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Smarter job hunting in tough times

Careers author John Lees’ latest book is Just The Job!, his first systematic guide to job searching.

John Lees 3

Finding a job that feels worth doing takes more than hard work. Today’s market needs cunning. This word comes from old Norse word and before the Middle Ages it didn’t mean guile, but special knowledge and skills. To succeed in a tough job market you have to know about how it really operates, anticipate employer responses and behaviours, and do the right things in the right order.

Smart job hunting is about taking control of two major factors: timing and exposure.


Too many people rush into a job hunt.  They put themselves in front of agencies and employers with no answer to the questions “why are you on the market?”, “what do have to offer”, or “what are you looking for?”. Your CV probably emphasises on the job you have just left, rather than the job you’d like to get. You throw yourself at vacancies without the first idea of what employers are looking for. You’re highly attuned to early signs of rejection. You might get an interview, but it’s far more likely that you will trip over difficult questions about your motivation to find a job.

Take time at the beginning of a job hunt to get your head round the change you’re trying to make. Going to the market too early simply means that you’ll be remembered for uncertainty. It’s far better to take some time to find out what’s out there and what employers are looking for, and while you are exploring to catalogue your strengths. Don’t use real job applications as rehearsals – interviews are hard to get, so make each one count.


Are you uncomfortable telling other people you’re job hunting? You need other people during a job search, particularly an extended one which is likely to wear you down.  Their contribution is threefold.  They help you maintain your confidence, support you with knock-backs, and provide you with leads and connections.  Keeping your job hunt an embarrassed secret simply adds to the time you’ll spend doing it.

Getting used to talking to people makes all the difference. Start by telling people what you’re interested in.  You may be amazed at the people you know who can help.  Get used to relaxed conversations about the work you’d like to do.  Tell people the sectors you want to know more about, and the organisations and individuals you want to speak to.

Prepare a crisp 2-minute summary of your main skills and your sector experience.  Often it helps to avoid using old job titles.  Try starting sentences “I am a person who….” and see what ideas people come up with. Ask trusted friends or colleagues to remind you what you’re good at and where you’ve made a difference so you can catalogue your strengths in a commanding CV.  Test it on people with hiring experience, but ask the key question: “what does my CV say to you?” – then decide if the answer you hear tells a coherent career story.

Breakthroughs don’t just happen through people you know; job searching is all about who you choose to get to know. Some jobs are still given to immediate contacts, but far more often the job goes to someone who is just plain visible.  The best tool for finding things out is talking to people, and building long-term relationships with the people you meet is often the key to a satisfied career.

First Steps

Your next job may consume 70-80% of your waking energy.  Work takes up such a huge part of our life, it’s surely worth looking for something that puts a spring in your step on a Monday morning. Interview people who have found roles they feel are worth getting out of bed for. Ask how they turned the odds in their favour; you’ll discover the toughest step wasn’t applying for the job or getting selected – it was a long way further back when they took their first exploratory step. This is nearly always a conversation with someone who can inspire as well as inform, reaching out to someone who already does what you’d love to do. Then doing it again, and again.

Talk to people who have received a good job offer this year. Ask them to review their job search and say what they would do differently if they needed to find work again. You nearly always hear the same answer: “I should have started talking to people earlier”. I Am Events offer a fantastic first step for a creative job search.

John Lees Associates 

This blog is brought to you by the I Am Group.  We work with charities to provide networking and learning events and help charities and not-for-profit organisations recruit the best staff.  You can find out more about us at www.iamenterprises.co.uk and to join our monthly networking events visit www.monthlycharitynetworking.eventbrite.co.uk.

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