There was a time when you could count on your employer to take care of you for the long haul. You’d graduate college, join a large corporation, stay there for forty years and retire clutching a gold watch. The company laid out your career path, your pension, and your progression through assignments.
Yep, there was a paternalistic moment in American corporate history.
That moment is gone.
Given upheavals this past decade, you never know when your present employer is going to retrench, reboot, & release you. There’s nothing less welcome than an unexpected and involuntary separation from a decent paycheck and a warm cubicle.
So it is far, far better to keep yourself in the driver’s seat and do “heads up” career planning: keeping one eye on the future of where you’re going is the best way to make sure you stay safe and comfortable in where you are.
You’d prefer a running start should something ever go wrong with your current company, which is why it’s smart to have an updated list of 10 companies that you’d like to work for in the future should the occasion require.
Can you name 10 companies you’d like to work for, or that you’d enjoy working for? Can you do it right now?
The important thing is to have a list — a secret list of companies you’re “seeing on the side” — and for you to keep tabs, develop relationships, and ingratiate yourself further with the people and operations of those ten businesses. Keeping the number somewhat small is the only way to keep it manageable. You can’t possibly track 20 or 50 companies, so by keeping your efforts focused on just 10, you’ll get far more deeply entrenched in your select list.
By taking interviews, collecting information & insights, and steadily growing your contacts at each of those ten companies, you’ll create a safety web for yourself in case of emergency. The bonus is that this strategy also pays benefits today by keeping you apprised of what’s happening in your industry.
You should interview at one of your “side” companies each season; taking the opportunity every three months to keep your interview skills sharp, and dig deeper into the business and people of that company.
It’s fine to interview on the basis of informed curiosity. You can’t do it at the same company every year, because you’ll lose credibility, but interviewing at a rotating cast of interesting “backup” employers over a four or five year period makes sense.
When pressed, you can share: “I’m not looking, but I’m always interested in what opportunities are developing, networking with people in the industry, and frankly, seeing how effective the competition’s recruiting process is.”
It’s a great way to keep up on what’s going on in the market and understand what your competitors or peer companies are up to. You’ll better understand the motivations and viewpoints of other people in your industry and may come away with inspiration for your own day-to-day work.
One important wrinkle: make sure to send gracious thank you notes thanking the contacts you’ve made for their generous time and attention. Mentioning a particular insight that you gleaned from your conversation is very helpful for establishing rapport for the future. Especially as you’ll be doing this regularly, you want each person in the industry to feel as great as possible when you turn them down.
Information & insights
Getting closer to your ten companies isn’t just about interviewing with them but also networking with people who currently work there. And networking is something that you can do far more frequently than interviewing: it’s easier to get started, it’s far less awkward, and it’s good to be a little bit social with your peers.
Set a goal of meeting with somebody from just one of your target companies each month. Could be a friend, a fellow college alum or a former co-worker who has landed there. Or you could be trying to meet wholly new people: you could go to a Meetup, a speaking event, or a product launch.
Share your interest, and feel free to indicate that it’s not deadline-driven, and that there’s no particular outcome you’re looking for other than learning more about one of your “company crushes”: “I’m not looking, but I’m just so intrigued by what you’re doing in my area of expertise that I’d love to learn more.”
Increasing your contact base
Use your networks — your online social networks, your offline social networks, your college alumni and former work colleagues — to steadily increase the number of people you know at each of your ten companies.
“Who else should I get to know here?” is a particularly effective way to leverage your existing contacts.
Over a five-year horizon, you’ll have interviewed 20 times at these companies. You’ll have met 60 people working there. And you’ll know far more about their internal workings, market outlook, and employment possibilities than any other candidate or person looking for work there.
So should a downturn come, or the Grim Reaper snatch your company from this mortal coil, you’ll have your ten lifelines at the ready.
And that’s how you stay ahead and stay afloat in this modern, maddening economy.