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Smart Ways to Land Your Next Gig

The good news: You’ve found a good job in a company that’s built to last. The bad news: Lots of others are jockeying for the same position. Here are strategies to help you stand apart while everyone else is standing around.

It’s a Wednesday night late in May at New York hot spot Hush, and the place is jumping. Not because of the uneven “dot-comedy” performances taking place in the back room, or the band playing the top-10 layoff songs (People’s Choice Award: “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” by R.E.M.), or even the $3 beer specials.

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The place is rocking because somewhere, hidden amid the strobe lights and booming bass, there are jobs to be had. It’s the monthly pink-slip party, and clutches of people wearing neon-pink bracelets are swarming around the few folks wearing green ones. The green braceleteers are recruiters or people with a job to offer, and the pink-wearing ones need jobs. As you might imagine, pinks far outnumber greens these days. And judging from the aggressive bumping and jostling of the job seekers as they gather around the recruiters, they’ve ripped off their rose-colored shades and are here to do business.

Yep, it’s a jungle out there — but there are still good jobs available. And if you’ve finally identified your dream job at a company with staying power, what do you have to do to stand out in a throng of pink-bracelet wearers? We consulted with recruiters, successful job-getters, and career specialists, and culled their suggestions to come up with the top-10 ways to help you land the gig you want.

1. You create the network.

Most successful job seekers land their dream jobs through contacts that they’ve previously made and assiduously kept up. Susan McPherson, regional vice president at Vocus Inc., a public relations management software company, got her last several jobs through contacts and says that she doesn’t understand why people don’t go the extra mile to stay in touch — particularly when they’re not looking for a job. “The main thing is not burning bridges,” she says. After she left PR Newswire in 1997 after 8 years with the company, she made it a point to stop by the local PRN staffer’s office for a meeting or a quick lunch whenever she traveled on business for her new job. She also clipped relevant newspaper articles and sent them to people in her network who might be interested. All that networking paid off: When she heard about the job at Vocus, she quickly realized that the company had a potential partnership with PR Newswire — and her former contacts spoke highly of her. “It’s all part of how you remain successful,” she says.

But what if you’ve just learned of a great job at a company where you don’t know a soul? You’re just not going about it in the right way, says Beverly Kaye, founder and CEO of Career Systems International, a talent retention and development company and coauthor of the book Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay (Berrett-Koehler, 1999). “People who say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know anyone’ are not thinking about the six degrees of separation.” Once you’ve identified a contact who knows somebody at the company, ask him what it’s like to work there and for names of people in the department you’re targeting. Talk to as many people as possible. The result? The more people you get buzzing about you by the time you go in for the interview, the more it will seem like destiny that you work there.

When Amy Lambo lost her job at workingwoman.com, the first thing she did was buy a three-ring binder to plan out her network strategy. “I started taking notes about people I might call. I called key people who I knew respected my work or friends who I knew would lend advice or help out.” One of those calls led her to a job opening at John Wiley & Sons, where she now works as a Web producer.

2. Stay out of the trash can.

Dave Opton, founder and CEO of ExecuNet, an online career-management network devoted to people earning more than $100,000, says that, on average, people spend a total of 15 to 20 seconds on every résumé and cover letter that they see. If they’re staring at a stack of 300 of résumés and cover letters, it’s likely to be even less. Their primary goal at that point is to eliminate as many as possible as quickly as possible. That means you’ve got very, very little time in which to avoid the garbage bin. The best way to do that, says Opton, is having a clean, two-page, chronologically organized résumé with plenty of white space and a short, to-the-point cover letter. You should include some of what Opton calls “scope data” — important quantifiable data and discrete facts that tell the person doing the hiring how you can make his company better. But don’t yammer on too long: Too much clutter is exhausting for someone who’s halfway through the stack. “The biggest mistake job seekers make is writing a too-long cover letter,” says Opton. “The goal of a cover letter is for potential employers to put your résumé into Pile B.”

3. Don’t blow it before you get started.

Sad but true fact: Many people interviewing today still don’t act or look presentable, says Opton. Does that mean wear a suit? It might — but the onus is on you, the job seeker, to find out the dress code at a company and to dress and act accordingly. “You need to look the part,” says Opton. “Figure out whom you’re going to see, and determine the style most important to that person.” That is particularly important if you’re going from a dotcom to a larger company, says Allison Hemming, president of the Hired Guns, an interim consulting firm, and hostess of the pink-slip parties. “We were interviewing the other day, and a dude took his shoe off and scratched his toes,” she says, disgusted.

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A more dignified demeanor is back in style, and that goes for other aspects of your public face as well. Being whimsical is not going to score you points anymore — so remove that personal rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” from your voice mail, and forget about standing outside the office wearing a sandwich board advertising yourself. In more sober times, sending balloon gifts to a prospective employer simply won’t cut it. “Cutesy just isn’t working,” says Kaye. “It might get you noticed, but it may not be the kind of notice you want.”

4. Be the aspirin.

In this tightfisted environment, any company that is willing to spend money to hire someone must need something pretty badly. The question for the job seeker: What is that itch, and how can I scratch it? “If the company has a headache,” says Opton, “you want to be the aspirin. Look for ways to present solutions in every contact you have with the company, from the cover letter to the phone call to the interview itself. When asked how you’d handle a particular situation, ask for an opportunity to return at another time and make a presentation on your solution, says Hemming. “Prove that you can do the job. Do the assignment and then come back to the company. It’s as if you’re already working there.”

