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Reflections on a life spent [Job] Searching

I recently bought a stand-up desk for my home office, which forced me to clean out the cheap, IKEA desk I’ve been using for the last 10 years. For some reason, I’d held on to 5 or 6 notebooks full of various bits of information – dimensions of apartments we checked out but didn’t rent, prices of hotels we researched, lists of invitees to parties long past, and notes on every job interview I’ve had since I was about 20 years old! I even had notes from the informational interviews I conducted in college, when I would meet alumni from Hobart and William Smith and ask them about their work as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I smiled when I recognized my elementary cursive and my eye-rolling questions like, “What are your least favorite aspects of the job?” and “Can you give me an idea of what an average day is like?”

Preparation, preparation, preparation!

The fact that I had kept these materials from a completely different time period in my life was both surprising and a little bit humbling. It speaks to the seriousness with which I’ve approached the job search process over the years and probably is a reflection of some of the mistakes I’ve made along the way.  It also gave me pause to reconsider some of the advice I provide to my clients as I guide them through the career coaching process. Are there any takeaways from my approach nearly 20 years ago that are still relevant today? How have things changed and more importantly, what has remained the same?

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Do desktop research and write down a list of questions before you go into an interview. This advice remains the same and will never change.  However, alongside this preparation, I would also conduct additional due diligence conversations to support my primary research. These would be discussions with people within my network who were currently working at the company, ex-employees or just those in the industry who could provide me with more information to help me prepare for an interview. This kind of additional due diligence or industry reference checking is critical and shows that you are really serious about the job.  

Keep a record

Maybe you don’t have to go so far as to keep your notes from nearly 20 years of interviews, but keeping track of your job search is particularly important if you are actively seeking a new role, or are trying to switch industries. I usually recommend my clients to just use a plain old excel spreadsheet for this, but things like Trello are also useful if you like something more dynamic. I used to staple the business cards of my interviewer into my notebook. This was obviously before the days of LinkedIn and business card apps like CamCard. But it helped me to stay organized and was a good reminder to send out that all-important thank you note after the interview.

Get feedback, even if you don’t want to

For some roles, I knew right away that I wasn’t a fit and withdrew from the process. However, when the shoe was on the other foot and the company rejected me, I always asked for feedback. You won’t always get it (some companies or countries have policies about not providing specific feedback), but it doesn’t hurt to ask. And then record it somewhere so you can identify any themes. This kind of feedback is partly what led me to pursue my coaching certification earlier this year. I heard from a few companies that they were looking for someone with more consultative and coaching skills. Since coaching was something I had been interested in for awhile, it was a natural fit to pursue certification and close my skills gap. 

Rejection is the norm

You will not get every job you interview for, and nor should you. Not every role will be the right fit. In my professional career, I’ve had three great jobs and one not-so-great boss. Interviewing is a lot like dating. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. That doesn’t mean that you should walk into an interview ready to be rejected before you even open your mouth, but you shouldn’t be surprised when it happens and use rejection as an opportunity for feedback and growth.

Interviewing is a lot like dating. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.

By my rough estimate, I’ve interviewed with approximately 20 companies since I started my professional career. That’s averaging slightly more than 1 company per year. And with the three great jobs I’ve had within that timeframe, that’s a 15% success rate. This crawls up to 18% if I remove the roles from which I proactively withdrew during the recruitment process. Nearly 40% of these interviews were with financial services companies and 20% with law firms.

So what lesson can I take away from these back-of-the envelope calculations? Is an 18% success rate good or bad? I have no idea to be honest! But this analysis has given me a chance to reflect. What advice would I give myself 20 years ago or even 10 years ago? Are there any best practices to keep in mind when someone is looking for a new job or going through a career transition?

Don’t be afraid to say “no” to an interview

When you are unemployed or unhappy in your current role, you will generally jump at every interview opportunity that comes along. But sometimes, it is worthwhile to ask yourself, “Am I really right for this job or company?” Several years ago, I applied for a role at a large retail company. As I sat across from the 3-person interview panel, it quickly became evident that my background in financial services was not a fit for their environment. At one point during the interview, both sides felt, “What are we doing here?” I was curious about their business, but the interview probably wasn’t a good use of time for either side.  

Use some interviews as practice

Yes, it’s okay to attend some interviews just as practice! I get this question all the time from clients. This is especially helpful if you have been out of the market for a while or your interview skills are particularly rusty. That said, make sure you prepare for these “practice” interviews in the same way in which you would for a normal interview. Research the company, write down questions in advance, dress professionally and arrive on-time. Don’t just “wing it” and hope that your natural charm will be enough. It isn’t.

After all of those interviews, I finally found something that I love doing: working for myself! Being a solopreneur is tough, but interviewing with, researching and working with so many different companies over the years has prepared me well for this journey. What clarity have you gained from reflecting on your own job search over the years? Please share your insights below!

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Renee Conklin is a career coach and HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. Check out more of her articles on LinkedIn.

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