When we become a jobseeker, we become a competitor, vying with a crowded field of candidates for the same role. The comparison with sport is inescapable, so it makes sense that sport can teach us a thing or two about job-hunting.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is the power of marginal gains – the art of being just a tiny bit better, but at everything.
We live in a competitive era for all sports. Winning and losing carries heavy financial implications for individual athletes and teams alike. With so much at stake, it's not surprising that sports coaching and management is now an unceasing quest for marginal gains.
Most winners in sport have sought to get a little bit better at everything, knowing that this is the secret to winning over the long haul. Andy Murray started to win after he worked hard on his physical strength, emotional and psychological robustness, sprint speed, second serve and more besides. Before British Cycling became mired in controversy, Chris Boardman's meticulous preparation and obsessive search for competitive advantage led to his nickname, "The Professor".
The idea of marginal gains holds true in other competitive fields, such as business. Blue chip companies could easily be so cumbersome that they can barely react to market changes. So the smart leadership teams endlessly scrutinize and review. The Japanese idea of Kaizen, which means "change for better", underlies the science of continuous improvement that is widely adopted by businesses today. It includes all functions and processes of businesses of any degree of size and complexity, and involves continuous analysis of actions and processes in order to identify areas of improvement.
Why be concerned about marginal gains? Why do so many coaches, athletes, teams, managers and leaders in all fields obsess so much over the idea, and work so hard to find what are sometimes infinitesimally small ways in which to improve?
The answer is that it is very difficult to rapidly take giant strides in improvement in any competitive field of endeavour. It is more realistic to work hard to achieve small improvements in a number of areas that, collectively and over time, give you a small advantage - the difference between winning and losing when everyone around you is also very, very good.
So now let's imagine you're a job seeker. You're going for a role that you really want. You've worked hard to get yourself to the position where you're a fine candidate for the job: you've got the skills, the personality, the resilience and the experience. But on paper, you're a in a dead heat with a lot of other individuals who have worked equally hard to make themselves the best they can be.
Are there any easy small adjustments you can make, or good habits you can adopt, that may just help you achieve marginal gains and give you just the slightest advantage over the rest of the field?
The good news is, yes, there are. And many of them are surprisingly simple. Do all of these things, and do them all the time. Make them habit. And you will almost certainly increase your chances in today's competitive job market.
1. Be available
This is a tough one. I mentioned in a recent blog that it's not always easy to answer the phone these days. But it's ironic that in the always-on, connected age, many people are harder to get hold of than ever. People are suspicious of their phone whilst being almost permanently connected to it. Whether it's a recruiter or an HR manager, there are still a lot of people who will want to speak to you to offer you an interview or determine your interest for a role. Stay connected, and pick up the phone. Remember – a lot of your competitors aren't doing this, so this just might give you an edge.
2. Dress to impress
You can find blogs about common interview mistakes and good interview practice elsewhere on this site, but it’s worth emphasising a point about dress code. Many business today are relaxing their dress code, but you should still dress to impress for your interview. And a little bit of research can't hurt here – find out what the dress code for your prospective employer is and dress appropriately. What you want to do is avoid the silly mistakes that place people at a disadvantage – and getting the dress code wrong can be one of them.
3. Consider how you come across.
Body language can tell an interviewer more about you than you realise, and it also gives away an awful lot about what you're thinking and feeling. So be alert. Give your interviewer your full attention. Be authentic – don't be afraid to be yourself. And although it's easy to say this and harder to adopt, try to relax and enjoy your interview – the more relaxed you are, the more authentic you will be.
4. Set goals and make plans.
If you've got a specific ambition – say, to work in a new sector or just to take the next step up the ladder within your current field, you've got a few ways you could approach it.
One is to apply for a couple of jobs you like the look of and hope for the best.
The other way works! It involves creating a plan, doing your research, knowing your limits and boundaries (what skills you have and have not got, what you're prepared to do to improve and how far you're prepared to commute), identifying good sources of jobs, and making a hit list of companies to approach.
I suggest treating it like a project, with a to-do list, timelines and objectives. For example, "by date x I will have perfected two versions of my CV to reflect the two roles I am most interested in, will have registered with an agency and identified and spoken to the right specialist there, and will also have also applied to 5 jobs."
5. Don't go it alone.
Job hunting can be lonely, daunting and stressful. It can also be exhilarating, fun and can help you to recognise just how brilliant you really are.
It's more likely to be fun and less likely to be lonely if you have a friend, partner, or recruiter with whom you can share your ideas, thoughts, project milestones and concerns. I heartily recommend finding a good recruiter to "partner" with at this time. I should add here that at 1-1 Recruitment we really do like to know our candidates well – we know we can do a much better job for them if we do. So do call us for a chat.
6. Know your strengths and the implications of them
Do you really know how good you are? Many people turn to professionals to help them write their CV because they're no good at selling themselves. But writing your CV (however you do it) can often be a very positive exercise. Think about where you have made a difference and what you can bring to an organisation. Ask yourself, "What does an organisation get when they hire me?"
Ask five people you trust to tell you what they think are your greatest strengths both socially and professionally. If you have strengths in a personal context that you aren't currently bringing to your professional life, can you figure out a way to do so?
There are many tools available that can help you to figure out your strengths. They can also help you figure out whether you're in the right job for you! I've always been keen to ensure that I'm spending my time and energy wisely and stop every once in a while to reflect on my life choices.
Many years ago I used a strength profiling system, Strengthscope, to help me make some decisions about my career. It revealed that my main strengths are relationship-building, enthusiasm and compassion, and at a time when I was thinking hard about what to do with myself, helped me to recognise that recruitment is a great career for me.
It also helps to recognise that not everyone is the same as you, and that you might have to adapt your message to suit people who see the world differently. For example, enthusiasm may be interpreted as recklessness by people who are naturally cautious – and caution can be a good quality to have, too!
7. Get your CV right.
Your strengths are a good starting point for your personal profile at the start of your CV, or for the whole tone or theme of your CV. Here are few more brief tips for your CV, which we'll cover in more depth in a future blog. First, concentrate on your achievements more than your responsibilities. Second, be authentic about who you are and what qualities you bring to a job. Third, write a really persuasive, punchy profile section that gives an insight into your professional identity. Fourth, make sure your CV matches your LinkedIn profile. Finally, keep it to two sides if you possibly can!
8. Use (and don't abuse) your social media
To reiterate a point from one of our previous blogs, make sure your social media is working for you, not against you. Follow and engage with companies you like. Be real, and be you, but don't overshare. Recognise that all social media these days can be a shop window for prospective employers.
And finally, when you do get an interview, be mindful of good interview protocol. There's a lot to this, so make sure you read our blogs about interviews after you finish this one!
Good luck, and don't forget to speak to us if you need help with your job search!
We've got some more advice coming soon about bigger steps you can take to ensure you're on the right career path!