VP of Retail Operations Works Both Sides of Network

Elaine Clarke was generous about sharing leads, and her good networking deeds ultimately helped her to help herself.


Elaine Clarke’s job search was a model of give-and-take networking. In the 10 months she spent searching for work, Clarke landed 10 successful job offers — but only two were for herself.

Clarke, a global operations executive from Salem, N.H., forwarded job leads to eight friends and colleagues in her professional network who successfully landed job offers.

The strategy to pass along job leads may feel unnatural to some, but the practice of helping first, asking second ingratiated Clarke with individuals in her network who returned the favor. They sent her leads on open positions, made introductions, and called in favors with former bosses and decision makers. It landed Clarke two leads that ultimately generated job offers and a bidding war for her services.

But the network only works when you use it correctly, Clarke warned.

“Contact every friend in your network once a month with some sort of information,” she said. “Send them a link to a Web site they might find interesting, or send them an article you just read about their company that they might be interested in. You need to stay top of mind without sounding desperate.”

It didn’t hurt that making connections through her professional network is what Clarke had been doing for the past two years.

Giving to get

After 20 years’ experience in production and sourcing operations at several retail companies, Clarke was considered an expert in organizational structure and process. In late 2006, she decided to leave her job as vice president for global operations in producing and sourcing at Mast Industries, the manufacturing arm of Limited Brands stores, to pursue consulting.

For two years she helped companies such as Land’s End to become more efficient in bringing their products to market.
She was successful enough that she was juggling multiple clients, and when one job ended, she could count on another beginning. She used LinkedIn to connect to peers and former colleagues. She used her peer network to close deals and keep clients in the pipeline, including a January 2007 meeting with a customer who ultimately wanted to hire Clarke full time. She had to decline the offer to continue freelancing.

In September 2008, she had just completed an assignment and was speaking to six different clients about work. “Three jobs were sure things; we were ready to get started, and three others were potential clients,” she recalled. “Then the bottom fell out of the industry. All six jobs went away: Some were canceled, some were put on hold. All I heard was that budgets were cut, no one wanted to spend any money.”

Clarke decided her best bet was to go back to work with an employer rather than depend on the capriciousness of the market. Of course, with retail in freefall, it wasn’t going to be easy.

“I started talking to anyone who would listen about the fact that I was looking for operations jobs,” she said. “I talked to recruiters, to hairdressers, to people in the swimming pool,” she said, laughing. “Networking is a natural thing for me. As a consultant, it was the only way to keep potential projects in the pipeline. I just stepped it up.”

She continued to use LinkedIn to build her network and added OpsLadder to make connections to recruiters. She was doing double duty: networking for her consulting business and looking to add full-time job leads to her pipeline. “It was evenings and weekends, it was a lot of e-mail and phone calls,” she said of her job search. “I had one friend tell me, ‘I’ve never seen anyone work so hard at finding a job,’ ” she recalled. “There were days when I had to completely stop and refresh my brain. A job search can become all-consuming.”

It took nearly 10 months of talking to recruiters and people in her network before she received solid job leads. In between, however, she was able to connect eight former colleagues with jobs that she had heard about in her search. She credits her network of professional colleagues with keeping her spirits up during a very difficult time in her industry.

Ultimately it was a connection she had made in 2007 — just as she began her consulting stint — that would ultimately land her an offer.

Two offers, one dilemma

In July 2009, it was her turn to get some good news. A colleague on LinkedIn told her about a position that sounded like it had everything she wanted, except for one thing: She would have to relocate to the Philadelphia area. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but it was something I could do,” she said. “I had to leave any barriers to getting a job. My daughter was off to college. My husband was willing to move. So I had to decide I was willing to do this. It was the only way I was going to find a job.”
About the same time she heard about the Philadelphia job, a recruiter had contacted her from her profile on OpsLadder about a confidential job search. Clarke had no idea who the job was with or where it was located. She spoke to the recruiter, and then … nothing.

But Clarke was busy. Within six weeks, she had interviewed three different times with a total of 22 people for the challenging position near Philadelphia. She knew the company was going to make her an offer, and she was ready to accept it and make the move.

Then the recruiter from the confidential job search called again, with good news. The president of this company, the recruiter told her, remembered Clarke from that January 2007 interview. She was with a new company, a women’s clothing retailer, and wanted to set up an interview. Even better, the job was local. She would not have to move.

Clarke was torn. She remembered her interview with that executive, and said, “I would love to work for her. But I can’t walk away from a sure thing.” She told the recruiter she would speak to the company, but they would need to make it happen within four days.

They did. The next day she had a phone meeting with the HR people. A couple of days later, she was in their offices and met with 11 people. Less than a week later, she received a job offer. “And I turned it down,” she said. Feeling obligated to the first job offer, “I told them, ‘I’m not doing this to negotiate, I appreciate that you made this happen so quickly, but you knew I had this other offer, and I’m going to take it.’

“They e-mailed me that night and offered a financial package with more potential for earnings,” she said. “I was so impressed. I had never seen a company move this quickly and aggressively. At the end of the day, the financial packages were equal. The job near Philadelphia was a bigger job with more risk. But the local job is a great job and would create less disruption in my life. I went for what was right for my family.”

Clarke started her job as VP of sourcing, quality assurance and product integrity for her new company in mid-September – in New Hampshire.

Network of emotional support

Clarke’s professional network not only made the connections that ultimately landed her two job offers and a bidding war that helped her negotiate a higher salary. She also credits her network with keeping her on track.

“I had, and still have, so many colleagues in the same situation,” she said. “We all supported one another. Coaching friends helped me. We were all reading about how retail was in trouble; we didn’t feel we were in a good situation. But there was never a time when everyone was feeling down; there was always at least one person who was feeling positive, and that person would lift everyone else up. It was good to have someone saying, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ ”

“Having friends to talk to about this every day, people who understood what was happening, was really important to me. At the time, I didn’t realize how important, but now that I have been able to step away from it, I see how helpful it was to keeping my spirits up.”