The Keys to Unlocking Your Most Successful Career
Finding a job, flourishing on the job and moving into a better job demand plenty of work–especially during a jobless recovery.
That’s why I am offering my five best lessons for managing your career, gleaned since I launched this column in July 1993. They include the importance of out-of-the box networking, sweating the small stuff and knowing yourself well enough that you’re always ready for reinvention.
The lessons’ common theme? No one can manage You Inc. better than you. And here’s how to do it:
1. Network effectively rather than aimlessly.
Focus on forging “strategic relationships” at 10 prospective employers, suggests Paul Anderson, a career coach in Redmond, Wash. That means avoiding an “elevator pitch” in which you buttonhole people and give them your career pitch on the fly.
“Relationships can’t be built in 60 seconds,” Mr. Anderson insists. “People hire people they like and trust.” So, work on building better ties with your contacts by being a reliable resource for them and offering frequent updates about your career.
You can land strong introductions through your closest contacts, social networking sites and good “connectors,” who may have nothing to do with your line of work. These professionals, such as hairstylists, dentists, ministers and accountants, amass connections that cut across industries.
Connectors “make introductions because they like to,” notes Diane Darling, a networking consultant in Boston. She expanded her connections and consulting gigs by creating a personal board of advisers.
For the same reason, attend industry conferences that attract targeted businesses. Scrutinize the guest list, pinpoint executives you wish to meet and schedule encounters there.
When Tayari Howard was an aspiring radio personality in the ’90s, he attended about 10 public events hosted by a San Diego station before meeting a department head and pitching his candidacy for a job. “Persistence paid off!” says Mr. Howard, who was hired by the radio station in June 1995, and still hosts a nightly show there.
2. Sweat the small stuff.
Tiny missteps may derail your career. You appear unpolished when you talk like an adolescent, curse at colleagues or proffer a sweaty palm.
Outdated clothes, frayed cuffs, messy hair, scuffed shoes or excess cleavage also signal poor judgment. “Looking your best at any age is what you should aspire to,” advises Patricia Cook, an executive recruiter in Bronxville, N.Y.
Even bathroom habits count. High-tech recruiter Dora Vell once worked for a major search firm where the receptionist alerted partners if candidates using the guest toilet near her desk failed to wash their hands. (She could hear the faucet.)
This lesson also applies to cover letters. Inspirica, a New York high school and college tutoring concern, found mistakes in 93% of 220 letters from tutor applicants over the past year. Many flawed letters came from experienced writing tutors.
“Pay attention to everything you write in cover letters,” warns Lisa Jacobson, Inspirica’s CEO. “Otherwise, you will get weed whacked right out.” Her firm hired just 15 tutors in the fiscal year ended in June.
3. Make your résumé and business card work overtime for you.
Too often, résumés chronicle your past rather than promote marketable skills that would benefit potential employers. An additional “pre-résumé” may make more sense, says Rick Gillis, an author of two job-hunting books who devised the concept. The one-page document contains a brief objective statement that describes precise ways you will improve a particular company, he adds.
A pre-résumé also includes highlights of four career accomplishments–plus a string of key words (such as “multi-task professional”) that get detected by resume-tracking software.
An online résumé offers another approach. You can show work samples, references’ video testimonials and any data that may demonstrate successes in your career, such as surpassing sales targets.
It’s equally important that your business card convey a memorable first impression. List your strongest skills or highest degree right under your name. But omit your physical address to appear flexible about relocation. Don’t overlook the reverse side of your card. Rather than leave it blank, you can display the name of a prominent prior employer.
4. Pay it forward.
Whether you’re on the job or seeking one, you should help others propel their careers without expecting return favors.
New Directions, an upscale executive-transition-planning firm in Boston, encourages jobless managerial clients to aid welfare mothers, homeless veterans and others hunting for work. Banker Mike Lenihan served as an unpaid mentor all three times he was a New Directions client since 2003.
He says his latest stint, involving coaching unemployed administrative assistants about the tough job market, impressed a U.S. Bancorp hiring official. He joined a unit in January as a senior vice president.
So many people assisted Mary Steele throughout her career that “I wished to pay it forward,” the head of executive compensation for Delta Air Lines Inc. says.
During a 2006 job hunt, Ms. Steele began compiling a list of high-paid human resources vacancies she didn’t pursue. She now emails similar job-lead updates 300 times a year to more than 500 people, mostly seasoned HR managers.
5. Know thyself—and be ready for reinvention.
You should constantly take stock of your dreams, values and transferrable skills. Scrupulous self-assessments can ease jitters about changing your occupation, industry, locale or pay.
After losing his job as an hourly manufacturing worker in 2006, Christopher Pearsall became a product manager for a business-software developer the following year. When the part-time paramedic got laid off again in 2008, he decided to pursue what he really loved: health care.
Mr. Pearsall will soon finish nursing school. “I have re-reinvented myself,” he says.
To succeed at your current workplace, you must be equally flexible about accepting lateral moves. Businesses like such switch hitters—as I can attest.
Today marks the last print version of a column that sought to provide uncommon solutions to common career dilemmas for 17 years. Soon, in my new monthly advice column on WSJ.com, I’ll tackle a new challenge: helping senior executives make the most of their careers.
—Write to Joann Lublin at email@example.com