I only got my two most impactful jobs, each of which opened a number of other opportunities, because I contacted the right person at the right time. One job was at a genetics lab, and the other was a science writing position, and neither was previously advertised; I got them both after sending out lots and lots of emails to lots and lots of people explaining who I was and why I wanted to work for them. (In the case of the second, they even created a new position specifically for me.)
I’ve always thought of these two jobs as lucky accidents, but according to a recent Harvard Business Review article written by the Seattle-based news anchor Starla Sampaco, the approach of contacting potential bosses you’d like to work for—even if they aren’t currently hiring for a specific position—is worth your time, and will likely give you an advantage over other applicants.
According to Sampaco, who compiled information through interviews with early career professionals, these are some of the steps that you should consider when job-hunting in this manner:
Get your timing right
Both of the jobs I’ve described came about because I contacted my future boss right at the moment—after they were thinking about hiring someone, but before they’d started searching. By doing this, I presented myself as someone who proactive and wanted the job, which is usually a good sign for a potential employee. I also made their jobs easier by reducing the time they needed to search for a qualified candidate.
Timing is a tricky, of course, so in many cases, it’s about reaching out to someone who you think might need your skills, while realizing you will rack up a lot of misses before you hit a target. Generally speaking, I’ve noticed that getting the timing right tends to be about identifying when a company and/or project is in a state of flux, whether a new initiative is starting up, a recent round of employees has either been promoted or left for a different job, or during the annual intern hiring season.
As I’ve also learned from being a freelancer, it helps to follow up at periodic intervals. Just because they don’t need you right now doesn’t mean that they won’t in the future. You don’t want to be overly aggressive; sending a potential employer who says they might need your skills in the future an email several times a year is usually helpful, but sending them an email a couple times a month is too much.
As hard as it is to handle rejection, remember that will probably end up emailing a bunch of potential bosses who might appreciate your skills but just aren’t able to hire someone at the moment. Getting a lot of no’s or just not hearing back at all is hard, right up until you finally contact the right person.
Identify key players at the company
Usually when we think of hiring decisions, we think of Human Resources. In practical terms, although all hiring decisions do eventually have to go through HR, the person who is actually looking at the applications and making decisions on who to interview or hire is usually someone else—the hiring manager.
What you really want to do, though, is identify the hiring manager’s boss, as they often hold a lot of power in terms of shaping what positions are created and setting the hiring priorities are. For small companies, that’s usually the founder or an executive, while at bigger companies, often a director or senior manager.
As Sampaco notes,
“Your goal is to get these employees to be your advocates and eventually refer you to the hiring managers of the teams you’re interested in. Key players have the power to connect you, and if they do, you’re much more likely to get a response than if you were to reach out cold.”
Key players also possess a wider range of knowledge about a company’s organization and future plans than lower-level employees. The work that a division does on paper can be very different from what they actually do, while future plans may call for a different set of skills than what you might predict. The right person will have a more accurate idea of where your skills might fit in.
Nail your informational interview
An informational interview is an informal meeting between a job seeker and an employed professional, usually so the seeker can find out as much as they can about topics relating to career options, as well as a company’s culture. This is an opportunity to find out what the culture and expectations are at a company, as well as what the day-to-day realities of a particular job might look like.
If you reach out to a prospective boss requesting an informational interview, this is an opportunity to learn about the company, as well as what working there might be like. As Sampaco advises, during this meeting, it’s important to express interest in their line of work, ask questions about their experience at the company, ask how the job you are seeking might fit into that, and ask for tips on applying. Then, if the interview goes well, ask if there are any other people at the company you should talk to.
Connect with the hiring manager
Once you have a better idea of the company culture, the types of jobs available, as well as the upcoming positions they’ll be hiring for, it’s a good time to finally connect with the hiring manager.
When reaching out to them, you’ll want to introduce yourself, offer a brief description of your skills and how they might be of use to the company, as provide as a clear description of why you want to talk to them and what you’re hoping to get out of the conversation.
In the world of freelancing, we call these letters of introduction, the purpose of which is to connect with a hiring manager, let them know that you exist and are good at what you do. Also, make it clear why hiring you will make their lives easier—if there’s one thing bosses like, it’s an employee who can make things run more smoothly day to day while also making the boss look good in the process.
During this stage, it’s important to remember that job searches and hiring decisions can be fluid, so rather than asking to be considered for a specific position, it’s better to explain why your skills will be so valuable to them, as well as ask about any future opportunities. Sometimes the job you are actually hired for can be very different from the job you thought you would be considered for, which can be a good thing. The weird, wonderful thing about careers is you never know what opportunities are available, or what you are capable of, until you ask. So make sure that you do ask.