Don’t Stop Until the Door Slams (or Opens)


Private clients, business school students, and corporate clients have frequently asked a basic question about executing a successful career transition:  How many times do I contact someone I want to meet until I get a response?  Or, how many times do I call or email before I can get an answer, any answer, about the job I interviewed for?  

My standard answer is “Until the door slams.”  In other words, until there’s a firm “no.”  Or, we hope, the door opens: “We want to make you an offer,” or “I’d be glad to meet with you; sorry it took me so long to get back to you.”  We want that door to do something.  There are exceptions, as when you start to feel that it’s pointless or that the situation isn’t important enough to keep putting yourself out there.  Or that the job wasn’t that great to begin with, and the non-response is telling you something about the organization’s culture.  Career transition is tough enough, right?  Maybe you just are tired of going after that one situation, without any response, after you’ve tried so many times.

Many think all this persistence is standard sales technique.  In many ways, it is.

A View from Within the Organization

A while back, when I was a staffing officer with what was then called The Chase Manhattan Bank (employees referred to it frequently as “Mother Chase,” since in those days you could count on lifetime employment in many departments), I dealt with many external recruiters. 350 of them when I first started; no exaggeration.   

This was in an era of the brand new fax machine – the one that created an odor throughout the entire 22nd floor of 1 New York Plaza, which used a slick, oily paper roll feed.  The resumes from recruiters literally flew out of that machine.  And, unfortunately, the phone never stopped. No answering machines allowed in the office in those days.  They were considered impolite and possibly a missed business opportunity.  Needless, to say, no pc’s on individual desks yet (and, of course, no email).  

By the time I left “The Chase” after five years, I had learned an amazing amount about corporate hiring practices, i.e., networking, ads, internal referrals, logistics of setting up interviews, how to make which referrals to whom in the organization – and, most interestingly, how the utilization of executive search/recruiters works.   The recruiters exhibited a wide range of behaviors – relentlessness, dishonesty, misrepresentation of clients via doctored-up resumes, high quality clients, factory-produced candidates who may or may not have matched specifications, bribery of astonishing breadth (that’s a whole other article, but I must mention the word “kickbacks” here), and both excellent and terrible social intelligence.   

The most important thing I learned was that the relentlessness part was the characteristic that was most successful, in presenting candidates for open positions, whether or not we liked the recruiter. After the incessant phoning, the key was presenting quality candidates.   Some of the most successful recruiters were… obnoxious.  

I certainly wouldn’t suggest to people I advise that they become as relentless as the recruiters with whom I worked .  Unlike career transition, the chemistry between them and me or others on our staff wasn’t all that important.  I figured that out by the time I was about to leave the bank, and was training my successor.  He was surprised to hear that our “core” list of recruiters didn’t necessarily consist of people we liked; he was even more surprised that I couldn’t stand spending time with about 7 out of the 10 I worked with most.  I mostly cared about their presenting quality candidates for open positions.  Of course, that latter proportion is not appropriate for what we’re looking for in a career transition, where chemistry and fit are critical.  

A Recent Client Example

I’ve been working with a client recently who has a combination of strong presentation and impressive credentials.  She’s what I call a “walking unique selling proposition.”  Unfortunately, she is hitting her market at a time where the politics of her geographic area are having a profoundly negative effect on opportunities in her profession.  This means a rapidly shrinking market for her unique skills.  

She’s been relentless.  Not like the recruiters mentioned above, but in very subtle, sometimes indirect, always intelligent ways, which will work far better than the hard sell techniques I discussed when talking about recruiters working with The Chase Manhattan Bank.  

She was introduced to a major figure in her field, a man who could open many doors for her, not to mention that he ran an organization of great interest to her.    

The meeting went poorly.  Something was off, and my client couldn’t figure out what.  But the dynamic just wasn’t there, and the conversation went nowhere.  Of course, this happens frequently in any career transition, and you never know what happened.  Maybe the other person had a migraine?  Or just wasn’t in the mood for an informational meeting?  Too many variables to fully understand, unless you might’ve said something that you knew was off the mark.  My client had no idea what the problem had been.

I told her not to beat herself up, that bad meetings in this process happen sometimes, with no clear reason.  One of the hardest things in career transition is that it’s so isolating, and people end up ruminating about every aspect over and over again, which frequently ends up like an exercise in reading tea leaves.  Some introspection is good for a job search, but there have to be limits.  Otherwise, the whole exercise becomes self-defeating, and a job seeker becomes reluctant to risk making mistakes.  That fear, of course, could easily create a diminished search. 

My client continued her relationship building (otherwise known as networking), and oddly, two of the next people she met suggested she meet the man with whom she had had the bad meeting.  She was reluctant to follow up on their suggestions to contact him; I thought she had nothing to lose, and maybe he had forgotten the first meeting.  Her two contacts also mentioned that he was hiring for his own organization.  This was too tempting to pass up.  To hell with ego and fear of rejection.  

She contacted him and arranged a meeting.  This time was an entirely different story.  He did remember her, but the conversation flowed, and she now has a job interview with his organization set up.  She couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong in the first meeting, but it didn’t matter!  

Her persistence paid off in getting an interview for a job she really wanted.  Her key was to keep going until that door, in her case, actually did open.