guess is your boss will interpret your interest and your good questions (you need to ask good questions about the tank) as motivation. And that’s what makes people comfortable making recommendations.

If your boss does you the courtesy of introducing you to someone at the think tank, once again, don’t be pushy. Don’t jump in and ask for information about jobs. Start by talking shop with the person: “What kinds of projects are you working on?” Express your interest in specific areas, and ask for recommendations about reading material to further educate yourself. This creates the opportunity to talk to the person again later, after you’ve studied the materials. By building a professional contact inside the think tank, you will stand a better chance of getting referred for a job. Remember that it’s best to cultivate a relationship first, and to ask for favors later.

Finally, don’t rely only on your boss for those introductions. Check this brief article for tips on making new contacts of your own: Meet The Right People.

Stan: Technology has its place but it does not replace one-to-one dialogue, determination, perseverance and a never give up attitude. These are some of the most intelligent tips I’ve seen in a long time. I know, I’m a small business owner.

Nick Corcodilos: Thanks for your kind words, but far more important is the fact that a small business owner emphasizes that the personal, determined approach is a far better way to get a job than waiting for technology to deliver it. I hope people reading this column take your comment to heart.

There are many technological tools that help people win jobs: word processors, online search engines, and e-mail, to name a few. Unfortunately, much of the technology that’s touted as “the way to get a job” doesn’t work very well — but it’s promoted so heavily by human resources (HR) departments that people fall prey to the same wishful thinking HR does.

Employers’ success rates at hiring from job boards, for example, are abysmal. Annual surveys conducted by a job-board watchdog firm suggest that job boards like Monster and CareerBuilder deliver no more than about 3-5 percent of hires to employers. Yet last year over $1.3 billion was spent on Monster.com alone. Wishing it works doesn’t make it so.

Because employers spend most of their recruiting budgets on job boards and applicant tracking systems, job hunters feel they must use those channels to apply for jobs. No wonder employers complain there’s a skills shortage — but the missing skills are in knowing how to use one-one-one dialogue to find opportunities, and in the perseverance required to develop relationships that lead to jobs.

I’m not talking about getting hired solely because you “know someone.” I’m talking about getting credible referrals from people who know you can do the job; people who will put their own names on the line to recommend you. That’s where jobs come from. And those relationships — as Stan the small business owner points out — require a personal approach and perseverance.

Thanks again, Stan — not for knocking technology, but for emphasizing that technology is no substitute for what it really takes to land a good job.

Joe: How do you feel about references? And as far as salary information, isn’t it necessary to understand how the employee is valued by his current employer and also even better to see what sort of merit increases he has received in the past? If I am talking to someone who receives a 3 percent raise each year then I know I am not talking to a superstar.

Nick Corcodilos: You’re asking about two intertwined issues: Judging job applicants from their references, and judging them from their salary history. Let’s address each one.

I think references are the coin of the realm, but there’s a lot of counterfeiting going on. Check this discussion about references who tell you to write your own reference, so they can sign it: Do you know where those references come from? My advice to employers is to invest the time to check references thoroughly.

Employers also need to be careful how they collect references — both from a legal standpoint, and to make sure they’re getting the truth. My approach as a headhunter has always been to check references informally before I even talk to a potential candidate. That’s what the sourcing process is all about. I learn all about someone I’m going to recruit even before I call to recruit them. (If what I learn during my checks is not positive, why would I want to recruit them?) That’s what I’m paid for — accurate candidate referrals.

Unfortunately, many employers treat references like a bureaucratic afterthought. That’s not smart.

Employers can check references the same way good headhunters do — in advance. Why wait until you’re sitting there in an interview with the person? It’s not hard to check someone out in advance and still respect legal and ethical constraints.

Now let’s look at the salary part of this. I think employers should skip a candidate’s salary history in favor of thorough reference checks. Think about it: What do you really know about another company’s standards for giving merit raises? Or about how they pay their employees? Do they pay fairly? Do they reward appropriately?

Guessing what someone’s salary means is a crapshoot. Consider your own example: Suppose your candidate is leaving his last job because he received only a 3 percent merit increase. Suppose he’s a star, but the employer just doesn’t like giving increases? Trusting another employer’s judgment can cost you a very good hire. It’s up to you to assess a candidate’s value yourself.

Besides: In many companies, an employee’s compensation package — to say nothing of merit criteria — are company confidential. You could get someone into trouble for demanding that they disclose what (and how) his or her employer pays. Don’t believe me? Go ask your HR department. When they get a request for a reference check, does HR disclose the former employee’s salary history? Their merit increases? Your company is very unusual if the answers are yes.

Nick Corcodilos: I started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and I’ve answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade — and I’m glad to share what I know with you. I offer no guarantees — but I’ll do my best to offer you useful advice — so please feel free to post your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. I am the author of three “how to” PDF books, available on my website: How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you, How Can I Change Careers?, and Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.

Questions will be collected from here and we’ll post my advice on a series of Ask The Headhunter columns here on Making Sen$e. You’ll also find my comments sprinkled throughout this discussion forum about various topics. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2012 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask The Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions