Rethinking the Job Search

In my post on Rethinking Career Management, we learned that traditional career management advice is not well-suited to dealing with today’s job market where stability is absent, long-term planning doesn’t work, and the job market is constantly changing.  I suggested replacing traditional career wisdom with Agile Career Development, a framework for modern career management based on insights from the world of entrepreneurs and startups.






Agile Career Development elevates the importance of conducting a job search from something you do once every four years out of necessity to the foundation of effective career management.

Which begs the question, what’s the best way to conduct a job search?

What process should you use?  Where should you begin?  Should you update your resume and send it to recruiters?  Should you contact your network to see if they know of any good jobs?  Should you troll the online job sites?  Should you join one of the “exclusive” job clubs that claim access to the hidden job market?  And what about social media?  Isn’t everyone finding jobs on social media these days?

During my 15 years of helping people find jobs and recruiting executives, I’ve come across very few people who consistently conduct effective job searches.  If you’re a bit unsure of the best way to conduct a job search yourself, there’s a good reason.

Chances are, no one taught you how.


No one taught you how


Job search techniques are not taught in most schools.  In fact, it’s worse than that.  Most leading university career services offices attract large companies to campus to recruit graduating students, alleviating the need for students to learn how to conduct a successful job search. The university job search experience sets a dangerous precedent in that it gives us the impression that job search is a predominantly passive activity, and that good jobs will come to you.  For many students, the job search becomes a “beauty pageant” where you pick the best looking job, and off you go.  But, this beauty pageant approach to job search is not reality in today’s job market, and it’s becoming less of a reality for even the best and brightest in the top colleges.

Job search techniques are not taught in most companies either.  Why would your employer want to teach you how to find a job?  The only time your employer might have an interest in teaching you how to find a job is immediately after they’ve fired you.  Even then, a decreasing number of companies are providing job search assistance to displaced employees, and the ones that still do typically employ traditional outplacement firms, many of which have become less effective and less used over the last several years.

Job search techniques are typically something people are forced to learn on their own.  But a lot of the common knowledge about how to find a job is just not very helpful.  Some of it is outdated (like mailing resumes and cover letters), some is well-intended but misses the mark (like poor networking advice), and some is the result of the biased information published by online job sites that have a vested interest in getting people to use their sites to find jobs.

Here’s an example.  Go to Google and type in “job search.”  What pops up?  Online job sites.  A gazillion of them.  Is this because online jobs sites are the best way to find a job?  Or, is it because many online job sites invest in organic and paid search techniques that garner high page rankings on Google and other search engines?   Spend some time trolling the online job sites, and it’s likely you’ll come away thinking that the easiest way to find a great job is online.  Just post your resume, and employers will find you.  Or search from tens of thousands of awesome jobs, and pick the one you want.  It’s just that easy!  Except it’s not.


Network, network, network


If you manage to escape the seduction of the online job sites, you might discover that 80% of all people find jobs through networking (and it’s likely the percentage is higher for knowledge workers).  But consider how most people network when they’re looking for a job.  They contact their friends and colleagues, and they ask them if they’re aware of any “opportunities” that might be a good fit.  To be clear, this type of networking is better than not networking at all, but there are limitations to this approach.


The strength of weak ties


In the late 1960s, Mark Granovetter, a PhD student at Harvard, decided to try to figure out how people find jobs.  His research confirmed what we already know – that most people find jobs through networking (Granovetter’s research and the research of others he cites put the percentage between 60% and 90%).  Interestingly, not only did most people find jobs through networking, but networking led to the highest-quality jobs, the most satisfying jobs, and the jobs in which people stayed the longest.

But Granovetter’s research also dispelled a commonly held belief – that our circle of close friends and colleagues (strong ties) provide more value during a job search than people we hardly know (weak ties).  Put another way, if we focus our networking efforts on our existing network of contacts (our strong ties), we’re severely limiting the amount of information and the number of job opportunities to which we’re exposed.

Granovetter also noticed that, at a macro level, society is comprised of networks of strong ties, and these networks of strong ties are interconnected (and share information) through weak ties.  Using LinkedIn’s InMaps feature, you can view the distinct subnetworks within your own network and visually gauge the degree of interconnectedness (or lack thereof).  Here’s mine.