5. Keep a cheat sheet.

Matthew Kelleher is a veteran of several dotcom efforts, including itraffic, Barnesandnoble.com, and Watchworld.com. Now he’s the marketing manager at Chelsea Interactive, an affiliate of Chelsea Property Group. He’s had a lot of jobs in an unstable environment. So to be prepared for interviews, he keeps a master résumé on file, listing every worthy accomplishment of his entire professional career, from negotiating a deal with Apple to beating a sales projection by 63%. He adds every accomplishment to the master list, so when it’s time to find a new job, he can simply cut and paste the most relevant parts into a slimmed down résumé, and can develop very specific talking points for the interview. “Imagine a photographer or artist who has a portfolio,” he says. “What you actually show is one thing, but keep track of all your stuff.” Kelleher’s master résumé has some 25 bullets for each job, and he can easily tailor a résumé without having to finesse what he did three years ago all over again.

6. Be prepared — but don’t overdo it.

In tough times, anyone who goes into an interview unprepared is dead in the water. Everyone knows that you have to research the company thoroughly before you land the interview and go in with guns blazing. You need to be armed with ready examples of what you learned in certain situations, how you demonstrated leadership, and the like. “In the new job market, you have to interview like an investor,” says Nat Antman, an analyst at Reciprocal Inc., a digital distribution services company. “If you had a few million dollars, would you back the company you’re interviewing? When I interviewed, I read everything that I could find on the company and spoke to people who were involved with it, including investors and employees. The work paid off two-fold. First, my interviewers were damned impressed that I was so diligent, and second, I landed a job with a company that is very well positioned.”

But don’t go too far, says Kaye. If you come out sounding too coached, you’re in big trouble. “Sometimes, interviewees sound like they’ve written a script,” she says. “People do the perfect case that shows a whole list of attributes but is over-rehearsed.” If you feel yourself falling into that trap, says Kaye, it’s okay to take a breather. “If I feel like I’m rattling, I might stop and say, ‘Look, I may be overprepared. Let’s step back for a second.’ ” Employers will appreciate your self-awareness, and they’ll still be impressed by your preparation. But then you can remember to be yourself.

7. Celebrate your blunders.

It’s not exactly intuitive and it won’t come easily, but talking about your screwups may get you the job you want, says Colleen Aylward, president of recruiting firm Devon James Associates. “People are more interested in your mistakes,” she says. “They want your asset value to help avoid screwups.” Aylward tells the story of one woman who had trouble getting hired because she’d worked for a string of flops. “We grilled and grilled and grilled her on what was wrong with those companies.” The candidate ultimately rewrote the first paragraph of her résumé to say something like, “I took on the challenge of a company in total disarray, met challenges head on, and so on. I learned this from that, saw this downturn, made a mistake doing this.” The woman got three job offers.

Humor helps too, says Lambo. During her job hunt, she regaled interviewers with the story of how her alumni magazine featured an article about her career success the very same month that she lost her job. “Everyone appreciates that kind of a story — you get a little bit of recognition, and then you get smacked down. I used to work on Dilbert books, so I told people that it was kind of a Dilbert time in my life.”

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8. Follow up smart.

The interview seems to have gone well. Now it’s time for you to stand out a little bit — by following up better and smarter than the hordes scrambling for the same job. Start by contacting all the people you’ve spoken with at the company, whether they interviewed you or not. “Send thank-you notes to everyone,” says Hemming, “and highlight things you referenced in the meeting.” Also, don’t forget the human-resources people, even if you got your interview through networking. “HR people can kill your hiring process. Turn them into your allies,” says Hemming.

And while email is a socially acceptable way to follow up and the conventional response to an interview, you don’t have to follow suit. You might send an email quickly, just to keep your name fresh in the employer’s mind, and then send a real thank-you note. “Sending a regular letter captures attention. When’s the last time you got a handwritten letter? If it’s something addressed to you personally, you open it,” says Hemming.

9. Coach your references.

You’re about to get the offer. Now they want to check your references. If you don’t have at least three at the ready, you’re sunk, says Hemming. “You have to know where your references can be found. You need to follow up with them before the call and brief them on the hot points for that particular employer,” she says.

McPherson makes it a practice to stay in touch with her references — even going so far as to clip a story on how to find the best ginger cookies in New York for a cookie-loving reference. She can’t understand why people don’t do that more often. If you don’t brief your references, you may end up with an unfocused or vague recommendation that doesn’t do much for your chances. It’s best to have references from different companies, so they can speak to different skill sets at different organizations.

10. Keep the job.

You’ve got the job. Now make sure you keep it. If you don’t make yourself a critical part of the organization within the first 60 days, you could be vulnerable if the economy turns again. “It’s important that you adapt to the job and that the job adapts to your strengths,” says Antman. “I’ve been working here for about five months, and frankly, I feel as if I’ve been interviewing every week.” Soon after Antman arrived at Reciprocal, he was moved from sales to business development after the company laid off 29% of the staff. “I had a new boss and had to reinvent the job. I asked myself, ‘Who am I, and what am I doing here? How can I contribute, and what can I take over?’ The job market is too slippery these days to depend on your work to speak for itself.”

Jennifer Reingold (jreingold@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

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