Even in this job market, you can still stand out

By Scott Kirsner
February 22, 2009
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Given 2009's lingering economic gloom, there are two kinds of people today: those who are in the job market hunting for their next position and those who worry that they may be any day now.

And the job market is suddenly a very crowded place. At Boston Search Group, managing director Clark Waterfall says his firm saw a 30 percent drop in the number of executive searches it was asked to conduct in the fourth quarter of 2008, but it saw a 50 percent increase in the number of job seekers who asked to be put into BSG's database of interested candidates.

"That's what you'd call an imbalance of supply and demand," Waterfall says.

At Constant Contact, an e-mail marketing firm in Waltham, chief executive Gail Goodman says that a single open position can result in a cascade of more than 250 resumes.

To provide a bit of guidance, I spoke with CEOs, human resources managers, and recruiters, asking what advice they'd give people who are looking for a new job, or those who want to be well-positioned in the event they're cut loose.

Keep the job you have. "The first thing people should be doing is doing bet ter at the job they're paid to do than ever before," says David Hayes, chief executive of the Boston recruiting firm HireMinds. "Take it seriously when the management asks you to step up your performance."

Network intelligently. Whether you're employed or not, one way to find out who's hiring is to attend panel discussions, conferences, and cocktail parties. Diane Darling, president of the Boston training firm Effective Networking, advises bringing a "networking buddy." She says, "Each of you can introduce the other to people you may not know, and it's nice when you go to these things to have one friendly face in the crowd." Waterfall says that smaller networking events, attended by 30 or 40 people, can often be more helpful than large events. And it's a good idea, when there's an attendee list available beforehand, to focus on meeting the people most relevant to your job search.

Customize that resume. Don't just send out 10 noncustomized resumes and cover letters a day, send out two that are tailored specifically to the position you're seeking. "Rather than just a list of roles you've held, we like to see metrics and accomplishments that correlate really well to the job you're applying for," says Eric Lombardo, an HR executive at Newton-based TripAdvisor.

Do the research. Every CEO I spoke with said the top thing that torpedoes job candidates is when they're not well informed about the company and its competitors or haven't used the product. "The more preparation you do for an interview, knowing as much as you can about the management team, and the challenges they face, makes you seem like a better fit," says Mike Ahearn, the recruiting partner at Greylock Partners in Waltham. Lombardo says that coming in with a few big ideas about what TripAdvisor could do better impresses hiring managers there.

Think twice about jumping fences. Now isn't the optimal time to try to make the leap from financial services to energy, or from the engineering department to sales. "The hiring mentality right now is extremely risk-averse," says Hayes at HireMinds. "In an up market, it's easier to make a transition." Goodman puts it more bluntly: "If you've never done this job before, don't waste my time or your time."

Volunteer. Serving on nonprofit committees, boards of directors, or industry working groups can be a good way to expand your web of contacts and hear about new start-ups or job opportunities. "People also get a sense of what you do and how you work," says Waterfall. "I've had the ability to assess people on boards who I might consider sending in for an executive search."

Ahearn says that offering to assist fledgling firms can create opportunities. "I know one guy who was advising a very young company on sales, and he met some of the board members," Ahearn says. "He wound up getting a job at another company that some of those board members are involved in."

Leverage LinkedIn. Set up a profile on the networking site LinkedIn and start connecting with people you know on the site. "Get 10 people to write recommendations about your past performance on the site - ideally, before you need them," says Brian Halligan, chief executive of HubSpot, a Cambridge-based online marketing firm. When you're applying for a job, use LinkedIn to see who in your network may have a connection at the company, and seek an introduction to that person for some insight into the particular position or the issues the company is dealing with as a whole.

Get inside help. Using your network to find someone who works at the company you're targeting can make a huge difference. It helps you understand the systems and tools that the company uses, as well as the current strategy. They can also mention your name to the people involved with hiring - but don't "over-lobby," since that can aggravate people and come off as desperate.

Establish yourself as an expert. Halligan recommends blogging, using Twitter, or otherwise publishing on the Web about your area of expertise. "If you are an expert in security software, start a blog and write thoughtfully," he says. "If I'm searching for someone who knows that topic, I'll find you." And if you still have a job, Halligan adds, being a well-known voice on a topic means "it's harder to get shot, because you're valuable to the company from a marketing perspective."

Don't overdo the follow-up. "Etiquette has not gone away in the 21st century," says Goodman. "A thank-you note is still appropriate after your interview." But after more than one follow-up phone call, "you start to cross the line, and become an annoyance."

Scott Kirsner can be reached at

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