Top Jobs 2008: Courting Your Career

Careers expert and author of Courting Your Career, Shawn Graham, tells FastCompany.com how dating and job hunting have more in common than one might think.

Advice about not mixing business with your personal life is pretty ubiquitous. But this shouldn't nix any chance of a connection between the two — according to Shawn Graham, that is. Author of Courting Your Career, Graham draws parallels between hunting for the perfect job and locking down that perfect relationship. Here, he shares his thoughts on how the principles behind dating and courtship can aid in the process of finding a job that fits.

How did you first draw the parallel between dating and finding a career?

As I worked with job seekers, I found that many people were having a hard time relating to existing material and navigating the job search. I had to look for creative ways to drive the message home. Dating is the one that seemed to resonate immediately.

Can you think of any client sessions in which the dating metaphor proved particularly effective?

A couple come to mind. I worked with a client who was limiting her search solely on location. She was passing over great opportunities with great companies just because they were located in a particular city. To reframe the discussion, I asked her if she would limit her search for a soul mate solely by location. I jokingly asked her if she’d settle for a potential spouse because the person lived a block away from her home. She cracked up and, over the course of our conversation, was more willing to expand the geographic focus of her search. And she’s now working in one of the very cities she initially wasn't interested in.

Another time I worked with a client who was reaching out to potential contacts but wasn’t having much luck getting a response. It was all about the approach. Instead of reaching out and trying to build a rapport from that first communication, he was asking for job leads with someone with whom he had had no previous contact. We talked about how, in the world of dating, that would amount to asking someone in whom you have a romantic interest if they’d like to go steady before you even say hello. You’re asking for commitment without first building rapport. With that in mind, he tweaked his messages and was able to get face time with contacts of interest.

What are the most striking similarities between dating and career hunting?

First thing — knowing your type. Just like you wouldn’t want to go from one bad relationship to another, you need to know what you're looking for in a company, and a manager, to make sure you don't move into another bad job.

Then there's also the importance of attraction for both – and by this I mean being attractive in the broader sense. It's about the entire package: your resume, your qualifications, your background, and about how you present yourself during an interview. Whether you're single and looking for a possible soul mate, or whether you're job hunting, the initial attraction is very important.

What else?

Just like people want to feel special, companies do too. You can't really use pickup lines to build a meaningful relationship and you can't use the equivalent to land a job. Companies, like people, want candidates to understand who they are. They want to hear something that’s unique to them, to know that you get them and that you aren't just going through the motions.

There are similarities between going into your first interview and going on a first date. In both cases you're worried about whether the person on the opposite end will like you and you'll like them. Pre-interview anxiety is similar to pre-date anxiety. How do you develop a rapport with people you don’t know?

That awkward end of the date is also similar to the sometimes strained end of an interview. You don’t know if it’s going to be the good night kiss, the hug, or (hopefully not) the handshake. Some job seekers are so nervous at the end of the interview that they leave without taking the chance to go for that goodnight kiss — they don’t reaffirm their interest in the position and they don’t follow up on the chance to take next steps.

Are you settled on both the career and the relationship fronts or are your principles something you employ in your own life?

I'd like to say I've been lucky in my career. I'm still trying to work out the lucky in love part! I think in my case I need to reverse the advice — take my career advice and apply it to the dating world.

What’s the biggest mistake that both daters and job hunters make?

It has to do with the importance of how big of a deal that first impression and attraction is. We make judgments and assumptions about the matchability of someone within the first minute of meeting them.

So you think both daters and job seekers underestimate the importance of first impressions?

I think bigger than that is the fact that people underestimate the importance of relationships and how those relationships might open doors to them in organizations. I know this is the case in the job search. I'm not really sure if there's a parallel to that in dating — maybe people get hooked up by their friends.

You compare getting serious in a relationship with accepting a job offer. Has anyone ever accused you of being clinical and simplistic in your approach?

No, not at all. How you handle the potential backlash from turning down companies as well as that from breaking up with people can be similar. Emotions come through in both processes. Organizations get upset if you turn down a job offer and they want to know why — just like people you break up with want to know why. That's why candidates don't want to have "that conversation" with companies.

So you disagree with the idea that falling in love is an emotional issue, while job hunters need to stay pragmatic?

You could go that route sure, but I think that job-related decisions too are based on emotions. If you interact with people during the interview process and you grow to like them, I don’t know how you separate that emotion out from your decisions — it definitely factors in.

Do you think people who internalize your idea that a date can be seen as a type of interview could be helping their careers but hurting their dating prospects?

If you put too much pressure on yourself then yes. It's not a good idea to get caught up on subtle nuances on a first date. Anyone who has been on dates with people already knows a lot of this. Being on a first date is an interview, however — you're trying to get a feel for where this is going, what the other person is like, whether there is a future. You're definitely interviewing each other.

Do you have any advice for the job seekers among us?

I would say the important thing is to play the field. Instead of thinking about what the best job for them is, or what puts them in the best position for the future, a lot of job seekers too narrowly define their search based on location and different variables. It's important to cast a wide net, to get to know people and develop relationships — before you need them.

People also need to sit back and really think about whether a job could be the right one for them, and if not then they need to examine why.

My book talks about a lot of this. Although it's more for twenty-somethings out of college, feedback has been positive from a range of people — and I'm not just referring to my mum (although she liked it too).

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