Searching for your next job is a tricky process. The job search process is a marathon, not a sprint.  

From defining target companies to structuring your resume to appeal to them, there are dozens of decisions to make. Which companies are looking for your blend of expertise and personality? How do you strike the right balance in your cover letter – confident but not bragging, technical but not too technical? And how do your skills play into the hiring process?

The great news is that the job search process allows you to try different approaches and refine your cover letter skills and interview skills. Learning by going through the job search steps can be effective, especially if you find a way to shorten the learning curve. Here is a framework to help you think through it strategically.

Five stages of the job search process.

If the idea of looking for a job seems overwhelming, breaking it down into separate job search steps might help. There are many ways to accomplish that. One of my favorites is this five-step structure from Web Junction.  

Step 1: Establish your career objective.

The beginning of the job search process is your opportunity to reflect on your personal and professional objectives. You may be looking to get exposure to a particular industry or set of responsibilities, make an impact in the industry by participating in pioneering efforts, or apply your technical skills in the delivery of a product or a service.

Begin with clarity on what you are hoping to accomplish. For the purposes of the resume and cover letter, you may find it effective to frame the objective in terms that are most relevant to the employer. However, assess what is driving you first. As you jot down your thoughts, make a note of any specific skills on your resume (both technical and soft skills) that are relevant for your future direction. We will use those later.

Keep in mind that your career objective need not be set in stone! Many candidates feel uncomfortable with the idea of having to choose a single direction – from their standpoint, it's too limiting, much like putting themselves in a small box. In my experience, that is a mistake. The purpose of the career objective is to give your initial search efforts a direction. Without it, you risk creating search parameters that are too broad. The result could be a scattered flurry of efforts but not enough impact or traction. Instead, choose a direction and give yourself a specific time frame (2-4 weeks) to explore it. You can always change course later, once you have more experience and data to make a decision.

Step 2: Prepare job search tools.

The next step in the job search process is to get your tool-kit ready. As a bare minimum starting point, it should include your resume, cover letter and LinkedIn profile. In certain industries, a personal website or portfolio of relevant works may be necessary as well.

Here are a few practical guidelines for highlighting skills on your resume as you compile your tool-kit.

  • Be clear on the top technical and soft skills that define success in the role you are seeking. If that is an intimidating proposition, begin by studying job descriptions. Underline the skills that are mentioned most frequently.

  • Understand how your personal skills line up with the job requirements – but don't stop there. If a story or an example occurs to you that illustrates effective use of a particular skill, jot it down.

  • Use power words on your resume! They can emphasize the great work you do, and provide dynamic context to the resume.

  • Qualifiers and numbers can make your skills shine by highlighting their application and effectiveness.

  • Spend time thinking about the qualifications, experiences and skill combinations that make you a uniquely qualified candidate for the job. This is what I like to call “the black marker test” borrowed from David Newman's book Do It! Marketing. If your name on the resume or LinkedIn profile could be easily substituted by that of a colleague, you have work to do.

Step 3: Find hiring companies.

Now that you have a clearly defined target and your job search tools are ready, the next job search step is to find some companies that are looking for your expertise. There are several ways to do this, and your technical and soft skills will help you along the way.

  • Try doing a LinkedIn search for a specific skills, and choose “jobs requiring Skill A” as a search option. You can filter results geographically or by company.

  • Consider working with an external recruiter or headhunter. A great professional in the executive search industry can be a great ally and asset to you. If you are wondering where to start, check out How to Choose the Right Recruiter for Your Job Search.

  • Make a list of companies you might be interested in. Your list might include current or past employers' competitors, vendors and clients, or companies whose products and services you use and admire. If you would like more guidance on making an effective and well-targeted list of possibilities, check out How a Create a Target Company List for Your Job Search.

Step 4: Networking.

Contrary to popular opinion, networking isn't about collecting as many business cards as you can. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to connect people you know, and add value to the relationships you already have.

As a general guideline, networking works best if you do it as a regular practice, not just when you need a new job. Consider adding a monthly reminder to your calendar to reconnect with past colleagues and managers. You may also find a benefit in attending a couple of events each year that offer opportunities for new introductions.

When reaching out to ask about specific job opportunities or career advice, be clear on your goal. You don't want to trick someone into meeting you for coffee under a false pretense. Position your request as asking for resources or guidance. Busy professionals get many requests to “pick your brain over coffee,” which can be annoying. Count in driving and parking time, coffee ordering, small talk and the actual conversation – and they've spent 40 minutes to an hour on answering your questions! Perhaps a quick phone call, a visit to their office, or a meeting at a location convenient to your contact (are they attending a local conference next week?) would result in less of a time commitment.

You might use the conversation as an opportunity to test-drive your selected technical and soft skills to a friendly audience. If your contact is experienced in the industry, ask for his or her input on what you believe is most important for professional success. This could be a great way to test your assumptions and refine your value proposition.

Step 5: Interview and post-interview follow-up.

Interviewing can be nerve-racking. To reduce the case of the jitters, I recommend using a combination of strategic preparation and a re-framing of the interview process as valuable practice.

On the strategic preparation front, begin with deeply understanding the employer's needs. You might think of it as collecting authentic employer language: listen well during interviews, pay attention to job descriptions and be present to industry hot buttons. If you can frame your technical and soft skills using the employer's own language, you have a better a chance of demonstrating skill alignment.

Your preparation should also include choosing stories that will illustrate your top skills in action. Humans are wired to connect to stories. By selecting a few examples that demonstrate your mastery in applying technical skills, you can paint a picture that will set you apart from other candidates.

Lastly, keep in mind that all the job search steps are meant to be a process, not a performance. I recommend spending a half hour reflecting on ways in which just going through the steps will result in a personal and professional “win,” even if a particular interview does not lead to a job. What will you learn, what skills will you improve, and who will you interact with that will make the effort worth it? By turning the job search process into an obvious win no matter what, you can dial down the stress, learn more effectively, and make your skills shine in every conversation.

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