Question: “You keep telling me that I need to develop a list of specific target companies, but honestly, I’m a generalist and could work in just about any company or industry.  Do I really need to do this?”

I hear this excuse all the time from job seekers who resist the idea of picking specific companies to target aggressively in their search — and with all due respect, while their arguments at times can sound perfectly reasonable, they are just plain wrong!

Granted, certain aspects of the job search process (e.g. published advertisements and recruiters) are highly opportunistic and don’t require having a specific company or industry focus.  These “published” channels, however, only account for about 20-30% of all hiring activity across the board — and an even smaller percentage of positions at the mid-to-senior management level.  So while precise targeting isn’t needed in these cases, since the employer has already defined their needs and made them public, the job seeker who relies solely on these reactive channels will not only be tapping into a very small piece of the overall hiring universe, but will face stiff competition every step of the way from all of the other candidates out there (both employed and unemployed) who are on the lookout for similar opportunities.

The key to getting around this limitation, of course, is to add a number of proactive job search channels into your overall plan of attack, which basically means relying heavily on the methods of networking (getting introduced to companies through relationships) and direct marketing (introducing yourself to companies directly through mail, e-mail, phone call, or a face-to-face visit).  With these channels, however, you can’t wait for the jobs to come to you.  You have to do your homework and determine which organizations, out of the thousands present in the Puget Sound area, are most likely to be receptive to your qualifications and have the types of problems you’re capable of solving for a paycheck.  And no matter how “adaptable” you might feel to different environments, there are always ways that you narrow your target company list down to a finite, high-priority set.  For starters, if push comes to shove, you can err on the side of a short commute and simply look for companies within a short distance (5 miles? 10 miles?) from your home zip code.  Alternatively, you can skew your set toward the industry niches most likely to appreciate your background, or “artificially segment” your market around other meaningful criteria that you and your Career Horizons coach are able to identify.

On this latter note, let me give you two recent examples from among my client base.  One individual I’m currently working with is a single mother in the finance field who has revealed, through our discussions, that one of the most important factors in finding the “ideal next job” is to locate a company that is fairly stable, secure, and would provide a decent benefits package for her family.  She didn’t have any specific industry preferences, however, and the size of the company wasn’t a main concern — provided they were large enough to offer the security and benefits she desired.  Given these clues, therefore, we constructed an search that looked for companies within 10 miles of her house that had the words “401(k)” or “excellent benefits” listed somewhere within their job description.  We didn’t specify job category and we didn’t specify industry.  We simply were searching for target companies that would be highly likely to offer the cultural elements she craved, and lo and behold, dozens of appropriate firms materialized that we could then go after through networking, direct marketing, and other approaches.

My second example relates to a client who specializes in “technology evangelism” and who has been looking for a high-tech company in the Seattle area that needs help getting their product and service message out to consumers in an exciting, inspiring way.  Unfortunately, he was struggling to find any useful way to narrow his target list down, since there are literally thousands of high-tech companies in this region — all of which might conceivably be able to benefit from his skills and capabilities.  He therefore was feeling pretty stuck on the direct marketing front, and knew that his networking efforts were falling a little flat, as well, since he wasn’t able to give people a specific list of companies to look over for referral purposes.  Worse still, he was finding that many organizations didn’t even know what “technical evangelism” meant and were struggling to understand his value proposition!

After talking things through with him, and agreeing that virtually any technical company could potentially use his expertise, I still didn’t let him off the hook — and told him that one way or another, he still needed to make some decisions and find a way to create a high-priority target list.  I then asked him whether he thought companies that had an actual track record of hiring evangelists would likely be more receptive to his pitch.  He agreed, but didn’t know where he could possibly find such a list.  That’s when I asked him to run an search using the keyword string “evangelize” or evangelist” or “evangelism” to see what companies were actively using these phrases in their job descriptions and company literature.  With the click of a button, we were able to identify at least 25 organizations who were actively using this precise terminology.  Bingo.  Our target company list was off to a flying start!

So believe or not, no matter how generalized a person’s skill set might be or how open-minded they might feel about where they work next, there is always a way to creatively narrow the focus down to a detailed, highly relevant list of potential target organizations.  And while it’s natural for some people to resist this idea, without such a “rudder” in place to guide one’s efforts in the unpublished job market, you’ll likely drift along, aimlessly, and miss a boatload of golden opportunities along the way!