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by Michael Kaplan | March 10, 2009


In the summer of 2000, Charles Girard was doing everything right. He had racked up a few years of diverse experience at well-regarded employers, the job market was strong, and he started looking at business schools. He figured a master's in business administration would round out his business knowledge and help him land the kind of job that could become a satisfying career. Though Mr. Girard was keeping an open mind, he was hoping for an eventual position as a marketing communications manager.

But by the time he graduated from Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management last May, the world was, to say the least, different. Demand for people with M.B.A.s with good but scattershot experience like Mr. Girard's -- staff assistant at Merrill Lynch & Co., corporate lobbyist in Austin, Texas, researcher for a law firm -- had all but vanished. Undaunted, the 30-year-old Austin native set off on a job-searching odyssey that included help from classmates' fathers, friends with spare couches and lots of pizza-delivery guys.

What follows is Mr. Girard's story, along with running commentary from employment experts about what he did right, where he went astray, and why a night on the town can be more important than a thousand cover letters.

June 2003

Mr. Girard canvasses friends in Texas for employment leads. A classmate from Rice suggests he speak with her father, a partner at a corporate-defense law firm in Houston. Mr. Girard meets with him and discovers that there is indeed a job opening. The friend's father then arranges an interview with the firm's chief operating officer. After a casual interview, he gets an offer: assistant to the chief operating officer. The firm gives Mr. Girard four days to take it or leave it.

He has a few possibilities brewing in New York City, though, and doesn't want to make a quick decision. "The law-firm salary was a bit below my range," says Mr. Girard, "and on top of that, it wasn't the career path I wanted. Plus, I wanted a job that would expand my horizons. This one seemed likely to keep me in Texas. So I thanked the people from the firm and told them I would pursue other opportunities." Mr. Girard hopes to land a position in New York within a few weeks.

Analysis: Adolfo Jimenez, a hiring partner in Miami with the law firm Holland & Knight, says Mr. Girard probably could have bought more time simply by asking for it. Plus, he may have passed up a good starter job that would have yielded contacts galore. "I can see someone viewing this as a job with limited upward mobility for a nonlawyer," says Mr. Jimenez. "But he could have been there for a year and gotten a lot of exposure to the firm's clients."

Also, Mr. Girard might have been a tad savvier in finessing the relationship with his friend's father. "He could have gone to lunch with the friend's father, explained the situation, and brought him into the process," Mr. Jimenez says. "It might have opened up the possibility that he'd know of a more suitable job somewhere else."

Summer 2003

Mr. Girard moves to New York, crashing on the sofa at a friend's one-bedroom apartment in lower Manhattan's financial district. But the job possibilities that had seemed so strong when he turned down the Austin job have dried up. So he spends a few hours each day cruising job-search and corporate Web sites, talking to friends who might know of openings, and answering newspaper ads. He also takes in a taping of "The Late Show With David Letterman" and wanders through art museums.

Mr. Girard knows of people who have been more aggressive, showing up at companies unannounced and asking to see somebody who hires. But he doesn't have it in him to attempt anything so brazen. Eventually, he opts for the phone. "I called companies and asked to speak with human resources," Mr. Girard says. "Invariably, I'd be told to go to the Web site. These conversations were very abbreviated. I called because I was interested in the companies and wanted more information about specific positions. But everyone told me to apply online." He does. No real leads result.

Analysis: The goal is to make the human-resources department your last stop, not your first. "Information is the most important thing," Mr. Jimenez says. "You're going after a job, but you're also investigating companies -- finding out who's leaving, which departments are restructuring, who might be open to direct contact. As a hiring partner, I value persistence. I like people who don't get shut down. Rather than looking for a job, look for information and contacts." Scour the Web for mentions of a company where you want to work. Make a list of every person you know and figure out whether anyone has a connection. Read obscure, nerdy industry publications -- but don't let anyone see you.

