THE BLOG
07/10/2012 12:17 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2012

Why Looking for a Job Online Is Bass-Ackwards (and What You Need to Do to Be Happily Hired)

I have a big soft spot in my heart for people who are "between jobs." That's a term I much prefer to "unemployed," and maybe you do, too, especially if that's your current situation, right?

So, whether you're looking for work, or know someone who is, I've gotta tell you, the old-school ways of getting yourself employed (especially checking online job search postings) are D-E-A-D. You need a much more powerful strategy, especially these days, when standing out from the crowd is crucial.

The Old Way to Search for Work

"I've been looking for a job for months and months, and nothing's happening!" my client, Joanna, whined to me, as tears rolled down her face.

So I compassionately asked Joanna, "What's your strategy to get a job?"

"I've been so busy! I spend at least an hour a day looking on Craigslist and Monster.com and TheLadders.com and places like that for marketing jobs. Then I send in applications. I look at the websites for my favorite companies, and see what jobs they are posting. I've updated my resume and my LinkedIn profile. And I have a few recruiters who have called me. Oh, and I sometimes go to networking events. But boy, oh boy, this full-time job of looking for work...well, it sucks. It's taking all of my energy. I think I'm doing all the right things, aren't I?"

I don't believe in "right" and "wrong," but I do think some strategies are more effective than others. Personally, I've never landed a job by looking online (or even in the classifieds, because, ahem, I'm old enough to remember those). I've always created my own jobs. And yes, even in big companies, like Intel and Accenture.

And you can create your own jobs, too.

The New Way to Become Happily Hired

(1) Write your own job description
Most people go looking at job postings and think, "Can I do this job? Does this work fit me?" Underneath, they are secretly wishing and hoping that they'll see a job that screams, "This is exactly right." But you aren't Goldilocks, and you're not sampling porridge to find the right bowl. Instead of looking through job postings to wishfully seek a job that fits you, start by writing the perfect description of a job you'd love to have. That accomplishes two things. First, it gives you a set of criteria by which to judge any job you might be offered. Second, and more importantly, you focus your energy and attention. You can't get where you want to go until you know what you want.

(2) Be crystal clear about the skills you offer
As you look through the ideal job description that you've created (and yes, you may make adjustments to it as you move through this process), clearly articulate your skills. What are you able to do for someone else? Get as specific as possible, and make a list of your unique skills. So instead of saying, "problem solving," you might say, "solving complex financial problems using advanced Excel modeling skills." Any job is really a collection of skills that are used to solve a problem. When you can articulate your skills, you know your value to a prospective employer.

(3) Re-envision your skills as solutions, and figure out who has the problems you want to solve
Now that you know your skills, look at them together and ask yourself, "What problems do my skills solve?" Think outside the box. Stretch beyond your industry and your function. If you've used your skills in solving complex financial problems only within an investment company, ask yourself who else could use your abilities. Maybe a non-profit? Perhaps a real estate company? A retail store? Think of issues and causes and companies who need to solve the problems that you know how to solve. If you're stuck for ideas, call in your most creative friends for some brainstorming support.

(4) Proactively contact the organizations (or even individuals) whose problems you'd like to solve
Hopefully, you're beginning to see that your new strategy is to match your skill-based solutions with an organization's problems. Now that you know what problems you can help to solve, make a list of the organizations, companies, and even individuals who face those problems -- and rank them by your level of interest. If you've got a talent for writing about health and wellness, and you have skills in social media marketing, maybe you can help out Whole Foods with Twitter campaigns, or Aveda with building their Facebook presence. Let yourself have fun and generate ideas for the organizations you'd like to connect to.

(5) Instead of asking for a job, ask about problems that relate to your skills

Here's where you're prone to make a deadly mistake. You know to set up informational interviews with people in your target organizations (you may have seen this part of the strategy coming). But when you actually meet these people, you must NOT say, "So, what job openings do you have?" Fatal flaw. That question is all about you. When you work for someone else, you need to demonstrate your ability to serve their needs. In this strategy, you want to turn the tables. So you want to dream up a list of questions to ask your prospects about the kinds of problems she's having. And these problems should be related to your solutions. So if you're a whiz at managing complex software development projects, ask about what software development projects are in the pipeline, how your target organization manages them, and what types of problems they are having. Instead of listening for a job, listen to each of your prospects for how you can be helpful.

(6) Give your best prospects a taste of your value
Even if the bells in your head are going "ding, ding, ding," and you realize that one (or more) of your prospects has a zillion problems you could solve right now, you've gotta hold your horses. Again, instead of asking for a job, ask if your prospect is interested in hearing three ideas that will move them forward towards a solution. Then, write up your recommendations and offer to present it to them later. You'll give them a taste of your work, in the form of a very short project or small amount of consulting. You both get to know each other. It's like dating. If you work well together, you can keep courting. And if meet their needs well, you'll leave your prospective employer begging for more.

(7) Follow up regularly
You want to be talking with at least a few prospects at the same time. Think of it as running a campaign. No, you don't want to be a nudge. But you want to do something to provide value. So send an article related to something you discussed. Or invite your prospect for a coffee. The idea is to stay top-of-mind for the value you add to their life and work. When you're helpful and memorable, people reach out to you. And sometimes, they even make connections for you!

(8) Offer working options
Once you feel comfortable with a prospect, you can offer options of ways to work together. It goes something like this, "Hey, Betty, I loved sharing marketing ideas with you for your new windmill business last week. It would be great to work together longer term. So I could either create a marketing strategy, or I could evaluate your competition, or maybe you have another challenge you'd prefer me to tackle?" You want to open the door to doing work, in a way that solves a problem. And essentially gets your prospect to give you the job you'd laid out at Step 1 of this process.

I used this exact strategy to create a job that didn't even exist at Intel. I had expertise in research and had work with a salesforce before, and I started to find people within the sales training organization. I asked them how the salesforce kept up to day with new technologies. What I heard was that this was a problem. So I proposed some research, and through a series of a few conversations, it turned into a paid project. And then a paid job. Joanna used it, too, and landed an ideal job promoting Napa Valley wines. In the process, she also made amazing contacts, so she's got open doors at other companies should she want a new job in the future.

Yes, this strategy can be risky, and it makes you vulnerable, because you don't know how people will react. You've got to put yourself out there, and yes, that takes guts. And the alternative is the "black box" of applying to jobs and wondering what the reply will be. No fun! You've got what it takes to land the job you want, especially with this step-by-step method.

So let's make the time you invested to read this article really count. Take a moment now and share your thoughts here on the blog:

  • How does this make you think about job search differently?
  • If you've used a strategy like this before, what did you do to make it work for you?
  • Which of these steps do you most need to work on, and what will you do to move forward?
Hoping you're Happily Hired soon!