Time for a job-hunting plan

Peter Storr reminds us that we are in charge of our careers

I left school in 1980 and got a job in a bank. I didn’t mean to really; it just happened. I remember having a chat with the school careers officer who suggested banking was a good idea, but to be honest I don’t think I gave it any more thought than that. What seemed to be important is that I got a job – any job – and that was that.

Looking back now, that was pretty much the spirit of the times. I got an interview at the first time of trying, and without really trying at all. It doesn’t work like that now, and it could be argued that it shouldn’t: I got a job that I wasn’t really interested in, wasn’t very good at and it was a rather unfulfilling period of my life, and they got someone who was average at best.

Wind forward 30 years and things couldn’t be more different. There is no such thing as failsafe job security, it’s rare to get a job at the first time of trying and even rarer to be offered a job if you haven’t done your homework. Perhaps the major change though is in who is responsible for our career path. I was made to feel like I was a passive recipient of my future, with no control or accountability; as long as I went through the motions, I would fulfil the destiny presented to me. 

Nowadays, it’s us, the jobseekers, more than ever who are responsible. We’ve had to replace security in our employers with security in our employability; in other words, it’s up to us to build the transferable knowledge, skills and abilities to take from one employer to another, in a kind of ’portfolio’. We are now in charge of our careers, which is both empowering and a little scary.

By now it will be clear that, today, merely sending off a few CVs to a few organisations you like the sound of and hoping for the best just doesn’t cut the mustard. You need to be proactive, to have a plan or a strategy for job hunting because job hunting is best thought of as a process – a sequence of steps that should be followed to maximise your chances of success. The simple truth is that employers expect prospective employees to show initiative and take charge of their own destinies. Taking the initiative is not about being aggressive, arrogant or overbearing. It’s about deciding to make things happen and then creating a plan to make them more likely to.

If all this sounds rather obvious, the uncomfortable truth is that most of us don’t do it. If we are at the beginnings of a hopefully successful career, we often don’t know how to go about having a job-hunting plan. If we are a bit longer in the tooth and looking for the next step up, then we often rely on our networks and assume our contacts and qualifications will mean that job will find us.

If step one is making a strategic job-hunting plan (building our networks, researching the job market and knowing what we actually are looking for) then the next stage is being clear about what we can offer a prospective employer. We psychologists are often (or at least should be) at an advantage here. In my own field of occupational psychology, we are all too familiar with competency frameworks, identifying work-based strengths and transferable skills. Many of us have spent years putting candidates through interviews and assessments or helping HR departments sift application forms. We should know what works.

Having spent years doing the above, it is clear to me that many job hunters – yes, even psychologists – don’t apply this knowledge when applying for jobs themselves. What are your key strengths? What transferable skills have you built up – either in work or in other aspects of your life? How will you answer that classic interview question ‘What do we get if we employ you?’ It helps to think of ourselves as a brand, with unique selling points and examples from the past to back it up. It helps you to separate yourself from the competition when you’re job hunting, to increase your visibility when you’re looking for that promotion, and it also helps you to be clear about who you are and to ensure you’re acting in ways that are true to who you are. It’s a very useful exercise to think about how others might see you and how you wish to be seen. You can also shape it to make sure you’re coming across in the way you intend and giving a clear message about who you are. And if we can tailor all this to the specific job we are applying for, using the language and culture of the employer, we have a better chance of getting through the initial sifting process.

Finally, you may need to think of the job you’re in or applying for as a stepping stone to the next one. Some people seem to have a fully formed career path and have identified the various steps it will take to get there, but most of us don’t. It may help, however, to think one job ahead, at least. Having an idea of the next challenge you’d like to take on can mean that you focus on the right things in the job you are in or the one you are applying for. Remember the ‘Begin with the end in mind’ strapline and, if necessary, take the long view. When you’re in the depths of job hunting it can become all-encompassing and it’s hard sometimes to raise your head up and think about the bigger picture – to think long term and not expect to get everything you want in one fell swoop. In this way, you may open up new ways of thinking about what you want. You may then start asking yourself more searching questions that you may never have thought of before.

In a very tough, unpredictable and competitive job market, you must be prepared both about your prospective employers, their company and the potential questions at the interview, and about what you want both from this role and for your future career.

Peter Storr is a Chartered Psychologist specialising in occupational psychology, with several decades experience of interviewing and assessing candidates in organisations including the BBC and King’s College London. His new book Get that Job was launched by HarperCollins on 8 May.

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