As a recruiter, I’m connected to lots of people – many more than the average person.  But you can still see evidence of distinct subnetworks in the various colors.  And notice the blue subnetwork to the far right.  That’s my McKinsey network that I developed before I became a recruiter.  It’s much more distinct than my other subnetworks.  If I was conducting a job search myself, I’d make sure to go beyond my existing network, but I’d also make sure to cover all of the distinct subnetworks within my existing network.

Since Granovetter published his original paper, The Strength of Weak Ties, in 1973, additional research has been conducted to better understand why your close friends and colleagues (strong ties) are less helpful to you than casual acquaintances (weak ties).  It turns out that people generally don’t refer their close friends to jobs for two reasons:

  • they are more worried that it will reflect badly on them if things don’t work out,
  • they are more likely to know of the faults of their close friends and believe these could interfere with being a good worker.

There’s nothing wrong with networking with friends and colleagues.  It’s a great place to start, and it might lead to some low-hanging fruit.  But it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  To conduct a successful job search, we need to expand our network.  We need to reach beyond our comfort zone.  We need to better align our networking efforts with the way most people get hired.


Job search alignment


Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an executive who needs to fill a job.  Let’s call that person the Hiring Manager.  He/she could be a CEO, a Vice President, or other executive/manager.  But it’s not someone from Human Resources.  It’s the person to whom the job reports.

From the Hiring Manager’s point of view, many mid-level and executive positions follow some variation of the following process.

Phase 1 – Formulation.  The Hiring Manager starts to formulate the need for a position.  Perhaps the current person in a job is not performing well, or perhaps there is a need for a new position.  The Hiring Manager is thinking about the job and maybe even drafting a position description.  In large companies, the Hiring Manager may start a dialogue with HR regarding her budget, internal candidates, etc.  Importantly, as she talks to people and meets with people during this phase, she may be considering their fit for the job (although she may not disclose this).

Phase 2 – Narrow socialization.  The Hiring Manager has formulated the need and now has a job to fill.  She puts together a short list of candidates (perhaps an internal candidate, someone she knows well, or someone she has met during the formulation phase), and then she taps her network as well as the network of a few colleagues or trusted advisors to see if anyone knows of any good candidates. There’s a candidate pool, but it’s small compared to the hundreds of candidates you might see from a posted position, and it’s created from a small network of people close to the Hiring Manager (let’s call these people Influencers).  At this point, the position has been narrowly socialized, but it hasn’t been posted, given to a recruiter, or broadly socialized.  Roughly 80% of jobs are filled during this phase.  Not only are most jobs filled during this phase, but the best jobs are filled during this phase (another Granovetter discovery).  And it’s the way that the top companies and most experienced Hiring Managers fill their key positions.  In his bestselling book, Who – The A Method for Hiring, Geoff Smart devotes an entire chapter to sourcing candidates and generating a flow of “A players.”  According to Smart, “Of all the ways to source candidates, the number one method is to ask for referrals from your personal and professional networks.”

Phase 3 – Broad socialization.  If the limited candidate pool approach doesn’t work, the Hiring Manager may consider socializing the position more broadly and creating a much bigger candidate pool – either by posting (for less important roles) or by using a recruiter (for more important roles).  The remaining 20% of jobs that were not filled during the prior phase are filled during this phase.


Job search numeracy

Let’s take a closer look at the example above and run some numbers.  We’ll make some simplifying assumptions, but the point should still be clear.

Here’s the setup.  Say you’re looking for a sales leadership role in a technology company.  In a smaller company (25M – 100M), this might be a VP Sales role.  In a larger company (100M – 1B), it might be a Sales Director and Sales Manager role.  Based on some research, you discover there are 40 such positions within your area of geographic focus.  You also discover, much to your dismay, that all 40 of these positions are currently filled.  But people change jobs on average every four years, so we can expect 10 of the 40 positions to turn over in the next 12 months.  Now you’re a bit more encouraged.  You’ll just sit back and wait until those 10 jobs open up, and then you’ll check them out.  But if you’ve been following so far, you realize that 8 of those 10 jobs will never “open up”.  They’ll be filled through a limited candidate pool and never broadly socialized.

If only 20% of these jobs are ever posted or given to a recruiter, then you should focus only about 20% of your time on these jobs.  Makes sense, right?  In fact, that’s exactly what conventional career wisdom suggests.

Not so fast.

