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Views from the Talent Pool: How Your Job Search is Like March Madness

by Kevin Flynn, Director of Recruitment and Candidate Services

Another season of March Madness is upon us. Since I’ve spent the majority of the last week either watching tournament games or interviewing candidates, I’ve started thinking how the March Madness is a lot like a job search. 

What can jobseekers learn from March Madness? Here are a few thoughts:

You’re up against a large playing field. In the NCAA, 68 teams compete in the tournament. In today’s nonprofit job market, there may be up to 500 candidates applying to one job (depending on the level and functional area of the position).  In the same way Gonzaga, Creighton and VCU have come out of nowhere to take the tournament by storm in recent years, there are amazingly talented candidates flooding the market today, and it’s not just the traditional profiles.  These are talented for-profit leaders looking for “Encore Careers” in the nonprofit sector, or graduates of the new crop of amazing nonprofit-focused MBA programs that have taken off over the past few years.  Add the fact that there are fewer AmeriCorps positions for recent college graduates, and fewer retirement age professionals actually retiring, and you’re looking at a pretty large – not to mention diverse and competitive – playing field. 

The best teams have great coaches.  It starts with the X’s and O’s.  When the players are on the court, they’re listening to the direction of a head coach and a couple assistants- they’re NOT going around to every fan in the stadium asking them for their advice on the next play.  In your job search, seek out a couple experts to be your coaches.  These should be people with a depth of experience with the current job market and hiring trends in the sector.  Everyone will have an opinion on your job search, but soliciting advice from this dozens of people will slow you down and leave your head spinning.  Cultivate as many fans and supporters as possible (they’re VERY important) .  These are folks that can introduce you to the right people, put in a good word on your behalf and cheer you on when the going gets tough.  However when it comes to the hard skills of planning and navigating a strategic job search, focus on finding 1 or 2 experts to be your coaches.  If you’re looking for some professional coaching in your own search, check out our Commongood Careers’ advising services. Learn more here.

Buzzer beaters do happen (but please focus on the high-percentage shots)! Yes, we’ve all sat in our driveways practicing the crazy half-court last-second shot pretending we’re Christian Laettner or Tate George or Bryce Drew.  We’ve all also applied for some jobs we knew were a big stretch.  Sure, go for that long shot now and then.  If it looks like your dream job and your “One Shining Moment,” let it fly. Remember though:  you need to be spending the majority of your time on creating the high-percentage opportunities- those that are a solid fit for your work experience and background.  Also, keep in mind you can turn those long shots into layups by networking your way in the door, getting to know team members and having solid recommendations coming from inside and outside the organization. 

There are always Cinderellas (and they never win it all!):  Fans love a good Cinderella story of an up-and-comer team making it deep in the tournament. Remember Butler as an 8 seed facing VCU as an 11 seed in the final four last year?  Well neither of them won a thing.  Cinderallas advance, grab a lot of attention and have the fans pulling for them, but they almost never win it all.  Same is true in the finalist stage of a job search. Hiring organizations will often fill out the group of finalists for a position with some candidates that are the exact target they’re looking for and 1 or 2 that represent a different or nontraditional candidate-model (maybe earlier in their career, maybe switching sectors, etc).  It’s a common practice.  When push comes to shove, however, they’re usually going to hire the target candidate who presents less of a gamble.  So does that mean the Cinderellas wasted their time and you should never apply to any position you’re not perfect for?  Absolutely not.  Every time you advance in an interview process you have the opportunity to impress the leadership at a hiring organization, and only good things can come from that.  Maybe the next job that opens at that organization is a better fit for you.  Maybe they recommend you for a similar role at a partner organization.  Rather than being a waste of time, getting to the finalist stage can be a door-opener for your next opportunity.  If you’re nontraditional, under-qualified, over-qualified, etc. for a particular role, remember:  Cinderallas almost never win in the end, but ask Butler and VCU- it’s still great to be one. 

Finally, every good player knows that it takes a lot of hard work to land on top. Just like making it to the Dance, a successful job search requires focus and perseverance, a winning attitude, and strong conviction. Have a solid game plan that starts with the X’s and O’s, surround yourself with good coaches, take high percentage shots, and, once in a while, trust yourself to sink a buzzer beater here and there.

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