Why You Need a Job Search Strategy (And How To Create Yours)

Are you approaching your job search strategically? If you’re not sure how to answer that question or you’re shaking your head with an emphatic “no”, this post is for you.

Having a job search strategy sounds like a good thing, but what does that really mean? We tend to throw around the word “strategy” a lot, and I think it helps to come back to the definition: “a method or plan to bring about a desired future” and “the art and science of planning and marshalling resources for their most efficient and effective use.”

So, having a strategy means you have a plan to bring about your desired future (a new job), while efficiently and effectively using resources (your time and energy). Sounds straightforward, but it’s something many job seekers don’t do, instead jumping into their search without taking the time upfront to plan.

But here’s the thing: job searching can be one of the most challenging, draining, and high-stakes projects we ever undertake. It requires you to not only know yourself and what you’re looking for exceptionally well, but also to be able to communicate that concisely and effectively in often high stress situations like interviews. A strategic job search also requires you to ask for help from both people you know well and those you don’t, which is not in most of our comfort zones.

Given this, it’s no wonder that many people avoid searching for a new job completely, preferring to stay in a role that’s just ok or even pretty miserable vs. taking on the extra work of finding something new. It’s also a reason many job seekers use the “apply and hope” strategy of solely applying to jobs online and hoping to hear back.

It can feel like you’re making progress with this approach, but when the odds are approximately 5% that you’ll actually land a job this way, I think we can all agree that it’s not really a surefire strategy, especially if you’re seeking mission-driven work that is a fit with both your skills and your values.

Save yourself from this land of frustration and dead ends: have a plan.

So, how can you be more strategic in your social impact job search? There are four steps you can take to ensure that you’re making the most of your limited time and energy:

1. Know your story and your priorities

The foundation of a successful job search is knowing your strengths and accomplishments and being able to tell a compelling story about how your previous experience has prepared you to excel in the roles you’re targeting. You only have a limited number of opportunities to get on people’s radar and you don’t want to waste those if you can’t yet articulate what you’re best at and how it’s relevant to the roles you’re interested in. If you haven’t done the work to get clear on these things, make sure to invest time in this first.

Start by reflecting on your past accomplishments and remembering all the value you’ve brought to your past roles. Write down your examples in the STAR format to help capture all the relevant details, and consider taking an assessment like the StrengthsFinder to get more clarity on your biggest strengths. Practice sharing your accomplishment stories with people you know and trust and listen to their reactions; this can be a very powerful tool, as they will see your unique value in a way that you often can’t.  

In addition to your strengths and accomplishments, it’s also important to reflect on your priorities for your next role. Is there a certain title or set of responsibilities you’re focused on? What aspects of organizational culture and mission are most important to you? Are you open to moving or do you want to stay where you are? What salary are you targeting (an important consideration for most of us!)? Map out what’s most important to you and aim to identify no more than five or so “must-haves” for your next role to help you focus.

Once you’re feeling clearer on your strengths, accomplishments, and priorities, draft and practice your career story, otherwise known as your “elevator pitch”. Aim to answer three questions: who are you, what skills, experiences, and value do you bring, and what are you looking for next? It’s ok if you’re not 100% clear on that last question yet, but try to share as much detail as you can and specify the type of information or connections you’re seeking.

Feeling better about your story? Great! Now it’s time to get out there and network.

2. Target organizations, not job openings

One of the biggest shifts I work on with my clients is focusing less on the jobs that are posted right now and more on finding organizations they’d like to work for.

There’s a statistic out there that 80% of jobs are never posted. I think that’s a little misleading and that most jobs do eventually get posted. But by the time a job is posted, there is often already a short list of people who are known to the organization and will be considered first, making it very hard to break through via an online application if no one there knows who you are yet.

The key to beating this system is to reach out proactively to the organizations you’re interested in before the job you want is publicly posted. While this doesn’t mean you should never apply online, in general it’s much more strategic to create a short list of places you’d want to work and then start connecting with those organizations to understand what their needs are and will be in the near future, and where your skills could be a fit.

To get started, create a list of 10 or so target organizations that you’re most interested in working for. They do not need to have openings that are a fit for you right now, but they should have the potential of having those types of jobs. Once you have your list, start identifying key contacts in those organizations and people in your network who could introduce you to them for an informational interview. If you can’t identify a mutual connection to introduce you, reach out directly with a polite and specific request for 15-20 minutes of their time to ask a few questions about their work and organization.

By following this approach and proactively developing relationships with people in the places where you most want to work, you’ll gain valuable intelligence that will help you understand if they will be hiring soon and if you have the skills and experience they’re looking for. And perhaps more importantly, you can learn more about the culture to gauge if it’s a place you want to work before applying.

If it seems like a fit, you’ll already have an in, and if not, you’ll save yourself from submitting yet another application into the black hole. Using this approach can also help you identify ways to get your foot in the door with an organization – through project work, short term contracts, volunteering, etc. – that can ultimately lead to a full-time gig.

3. Be a strategic and persistent networker

Getting more comfortable with networking as a cornerstone of the job search is important, especially as you enter the mid-career years. Be strategic by using your target organization list to focus your networking and always asking the people you meet with for additional ideas about who else to connect with.

While this approach doesn’t have the same tangible feeling as submitting applications online (which is why many job seekers avoid it!), if you continue to fill your pipeline with new meetings each week, you’ll start to see results and identify opportunities that you never would have known about otherwise.

I have seen so many people find wonderful and unexpected opportunities through networking; it absolutely works, and it also takes a lot of work. If you’re doing it right you’ll be having a lot of meetings; some will be great and others will lead nowhere. You’ll also experience some of the rejection that is inherent in this approach.

Yup, some people just won’t get back to you or will disappear after a few promising email exchanges. Try not to take it personally or let it get you down and remember that while it won’t always be comfortable, if you push yourself to take the risk and follow this approach in a consistent, systematic way, it will yield results.

4. Have a plan

You would never jump in to a huge new project at work without a project plan, and your job search is just that: a major project. Even the best intentions can get derailed by a busy life, whether you’re working full-time, have a family, are in school, or have other commitments that demand your time and attention. A job search requires a lot of time and mental energy, so creating a plan for how and when you’ll work on your job search is critical.

To do this, block out times when you know you will have energy and can consistently commit to working on your job search. If you’re working full-time, this will be some combination of early mornings, evenings, or weekends (pro tip: don’t plan to do all your job search activity in the evenings after work when you’re exhausted, unless you are a true night owl – this does not work well for most people). Plan to spend at least 8-10 hours per week working on your search if you’re employed, and 20-30 if you’re not.

You want to be strategic with how you spend that precious time, so follow the 80/20 rule: spend 80% of your time on proactive strategies like identifying target organizations, getting in touch with new contacts, and attending networking events, and 20% on passive activities like searching online and applying to job postings.

Set weekly goals for what you want to achieve and monthly milestones for the next three months so that you’ll have a clearer sense of what you’re aiming for and a way to know if you’re on track or need to adjust course.

And finally, accountability is huge in helping you push forward through the inevitable challenges and frustrations of a job search, so find a buddy who’s also job searching or join a job search group you can check in with regularly to keep you honest and provide support during the tough times.

Of course, there’s more to the job search puzzle than I’ve covered here – resumes, cover letters, LinkedIn, and interviewing all have their seat at the table. But if you don’t have a solid strategy in place to begin with, those things don’t matter very much. If you take the time to follow these four steps as you plan your next move, you’ll be on the road to a much more strategic, and ultimately effective, job search.

Want support in developing your job search strategy? Check out my individual and group job search coaching programs and contact me if you’d like to explore working together.

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