What Does a Job Search Have to do With Ancient Greece?

To gain an edge in the job hunt, study the people within the company you’re pursuing.

A successful career-change candidate can study a target company much like an anthropologist studies ancient cultures – by understanding the needs of its people.

Just as the ancient Greeks’ actions were driven by their needs for education, culture, politics and protection, a company is driven by its needs to earn profits (or meet its goals for non-profits). This includes solving current problems and optimizing its culture.

This perspective can help any candidate, but it’s especially important to job seekers who want to transfer their skills to a new field. The better a career-change candidate understands an organization’s needs, the better they can demonstrate how their skills solve that organization’s problems.

Sounds simple… So why is changing careers so challenging for most?

Most candidates don’t take the time to learn what an organization’s needs really are. They aren’t effective anthropologists. Instead, they just research publicly available information. That’s not anthropology.

Anthropologists study people. So can career-changers.

The typical candidate’s research simply isn’t that deep. He’ll survey a company’s Web site; its financial statements (if public); and text in its ads; and if he is really enterprising… dig through pages of Google results.

Very few candidates take the time to research the people at the company, yet gaining insight into an organization’s people can be a huge advantage.

What’s the best way a career change candidate can research the people in a target organization?

Don’t ask for a referral

Talk to them. Talk to as many as you can, but not in the way most candidates do. Most candidates talk to people in an organization so they’ll be referred to a decision maker. That might happen, but it’s a premature goal.

Could you effectively leverage that referral or articulate your transferable skills without understanding the organization’s people?

Probe the commonalities of the staff

In your conversations, make your goal to gain an understanding of the people in that organization.

  • What do they have in common?
  • What is the organization’s style and culture?
  • What are the organizations’ problems, goals, challenges and roadblocks?
  • How do those issues affect the job function and department you are targeting?

Look in the right places.

How do you find the right people to talk to? What if you don’t know enough people at your target company? Start here:

1. Social networks

This is where your network comes in handy. Don’t abuse your network by spamming them with requests for references. Instead, leverage your network’s knowledge to gain an understanding of your target company’s people, culture and issues.

Connect to people at your target organizations, and start conversations through LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Again, don’t underutilize these new and weaker relationships by asking for a job referral. Give before you get – give industry information, competitive information and give them referrals. As you get to know them better, give them help (such as volunteering help for a charity and referring people who can help them). Give before you ask, because job-search anthropologists need karma; it builds trust.

2. Lunch

Eat lunch close to your target company. Eat at the counter if there is one. Tell the waiter that you’re targeting a nearby company for a job and want to meet people from that organization. Leave a big tip because this process may take a few attempts, and the waiter is a great inside track. Stay away from formal lunch meetings; instead, target friends informally lunching together. Say hi and start a conversation.

3. Happy hour

Check out the closest bars to your target organization, and go Thursday or Friday after work. Again, tip generously to find who works for your target company. You’ll also find that buying a round of drinks builds trust and loosens lips. (Ever notice that people talk with less inhibition about their work week at happy hour?) The less you drink and the more you buy, the better information you’ll find. As with lunch, this may take a few evenings.

4. Listen

A good anthropologist has great hearing. You’ll not only need to listen to what people are saying but also how they are saying it. Each organization has its own internal language, jargon and code. Learn it.

5. Learn

The better you get at using the organization’s own language in your resume, in gathering your research and in a job interview, the better chance you’ll have at success Your goal should be to have the target company’s hiring manager think they could talk to you, think you’d understand the organization, think you “get it”… think you’ll fit.

In addition, the more you listen and learn, the more you’ll hear about an organization’s problems. Do employees ever complain when they’re away from the office? Do they ever talk about frustrations and about what’s not working, about what they wish they could change?

If you ask a stranger, “What’s your company’s biggest problem?” you might not get so much useful information. Instead, if you ask a more personal question, especially after a few drinks (“If you could change one thing about your work, what would it be?”) you’ll probably unplug a river of information – especially if you follow up with “Why?” If you’ve done this well, your new friend will thank you for listening and might even apologize for hogging the conversation.

Where will you gain more value: Asking a stranger to refer you for a job? Or making a friend of that stranger by sharing coffee or a drink and listening to his frustrations about work – at an organization that you are targeting?

Understanding your target organization’s people, culture and needs is critical when trying to change careers. Focusing on the people in your target company enables you to articulate your potential contributions in the company’s own unique language. If you are trying to change industry or function, this can provide the edge you need to overcome the natural advantage of industry insiders.

How will you make your new skills of organizational anthropology work for your job search?