With the start of each new year, it’s inevitable for each of us to reflect back on the state of our lives — and careers — and give some thought, either super-serious or bemusedly casual, as to how we might improve them.  Whether this is due to the concept of a “new year’s resolution” being so prominent in our culture or whether it’s a more primal urge, based on seasonal and weather changes, is hard to say, exactly.  But alas, like many of you, I almost always find myself asking “what shall I do differently this year?” when January rolls around and last year’s calendar gets tossed into the round file.  So to speak.

On that note, one concept I’ve always loved – and that I’m sure many of you have heard about — is the use of “central organizing principles” to structure and clarify different aspects of one’s life.  Essentially, this involves taking a fairly confusing and complex project (e.g. organizing your finances, building a house, marketing one’s business, getting in better health) and coming up with a simple framework or key principle that you can use as a primary reference point for ordering/prioritizing things.  An example of this in the business world would be Amazon’s commitment to “customer obsession” where they claim that every single decision the company faces should be made, first and foremost, based on how it would meet customers’ needs or improve their experience.  By following this overarching mantra, of customer impact and value, every subsequent decision becomes much simpler to make and it’s easy to prioritize which tasks should take precedence over others.

So how about the job hunting and career management process?  Are there some central organizing principles one can use to simplify their efforts on that score?  Any key principles you could adopt that would make your day-to-day game plan even clearer and eliminate some of the confusion, distractions, and frustrations typically involved in career-related matters?

While I’m not sure there’s a single principle that would address EVERY aspect of a typical job search, I quickly brainstormed a few themes that I felt could be effectively utilized to support one’s efforts around the most common job hunting challenges.  So for whatever it’s worth, here’s what I ginned up:

Job Lead Generation: “It’s a numbers game”

Not a very original concept, I know, and some of you might be sick of hearing me talk about it, but I honestly can’t think of any more important principle to follow when it comes to one’s day-to-day efforts to land interviews.  Just as with sales, it’s unavoidable that most of the outreach efforts you make and job applications you send out won’t result in a viable job offer — simply due to factors such as the competition level, skills match, political issues, and increasing specialization of employer expectations.  So once one internalizes this fact, and realizes job searching is almost all about timing, it stands to reason that the more seeds you plant out there, each day, the higher your odds will be.  So if you’re struggling to get interviews, I’d encourage you to evaluate every one of your job hunting behaviors through the standpoint of the “numbers game” organizing principle.  Are you contacting at least 5-10 new people, employers, or recruiters each day?  Are you spending too much time on makework activities like web research and resume tweaking?  Are you obsessing about a single employer, versus making contact with a ton of different employers?  Are you overanalyzing whether an old friend might be useful contact to approach–or not?  Again, in the light of the numbers game concept, these decisions become easy ones and you can confidently start eliminating any roadblocks, habits, or “analysis paralysis” that is leading you to make fewer contacts each week, rather than more.

Networking: “Manage your social capital like you manage your financial capital.”

Next on the list is the all-important topic of networking where many folks flail around, knowing how important relationships are in a job search, but not quite knowing how to go about organizing their efforts.  Simply put, your contacts are likely your most important asset as a professional.  So manage them like any valuable asset.  Create a system for tracking your relationships as carefully as you (hopefully) manage your finances.  Have a database, spreadsheet, or system of some kind where you keep track of everybody you know, their contact info, and your interactions with them.  And then make a point of systematically reviewing this list during your search so you can figure out which folks you might still need to contact and which ones might be in need of a reminder or nudge, if you haven’t chatted with them in a month or two.  Again, just like most of us tend to track the money that goes in and out of our bank accounts, you need to track the energy/effort you’ve putting into your circle of contacts.  This is what makes salespeople great at what they do, and since job hunting is basically being “in sales” for yourself, this framework should work equally well for you, too.

Interviewing: “Don’t focus on getting the job, focus on understanding it.”

Sure, we could discuss a thousand different things about interviewing and how to get better at selling yourself to employers.  We could brainstorm and practice answers to all of the traditional interview questions.  We could polish your “behavioral interviewing” examples until they gleam with brilliance.  We could work on your body language and vocal intonation.  We could (awkwardly) discuss any hygiene issues that might be holding you back.  But as helpful as all these little bites at the apple might be, they’re just a loose collection of fairly random practices they may – or may not – prove all that helpful in improving your presentation skills.  So if you need a much easier concept to remember as you head into any interview situation, I’d suggest you adopt the organizing principle stated above and focus on understanding the job, and what the employer needs, above all else.  Properly embraced, this principle should lead you to pay rapt attention to the hiring manager’s problems, prompt you to ask more questions about what they need done, show more curiosity, and avoid the trap of making the interview mostly about yourself and your own issues, versus those of the “customer” across the desk.  It also might help with your nerves a bit, since many of us are a lot more comfortable asking questions and talking about other people versus tooting our own horns.  So sure, a good chunk of interviewing involves talking about your achievements to date, but as much as possible try to shift the focus back to the hiring manager and drill down on what they need done, exactly, and what they’re looking for.

Negotiating: “Know what you’re worth and act like it.”

Lastly, and perhaps the trickiest of the bunch, I was trying to come up with a core concept that might tie together a lot of the loose ends and confusing items that come up when talking money with employers.  The best I could do (I’ll let you decide whether it’s useful or not) is the statement above that basically suggests you approach salary questions with confidence and recognize that companies are willing to pay perfectly good money for good candidates – and to get their problems solved.  They aren’t usually evaluating candidates on “price” to any great degree and might even be suspicious of somebody who is asking for far less than the market standard or who seems really nervous about discussing compensation.  So my advice, following this principle, is to do your homework up front about what jobs in your field/industry are currently paying (e.g. use salary sites, recruiter data, networking contacts, industry association reports, your own salary history, etc.) and to be ready to give the employer a $20-30K range you’d consider, when asked.  State this range boldly, say that it derives from what you’re seeing for similar positions out there, and say that to give them an exact answer would require knowing a lot more about their benefits package such.  Again, most people aren’t looking to hire the lowest bidder for most professional jobs.  They’re looking for the person who seems certain about their ability to do the job at hand and seems to know their value in the modern marketplace.

So there you have it.  A long, rambling treatise on how the concept of “central organizing principles” might help you escalate your search efforts to the next level.  Personally, I’m finding many compelling ways to apply this concept in my own life and business pursuits, so I’d be interested in any further questions or discussion (online or offline) any of you out there might want to contribute!