A job search is a bit like dating.
There are two sides to the adventure: first, you have to get to know yourself better—your interests, strengths, likes and dislikes, what you’re looking for. And second, through interviews, you get to know who’s “out there.”
In a good job search, those two things work together.
Learning more about yourself helps you understand which roles and companies to pursue. At the same time, while you’re interviewing, you’ll learn not only about the company but about yourself.
Job searches are daunting, and rarely welcome. With so many layoffs recently, and so many leaders contemplating a move, here are my favorite tips for conducting an effective job search at the executive level.
- Don’t limit yourself by asking, “What jobs am I qualified for?” One of the biggest mistakes people make is imagining what sort of jobs they might be able to get based only on their experience and qualifications. Yes, at some point in your search you’ll want to have a realistic understanding of how the marketplace views you and your background. But don’t begin there, as it can confine your thinking—and your entire search.
- Expand your thinking about what’s possible. Instead of starting with your qualifications, start by asking yourself what you want, and what your full potential looks like. Powerful questions are your friends here. “If there were no restrictions, what would an ideal role look like for me?” “What kind of role would promote my happiness and well-being?” I don’t recommend approaching these questions too analytically. More of a dreamy, walk-in-the-woods kind of mindset is best. If you have trouble with this, get help from friends, family, or a coach.
- Explore your strengths in depth. Most of us can benefit from a deeper, more nuanced understanding of our strengths. Great companies will be primarily interested in your strengths and how they can employ them, rather than your weaknesses. How to gain this insight? Take the Strengthsfinder 2.0 assessment, or think through your best moments at work and ask yourself, “What strengths was I using?”
- Review the highlights in your career and life and ask, “What was happening then?” Sometimes to learn more about what helps you be satisfied, you need look no further than your own experiences. Jot down a few “mountaintop” moments in the career, and pick apart all the reasons they were so positive. What was it about the work, the people, the environment, the context? What parts do you want to replicate?
- Get clear on what you don’t like at work. We each have workplace dynamics that hold us back and make it harder to be at our best. What are they for you? Uncover them but don’t judge yourself for these things. It’s not your job to radically change yourself so that these things don’t bother you. This will help you find a workplace that best suits you and minimizes—as far as possible—the things you really don’t like.
- Rehearse job interviews out loud. The cardinal rule for crucial communication is this: the more important it is, the more you should prepare, and rehearse out loud, in advance. People sometimes do this for speeches, but it’s equally valuable for interviews. When you get to the actual interview you’ll be far more effective, because you’ve already done it. Doing this with a partner only adds to its value.
- See networking as building authentic relationships. So many people hate the notion of networking because they associate it with shallow interactions where each party tries to get something. Instead, think of networking as an opportunity not only to make connections, but to help others. If you reframe networking that way you’ll be much more likely to do it. And at an executive level the majority of roles are filled through networks.
- Be deliberate and disciplined about outreach. One Chief HR Officer I know tracked all her networking and outreach activities and provided a dashboard to her network when she finally found a job. It had (as I recall) hundreds of coffees and meetings, dozens of interviews, and finally the job she had hoped for. She used the same proactive, disciplined approach to her job search as she used in her executive role—and it paid off.
- Form relationships with executive recruiters. Recruiters, of course, can help you find job opportunities. And in general you want as many opportunities as possible so that you can pick and choose. For that reason I don’t recommend only relying on your own network. You should also engage a recruiter to maximize your exposure to potential employers.
- Consciously design your decision making process. As you start getting further into interviews and offers, be deliberate about how you are going to decide which one you take. How much of your focus will be analytical, based on a list of criteria? How much will be based on “gut feeling” or “following your heart”? Most of us would benefit from a balanced approach, ensuring that our basic temperament (“My spreadsheet says this is the best one”) doesn’t overshadow other important voices within us (“But I have a weird, sinking feeling in my stomach”).
More than anything, my main advice for job seekers is this: don’t undervalue yourself. I’ve seen people move rapidly into much larger roles through their own efforts and just believing that they could. Sometimes people do it in spite of not fully believing they could. Be open to opportunities that don’t just look possible, or look good on paper, but that contribute to your overall, whole-life well being. Only then can you find a match made in heaven.