How to Shorten Your Job Search and Survive an “Unintentional Sabbatical”

Opportunity is equal parts luck and preparation.

Last year, I found myself unexpectedly looking for my next position. While being on what I’ve come to call my “unintentional sabbatical” was not a planned step in my career, I quickly realized that having a negative attitude was a near-certain way to ensure putting my career back on track would be a long haul. Instead, I focused on staying positive during my job search and working as hard as I could to find a new position, while at the same time finding ways to enjoy the break in my career that I hoped would be a unique opportunity to rest and recharge. Fortunately, I was able to land on my feet within six months in a new position which is a great industry, duties/responsibilities, and cultural fit at a company I hope to be with for a long, long time.

Finding my new position was the realization of one of my core mantras – “opportunity is equal parts luck and preparation.” While success in finding a new position can be a matter of being in the right place at the right time, it’s important to do the proactive work necessary so that you are prepared to take advantage of any leads or opportunities that come your way. By being proactive, you increase the odds that you’re prepared when opportunity strikes. I’d worked proactively for a long time in part to be prepared just in case an “unintentional sabbatical” happened, and it helped me shorten the time it took find a new position.

Here are some of the things I’ve done, and things I’ve learned, to help me successfully navigate and shorten the job hunting process:

Pause and think through what you want to do next.

Before you launch head-first into your job search, it’s worth taking a day to think carefully about what you want next in your career.  Is it a position like the one you left/are planning to leave?  There’s nothing worse than waking up in the morning and being ambivalent, or angry/depressed/anxious, at the thought of going into the office for another day. You spend the majority of your waking life at work with your colleagues – you have to like the people you work with, the company you work for, the work you do. Think back over your career to the positions where you were the happiest.  What are the common elements in them, or when you think back have you never been happy in any position you’ve had?  Do you want to be a manager or an individual contributor?  Do you have an industry you feel passionate about?  Use this thought exercise to either validate the direction you want to go for the next step in your career (knowing you’ve validated you’re pursuing the right course should give your job search a burst of energy), or rethink what will make you truly happy in the next phase of your career path.

Build and maintain your network before you need it.

The wrong time to build a network is when you find yourself starting a job search.  Take time to proactively build and maintain a good network. Connect with former co-workers, peers in your community, and people you meet in your personal life. Find industry groups and go to meetings and social events to meet people in your industry (make sure to mingle, not just hang out by yourself). When you’re reaching out to people you think will be valuable additions to your network, don’t just ask them for help – offer to be a help and resource as well. If you are sincere in your offer to assist them as a member of their network, they may be more likely to go out of their way to help you in your job search.

If you connect with someone you don’t know personally on LinkedIn, send them a note thanking them for connecting with you, introducing yourself and summarizing your areas of expertise/skill, and offer to be of assistance as a member of their network. Make sure you take time to periodically reach out to members of your network – you never know who may play a critical role in helping you land your next position. Schedule regular coffees, lunches, and drinks with members of your network; reach out to congratulate them and re-connect when they make an announcement, such as a new position or a work anniversary.

Treat your co-workers the way you’d like them to treat (or remember) you.

Over the course of your career, you interact with a large number of co-workers at many levels.  Remember the golden rule you learned in grade school – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In addition to being a good philosophy by which to live, your current co-workers’ view of you and your skills/competencies/style can make or break a future job search. I learned this through experience; I found out after the fact that one of the hiring decision-makers for a position I had applied for (and got) did not call the references I provided. Instead, he contacted a few people we had in common in our networks (former co-workers of mine) to ask them for their thoughts on me.  Today’s co-workers are often tomorrow’s friends who may be willing to go the extra mile to help you in your job search (or even help you land that job you’re hoping for).

Don’t try to connect with everyone at once – It’s OK to stack rank and space out your networking activities.