The 80% of jobs filled through limited socialization have fewer candidates than the 20% of jobs filled through broad socialization.  So your odds are different.  Let’s say the 80% of jobs filled through limited socialization have 20 candidates each whereas the 20% filled through broad socialization have 100 candidates each (probably a gross underestimate).  Your odds are 1 in 20 for one of the 8 narrowly socialized jobs and 1 in 100 for one of the 2 broadly socialized jobs.  Using simple probability (and assuming your chances are the same as all other candidates), your chances of getting one of the narrowly socialized jobs is 34%, and your chances of getting one of the broadly socialized jobs is 2%.

In other words, you have a 17 times greater chance of getting one of those ten sales jobs if you find out about it before it’s posted or given to a recruiter.  Why spend even 20% of your time on jobs that you have almost no chance of getting when you can get much better odds elsewhere?  Focus your efforts on “the sweet spot”, not on positions that are broadly socialized.










Here’s an example.

John Doe had been the President of a small division for a mid-sized manufacturing company for just over five years.  He turned around his division and improved operational metrics across the board.  But there was no upward mobility (his boss was the founder), and his division had little growth potential.  John decided it was time to move on.

A couple of months into his search, John heard about a mid-sized manufacturing company that was moving its headquarters from the west coast to his area.  Through online research, he was able to find the name of a potential Hiring Manager within the company in his area.  He also identified a potential Influencer who was a friend of a friend.  John asked for a warm introduction to the Influencer and subsequently scheduled a phone call with the Influencer.  This led to a face-to-face meeting with the Influencer and an introduction to the Hiring Manager.

When John met with the Hiring Manager, he found out about several positions the company was trying to fill, but had not yet posted (the positions were being narrowly socialized).  Over the course of the ensuing weeks, John spent more time with the Hiring Manager (and other managers at the company) and was ultimately offered a senior operations position.

But then something unexpected happened. 

John was introduced to the President of another mid-sized manufacturing company who was starting to think about replacing the local General Manager (he was still in the formulation phase).  As such, there were no other candidates yet for that position.  The company moved quickly with John, offered John the job, and John accepted the General Manager position.


Do you know of any good jobs?


Let’s see what we’ve learned so far.

Networking is the way that most people find jobs, and it’s the way people find the best jobs.  Not through online job sites.  Not through recruiters.  Not through social media.  Not through executive job clubs.  Networking is not just asking your friends and colleagues if they know of any good jobs.  It requires developing connections outside of your existing network.  It requires networking with Hiring Managers and Influencers before the job is broadly socialized.  Once a job is posted or given to a recruiter, your odds of success are infinitesimally small.

When you contact your friends and colleagues and ask them if they’re aware of any good jobs, you’re taking a job-centric approach to networking, and you’re leveraging your existing network.  This “know of any good jobs” approach to networking is shown in the lower left quadrant of the figure below.

By contrast, the approach I advocate is shown in the upper right quadrant.  It involves networking outside of your existing network (to increase your chances of connecting with Hiring Managers and Influencers, and to minimize any possible strong ties bias), and it involves taking a people-centric approach (focusing on networking with Hiring Managers and Influencers instead of networking to find broadly socialized jobs).










Networking outside of your network and not looking for jobs (that are broadly socialized) may seem counterintuitive at first.  For some, it’s uncomfortable – perhaps even unnerving.  But it’s the key to conducting a successful job search.  And if you’ve ever been in the position of being a Hiring Manager yourself, you know it’s really hard to find good people.  The opportunity for a Hiring Manager to connect with prospective candidates before he/she is forced to broadly socialize a job (and spend money for a recruiter or posting) is usually welcomed.


  1. Scott, this is a really well written and laid out post! The topics you outline I have found true not only for job searching but also for fundraising, business development, sales, etc. The strength of weak ties happens across all those areas.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that often the person “who brought you to the dance” isn’t the one you leave with. I’ve started down paths with someone in a business development or fundraising endeavor and ironically haven’t ended up doing business with them due to timing, but the knowledge & connections gained from that interaction opened many doors that resulted in closed business, jobs or candidates later down the road!

  2. Thank you Scott.

    As a job searcher right now, this feedback and perspective is very valuable. You are right in that it takes some bold confidence to connect with folks that are ‘new’ to your network, but this approach will prove most fruitful.

    Dan Naden

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