Today is the second part of our guide on how to woo those employers in a savvy (and totally clean) way. Today, we’re talking about networking, making the first approach and being lateral. Give us five minutes of your reading time and we’ll hopefully help you to find a job. Can’t say fairer than that!
Sam Wright and Iona Bain
Build your networks
An ability to schmooze will get you some of the way, but not as far as actually being good at your job. Let’s be absolutely clear on that (as politicians are wont to say…)
However, let’s also lose any queasiness you might feel about the concept of networking, right here and now. It is no substitute for actual ability but it is a bloody good idea to talk to people who are doing the job you want to do (or are thinking about doing). Have them tell you how they got to where they are now, what the current changes in that industry are, and (importantly) what the unforeseen pitfalls of your dream job actually are. Odds are they won’t immediately recommend you for a job fresh out of university, but they may be able to give you a better idea of what skills your potential employer is looking for, and what rookie mistakes to avoid.
The fields that pique your interest will almost certainly have groups within them aimed at continual professional development and fostering relationships. For instance, the media has lots of these organisations, such as the London Press Club and the Frontline Club. Female graduates may also want to consider women-only networks aimed at supporting the sisterhood (YEAAA!!!) However, a word of warning; joining these groups can be expensive and take up a lot of time, with underwhelming results, if you don’t know what you want to get out of them. You have to weigh up the costs versus the benefits. This is what Iona says about networking:
Networking has been essential in my career. I accept most invitations because you have to remind people you exist, especially if you’re self-employed. Business cards also help people to remember you. I got mine through a free offer from MOO.com and they look fabulous. But I also have to keep networking in check because time is money for freelancers. I am now wary about going to events where I have to buy a ticket. I recently paid to go to one aimed at young women in my field and it didn’t really help me. A lot of the advice offered was basic common sense or one-size-fits-all. Better, I think, to talk one-on-one with someone you admire or grab a coffee with them so you can have a deeper discussion.
In the beginning, you want to err on the side of open-minded. Even if you’re not sure whether the event will be relevant, you have nothing to lose by giving it a whirl. Dress smartly and act confident – fake it till you make it. Leave your phone firmly in your bag or pocket, otherwise you will have no reason to talk to anyone. It’s always unnerving to approach strangers, but once you strike up the first conversation (usually with some classic British small talk), you will relax into it.
Make sure you give people all your attention and listen. Admit when you don’t know something and ask questions. But meet them halfway with conversation because it’s infuriating to talk to someone who seems reluctant to offer any opinion or view. Give them a card and if you receive one, follow up with an email the next day (even if it’s just to say how nice it was to meet them).
However, networking is a means to an end, not an end itself. Even when free booze is sloshing around, never forget you are in “work mode”. So space out the champers. Also, you really don’t have to stay the whole night. If you’re an introvert or have social anxiety, a good piece of advice from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is to decide to stay for at least an hour. After that, you can bail if you’re getting tired or you’ve spoken to enough people: contrary to common wisdom, you DON’T have to work the whole room if that’s not your style. Also, networking is not a substitute for a real social life. It’s just a small but necessary part of your career.
Easy on the Dutch courage…
Start contacting the people you want to work for
Don’t be afraid to contact your dream employers. Do your research, find out which companies you want to work for, read their websites and read what people are saying about them on other websites (such as Glassdoor).
Proviso: one person’s dream company is another person’s corporate prison. Think about your personality, your values and what you would need from a workplace (if indeed you really want to be in one full-time). Offices with a constant doughnut supply and pool tables may be trying to keep you sweet so you’ll work more hours or conform to a certain set of business practices that you don’t feel comfortable with. Do you prefer working in large teams or on your own? Do you need routine or flexibility? Are you comfortable with authority or prefer a less hierarchical structure? Generous pension contributions and parental leave may not seem like valuable benefits in your early twenties, but they are enormously helpful later on. Once you’ve done your research, don’t be afraid to email your potential employer out of the blue.
A short, polite letter explaining that you are a student in your final year or a fresh graduate and that you’re looking to work with that company is a great way to open the door. Not only will they be able to tell you things that will improve your chances when it does come to applying for a job, it also means that when that job comes around they may remember your name. When lots of people are desperate for any job they can get, an employer is going to value a candidate who actively wants to work specifically for them.
Yer hired! Well, not just yet
Be lateral and put yourself out there
We all know that you can’t just sit around and wait for a job to land in your lap. But could you take some lateral steps to show you’re employable? For instance, writing a blog could show off your burgeoning expertise in any number of subjects. Plus, having a well-designed, well-written blog could demonstrate your communication, creative and marketing skills. Think of a niche that’s under-explored. Design platforms like SquareSpace or WordPress are extremely easy to use. Instagram is another channel for showcasing more visual skills, like illustration and photography, while Youtube could be the place to post some informative “vlogs” on your chosen area of expertise.
Could you put your talents to use for charity in the first instance? You could volunteer to help with events organisation, marketing and managing finances. Could you do something worthwhile AND generate a bit of buzz to get your noticed? Here is another experience from Iona:
At the very start of my journalism career, I was trying to figure out how to successfully pitch a feature to a national newspaper, something that even experienced journalists can struggle to do consistently. I remembered one of my best friends had an incredible story to tell. She had a mountaineering accident on a university territorial army trip and ended up being rehabilitated at Headley Court, where injured soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were also being treated. Her experience of spending time with these soldiers was fascinating and unique. So I pitched an interview with her to the Daily Telegraph and offered to donate my fee to Help for Heroes. The article was published in the features section of the newspaper not long afterwards, despite the fact I was an unknown, and we raised hundreds of pounds for charity in the process. It was fantastic to do something altruistic, but it also helped my career because I had a cutting that I could show to other editors.
Also, maybe there is a career that is tangential to what you really want to do, but is a bit easier to enter and make progress in. For instance, coming back to the example mentioned by Iona yesterday:
The reason why my friend did well is because she pursued a parallel career to the one she was aiming for, but was able to make quicker progress than she would have done had she followed the more conventional route (e.g. applying for competitive graduate schemes on newspapers).
The key is picking a closely-related alternative career that will teach you the skills you need to achieve your primary goal.
Don’t be too picky, but stay true to who you are
Very few decisions are totally irreversible. If an employer takes a punt on you but it doesn’t work out, you can leave (amicably). You can retrain, you can switch tracks, move into (or out of) self-employed status…wrong turns are not the end of the world. You are only going to know what works if you give things a shot. No job or workplace is ideal – so long as you always try, and stay true to who you are, you can hold your head high. As your career progresses, you will develop your sense of what’s right and wrong, and that intuition will guide you in decisions about what to do with your career. And ultimately, remember…it’s just a job!