Remember, job hunting is almost always a marathon, not a sprint. If you have built a strong network, when starting to look for a new position your first instinct may be to immediately reach out to as many members of your network as possible.  However, in my opinion you need to balance networking with other priorities in your life.  My target was 3-5 networking meetings per week (coffees, breakfasts, lunches, drinks, etc.). Create a “networking matrix” of contacts in your network with whom you want to set up networking meetings, and stack rank them. It’s OK to organize them by networking potential (i.e., those with very good connections and contacts in your target industry, former managers/bosses, etc.). Keep track of who you network with and when. Approach a handful (4-6) per week by phone, text, email, LinkedIn message, etc.; hopefully they get back to you so you can maintain a steady cadence of weekly networking meetings. You can always reach out to more contacts on your list to maintain your schedule of networking meetings. While it’s OK to stack rank by networking potential, don’t discount anyone – you never know who knows someone (who may know someone) who can lead you to a great job opportunity.

Leverage your network to prepare for interviews and research companies.

If you apply for a job, search your contacts (e.g., using LinkedIn) to see who is connected to, or working for, the company to which you’ve applied. If you have former colleagues at the company, consider reaching out to let them know you’ve applied for a position with the company and that it would be great to work with them again. Some may be willing to be an internal reference for you, or even put in a good word with the hiring manager. You can also reach out to colleagues for background on the people with whom you will be interviewing.  Additionally, if you’re researching companies you may want to target in your job search, connect with members of your network at those companies, both to reconnect with them and to learn more about the position.  Even if they don’t have a current position that would be a good fit, they may let others at the organization know you’re on the market.

Find ways to keep your skills sharp.

If you’re on an “unintentional sabbatical” like I was, it’s important to find ways to keep your skills fresh.  Fortunately, there are many ways you can do this.  For example, you can volunteer with an organization that lets you practice the skills you use at work.  Participate in online discussion forums and e-groups relevant to your industry. Offer to be a speaker or panelist at online webinars or live conferences.  Write articles in publications and on LinkedIn. These are also great ways to meet people to expand your network.

Interviews are your chance to sell yourself through the answers you give and the questions you ask.

When you get that sometimes elusive interview, take the time to prepare for the questions you’ll receive. Whether or not you’re in Sales, the interview is your chance to sell yourself, your style, and your qualifications for the position. Develop your professional “elevator pitch” as to why you’re the right person for the position – sell yourself. Research the company, and your interviewers, thoroughly. It’s OK to work out talking points for questions you anticipate receiving during the interview.  For example, if you have something in your job history that may be difficult to explain, work out how you want to position it in advance, and practice it.  When coming up with questions to ask an interviewer, think of questions where the expected answer highlights the skills and qualifications you discussed during the interview which can help cement your status as a strong candidate.

Don’t forget to thank members of your network when your job search is over.

Once you find a position, after you’re settled into your new position carve some time to send short notes to those in your network who assisted you during your job search. The networking contacts you connected with was part of what led you to your new position. Show those who took time to help you that you appreciated their support, guidance and/or friendship, and let them know that you stand ready to assist them if there’s something you can do for them in the future.

Also, while your networking will necessarily slow down while you get up to speed in your new position, don’t let it fade back to zero – maintain an achievable and regular networking schedule. Remember how important your network was while you were job hunting, and work proactively to keep your network strong should you (or someone you know) have a need in the future.

Finally, don’t forget to take time for you while job hunting.

If you find yourself on an “unintentional sabbatical,” your instinct is often to work night and day to find another position. While finding a job is a full-time pursuit in and of itself, most people don’t get the chance to take a sabbatical (intentional or not) during their career.  If you do, lean into it.  Make time to do things that will make you a better person, a better spouse, a better parent, and/or a better future employee. Once you’ve landed your next position, you don’t want to go from one stressful situation (job hunting) to another (working). By spending some time focused on you, not just finding a new job, you’ll ensure you are ready to give your new job your all when time comes.

Eric Lambert is Commercial Counsel for the Transportation and Logistics division of Trimble Inc., an integrated technology and software provider focused on transforming how work is done across multiple professions throughout the world’s largest industries. He supports the Trimble Transportation Mobility and Trimble Transportation Enterprise business units, leading providers of software and SaaS fleet mobility, communications, and data management solutions for transportation and logistics companies. He is a corporate generalist and proactive problem-solver who specializes in transactional agreements, technology/software/cloud, privacy, marketing and practical risk management. Eric is also a life-long techie, Internet junkie and avid reader of science fiction, and dabbles in a littlevoice-over work. Any opinions in this post are his own. This post does not constitute, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.

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