How to Find a (Great) Job During a Downturn

Unemployment rates have spiked around the world owing to the Covid-19 crisis and its economic fallout. In the United States, tens of millions are out of work, and employment is expected to stay at record lows for many years to come.In many other countries, the situation is also dire. Governments are only slowly opening their economies to protect against a second deadly wave of infections and, in the absence of a vaccine, might, at some point, need to resume lockdowns. The World Trade Organization predicts the worst collapse for international commerce in a full generation, while the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office thinks the U.S. economy won’t fully recover until 2030. (Yes, that’s 10 years from now.)

The landmark research on how people find good jobs was conducted in the early 1970s by Mark Granovetter and remains relevant today despite the big changes in roles and recruitment that we’ve seen since. Studying professional, technical and managerial job-seekers, Granovetter found that most jobs (and especially good ones) were attained not through direct application or other formal means — that is submitting a resume in response to a listing (which then might have been a print ad but is now online) — but through “personal contacts,” who told the applicant about the position or recommended him or her to someone inside the organization.

Job seekers preferred this approach, noting that they got (and were able to give) better information during the process. Those who secured employment also benefitted from higher pay, on average, and were more likely to be “very satisfied” in their roles, some of which, they reported, were even custom-created to suit their skills, knowledge, and experience. Based on more than 30 years of executive search experience, I’m convinced that most employers also prefer to work this way.

It’s critical to understand which of your personal contacts are the most useful though. Granovetter also found that you’re more likely to find jobs through personal contacts who are not too close to you, speak to you infrequently, and work in occupations different to your own. He captured this notion in a wonderful expression — “the strength of weak ties” — and many other researchers have since confirmed that diverse personal networks are the best way to find a new job. These acquaintances might come from your neighborhood, college, high school, fraternal organizations or sports, recreational or hobby groups; they might even be people you met once on vacation. In my view, activating these connections is the only job-seeking strategy that will allow you to secure a great position in truly tough times like the ones we’re now enduring, and you must go about it in a disciplined way. Here’s how:

Creating Your Contact List
During my first 20 years as a search consultant, I tried to find time each day to help one person who was either without a job or keen for a new one. This made for some 4,000 meetings with job seekers, many of which I conducted in Argentina, as its economy was in deep turmoil. In 2001, for example, it suffered the largest sovereign debt default in world history, and annualized GDP fell by 30% coupled with a 300% currency devaluation. My advice during those daunting days: Come up with a list of 100 (yes, one hundred!) weak ties without making any contact. The rationale? First, simple statistics: The probability of any one person leading you to the perfect job will be very low, so you have to tap many to improve your odds. Second and even more important: Because of the “weak” nature of these contacts, it won’t be immediately obvious who can be most helpful. When you work to expand the list, you add quite unexpected people, including some truly great ones. Natural candidates for your weak ties list include former bosses, colleagues and professors, consultants, lawyers, auditors, suppliers, clients, and so on. Some will be potential employers; others, sources. Look for ties in sectors that are likely to be stronger than most in the coming years and in which you would really like to work.

Next, rank everyone you’ve listed based on two factors: the attractiveness of the possibilities they can offer (given their company, role, and connections) and their willingness to help you (which depends on the quality of your relationship, even if it was limited or distant).

Making Connections
You might assume that I would tell you to make first contact with the person at the very top of the list. But I won’t. Instead, start with number 10 or so. You will be nervous, tight, even shy at the beginning, and you will make mistakes. So gain confidence with a few lower-stakes conversations, and then start contacting your most promising targets. Make sure to rapidly cover the top 30 or so, ideally within a period of no more than a week or two. (If you’re lucky enough to find more than one possibility, it would be ideal to consider all of them at once.)

Of course, each conversation will be different depending on the person, opportunity, and previous relationship. But, with everyone, be candid about your reason for calling, the type of role you’re looking for, and what you have to offer. People who have had a positive experience working with you will most likely want to help you, but they can’t if they are unaware of or unclear on your need and aspirations.

Closing the List
In deciding when to end this process, you can make two types of mistakes: If you contact too few ties, you might not find any opportunities. If you contact too many, you might waste precious time on less attractive possibilities which will prevent you from properly focusing on the best ones. The key is to stop the calls when you have enough leads to give you a significant chance of landing a job. Consider, for example, that, as a result of your disciplined list-making and contact process, you are down to three potential employers. You estimate you have a 50% shot at getting the first job, 40% for the second, and 30% for the third. The probability of getting at least one offer can be easily calculated as one minus the product of the complementary probabilities, or 1 – (.5 x .6 x .7) = 79%. If you’d prefer to be 90% certain of getting a job, you’ll need to keep calling prospects.

How do you go about estimating these probabilities? Simply use your judgment. If you were one out of three finalists in a search, your chances of landing that job would be 1/3, or 33%. On the other hand, some leads might be so weak that only one out of 50 would turn into an offer, a probability of 2%. You should not eliminate these cases at this stage, though! If you contact 100 prospects with a 2% individual chance, the probability of getting at least one offer comes out at 87%, since 1- .98100 = 87%.

Make your best estimate in each case, and don’t worry too much about precision at this stage. Once you start getting answers (or not) from each of your contacts, these probabilities will start moving up (when there’s mutual interest) or down. In the end most of them will turn to zero, while just a few will become significant. I’ve developed a downloadable support tool to help you track this.

Managing Leads
At this point, you will hopefully have several leads. To keep all those balls in the air, even as you reach out to more of your targets, you’ll need to proactively follow-up on every promising conversation, including contacting new people that your weak ties have recommended you try. This can feel daunting! But, again, the support tool can help. It is a fully automated Excel spreadsheet, which includes a series of intuitive macro commands to easily sort leads by name, status (sources or potential employers), company, pending actions and deadlines, probability of receiving an offer, and priority. It will also automatically calculate the compounded probability of getting at least one offer, so that you can more objectively decide when to move from lead generation to closure. You can download the support tool here.

Sealing the Deal
As you talk to potential employers, you’ll of course want to follow all standard job-seeking advice. Before you share you resume, make sure you have updated it and that it stands out. When interviewing — which at this stage is likely to happen virtually — refresh yourself on best practices. Be able to answer open-ended prompts or behavioral prompts like, “So tell me about yourself” or “Tell me about a time when you overcame conflict/led a large team/had to collaborate across silos/managed a change initiative.” Prepare and practice, including finding a quiet room with good lighting, and keep in mind the special challenges of virtual interviewing.

Remember to think carefully about your own priorities, preferences, and broader purpose and match them up against all the opportunities. Keep updating the spreadsheet with probabilities and new to-dos as the discussions progress. For your top priorities, create a strong list of references and let those people know that employers might be calling about you. Research the organization and its target markets. And, as venture capitalist, Jeff Bussgang advises, come bearing gifts, such as proposals or project help, that show your commitment and work product.