Applying for Jobs? There’s a Better Way to Get Interviews

A prospective client once came to me for help. “In the past year I’ve applied for about 100 positions, yet have had no interviews!” she told me in frustration. I was pretty confident that I knew the crux of her problem straight away. It was the emphasis she placed on the number of jobs she had applied for. Usually, just applying for jobs is not nearly enough, especially at more senior levels.

In fact, job seekers should spend roughly 20% of their precious job search time applying for jobs (through postings and search firms) and the remaining 80% networking and building relationships to secure valuable meetings and introductions. Yes, responding to job postings takes much less work up front than building relationships. For this reason, it is very tempting to simply wait for the right posting to show up or search firm to call. Many jobseekers start with this “passive” method of securing job interviews because it seems easier.

Yet, one key reason for taking this 20-80 approach that deemphasizes the postings is that most job postings will attract hundreds (or more) of applications. Competition is tough through this channel because of sheer volume; it’s hard to stand out without being perfect on paper, and even then the selection process can feel arbitrary due to the computer screening process. A similar situation occurs with search firms. If you already have a relationship with a top-tier search firm, or get a good referral, great! But don’t overly rely on them. Another reason for this approach is that networking and cold emailing/calling work really well if your messaging is resonant.

One client example nicely illustrates both the challenge of relying too heavily on postings and the opportunity in reaching out directly to the person you would work for. My client applied for a divisional CFO position at a large media company by responding to an online job positing. He didn’t stop there, however, and took a really smart next step: he searched LinkedIn to find out who the hiring manager was, and then reached out to her directly (the global CFO). It was through this latter approach, not the online application, that he was offered a job interview.

After a number of interviews, the hiring manager made him an offer. While he was negotiating the offer terms, he received a standard automated response from the HR department: “We have reviewed your application and unfortunately your background does not fit our needs at this time. We will keep your resume on file…” You get the picture. The company sent him this message at the very same time they were finalizing his job offer.

Please note, if you do see a posting that closely matches your experience and interests, by all means apply for it. In fact, many clients have landed positions directly through the applications they have submitted (there are ways to help your application stand out from the crowd, but that’s for another post). Just know this: relying too heavily on job applications is a recipe for a long, frustrating search.

You face similar issues when working with search firms. I suggest identifying a couple of search firms that you trust, and then working with them exclusively. To find the right firms, ask friends, try and identify who a former employer’s HR department uses, or get recommendations from a professional association. Googling “best search firms” may also be of help.

Prioritize the active approach to getting interviews

Prioritize the “active” approach instead, that is, networking and cold-outreach. You may have heard of the “hidden job market.” It does exist. When you try these active approaches to getting interviews, you access this market; the relationships you have worked hard to establish give you a chance to learn about job opportunities that are not yet public, or give you an advantage for those opportunities that are.

So how do you network and contact people directly to get interviews? First, read this post to understand the strategy, and then this one to secure meetings with total strangers by sending a perfectly worded email. Here are some additional thoughts on how to make networking work for you:

  1. Think broadly about your network. Your network is not just the five people you talk with every week. It includes family and friends, your dentist, old professors, colleagues you haven’t worked with or talked to in 15 years, and so on. Anyone who might be open to helping you, and vice versa, can be in your network.
  2. Tell people you’re actively looking for a new role. Inform the people you network with about your search. Share details of your specific job target and the organizations in which you are interested. Spread the news through emails, LinkedIn messages, and so forth (with appropriate discretion if you’re currently employed).
  3. Network smartly. Attending networking events may not necessarily represent the best use of your time. If you find that the majority of contacts you are making at these events are fellow job seekers, your time is going to be much better spent networking from home; for example, using LinkedIn to identify appropriate contacts and then reaching out to them by email or phone.
  4. Keep control of the introduction request. Your friends or colleagues may generously offer to circulate your resume at their office. This approach almost never works because the chance that there will be a suitable opening at that moment is small, and your contact may even forget to send your resume on as promised, or not represent you optimally. Instead, ask for permission to reach out to their contacts directly; say, “There may be nothing available now, so I would like to build a relationship with your colleagues for opportunities down the road. Is it ok if I contact them directly and let them know you referred me?”

One last word on the concept of “applying.” For that 20 percent of your time where you do look at job postings, I recommend starting with LinkedIn. The reason: LinkedIn will tell you if you are connected to someone at the company, or sometimes even if you are connected to the person who posted the job. Then, once you apply, you can try to reach the hiring manager through your LinkedIn network, as my client did in the earlier example. This combination of applying and cold outreach can be powerful if your communication skills are in good shape (the subject of another post).

If you would like to learn more about how LinkedIn can help you with your job search or any aspect of your career, check out my book Advanced LinkedIn.