Late August 2003

A friend of Mr. Girard's mentions a buddy who works in investment banking. Mr. Girard asks for his number. The buddy agrees to meet with Mr. Girard, although no specific position is available. Mr. Girard treats the meeting as seriously as he would a job interview, wearing his best dark-blue suit and a bold-colored tie. "He had a great office with a terrific view of Central Park; he was obviously successful, and it felt good to be speaking with him," says Mr. Girard. "He said he would help me out any way he could.

"But we were obviously not a good professional match: He was a hard-core finance guy, and that was not my strength or interest. He didn't know of anybody who might be able to hire me, but he promised to get back to me if anyone came to mind." Mr. Girard sends a thank-you note and follows up with a couple of e-mails, but gets no response.

Analysis: Linda F. Segal, principal of McCormick Group Inc., a recruiting firm in Arlington, Va., says that unless a specific job is available, most people prefer not to be besieged by friend-of-a-friend job hounds. "But if you say you're looking for information or direction, it sounds like mentoring," she says. "That's a lot more appealing." Tell the person you're seeking wisdom, not that you're desperately looking for employment. Bring your risumi and ask for a quick critique. "Then, after the meeting, ask the person to recommend a colleague with whom you can have further discussions," she says. "The golden rule of networking is that you never leave a meeting without at least one referral."

Fall 2003

Tired of sleeping on his friend's sofa and eating pizza three days a week, Mr. Girard realizes that New York can be a terrible place when you have neither money nor the means to earn it.

He starts to rethink his overall approach. "I began to realize that I should have stayed after my friends and contacts...more than I had been." He calls headhunters. They don't call back. He decides his broad job history might be a hindrance, so he customizes his resume. "There was one job that required traveling in Latin America as a client-quality manager for a hospital," he says. "So I played up the fact that I speak Spanish and had taken classes in international business."

Analysis: Customized risumis can help, but there's a risk. "It narrows who you are," says Mr. Jimenez, "and that can be a problem if the resume gets passed on to another department and you've diluted certain aspects of yourself. Cover letters are the better place for addressing a company's needs."

The cover letter can also mitigate the less appealing aspects of your job history. "Multiple jobs register as a negative," says Carrie A. Mandel, managing director of the New York office of legal search firm Major, Hagen & Africa. Pointing out that Mr. Girard's multilane career path might have been hurting him, she says: "Use the cover letter to show that there is an endgame to what you are doing and to make it clear that you had been recruited for those various jobs," and that you weren't aimlessly wandering corporate America. (Unless, of course, you were.)

January 2004

Credit-card bills are piling up, it's time to start paying school loans, and Mr. Girard is considering abandoning the New York dream.

One night, a lobbyist friend in town from Texas invites him to a group dinner at a bistro in Greenwich Village. Mr. Girard goes along (potential free dinner) and winds up seated next to a manager from Pfizer Inc. They get to talking, and it turns out the man is looking to hire someone with a general skill set. "I went home and thought it sounded promising," Mr. Girard says.

Still, it seemed a long shot: Could someone really land a job at one of the world's largest and most competitive pharmaceutical companies over dinner? Apparently. "We had a telephone interview that seemed to go well," Mr. Girard says. "Two days later, I went in to see the hiring manager. After that meeting I was offered a job."

In February, Mr. Girard began working as an operations manager serving as a liaison between various departments and making sure projects and proposals flow through the pipeline efficiently. (He is technically employed by a temporary-employment agency as a consultant at Pfizer. There's no end date on his contract.)

Analysis: Ms. Segal says Mr. Girard's Greenwich Village restaurant encounter is precisely the kind of networking that he should have been doing throughout the search. Anyone you meet in any social setting is a possible lead. Even if money's tight, set aside a networking budget. Use credit cards if necessary. Martinis and lunches can be extremely effective tools when it comes to finding a job opening.

"He did the right thing in that he struck up a conversation with this person and didn't do it to pursue a job overtly," Ms. Segal says. "He was in the right place at the right time and handled himself in the right way."


Filed Under: Job Search