How To Find Your Dream Job
Everyone wants to be happy, right? And most of us will spend about half of our waking hours at our job. So liking or even loving our jobs must be one of the key factors in our personal happiness, right? So why is it that so many people stay in jobs that make them miserable? I'll give you an example.
My good friend Bob (not his real name) is 47 years old. He started working in IT for a big bank over ten years ago. At first he loved the job. It was challenging work, and the people that he worked with were lots of fun to be around. But over the years, Bob got passed over for promotion a couple of times. Most of his friends moved on to other departments and higher paying gigs, and at the same time his own work became less challenging, even to the point of being menial. About four years ago Bob started telling me that he was unhappy with his work life. He wanted a new challenge and a chance to move into a role where he could manage people instead of just doing task-based work. Bob told me this same story over lunch at least once a month for two years. And at almost every lunch I would suggest to Bob that he needed to start looking for a better job. But it wasn't until last year that he actually started looking for a new position. And then it took him another year to find one. I'll explain more about why it took so long in a few minutes. My point here is that Bob spent three or four years in a miserable job because he was unprepared, and therefore unable to land a better job. I don't want you to make the same mistake as Bob. So in this article, I am going to tell you how to find and land a dream job. I have done it several times myself. It is not that hard. It just takes proper planning and faithful execution.
For the purposes of this article, we're going to assume a couple of things about your quest for a dream job: a) that you know what you want to do with your life and have some formal training in your field, and b) that to do this thing you love, you need to work for someone else (in other words you are not looking to start a business). If you have a problem with (a), there are many books, classes, and other resources that can help you figure that out. However, if (b) does not apply to you, then you probably don't need to be reading this article. For everyone else, let's talk a little about your dream.
I have had about 11 jobs in my IT career over a 20 year period. That's more than most folks, but for me it was just right. Each job I had was a stepping stone, and a few were dream jobs. Yes, even dream jobs don't last forever; in fact some don't last very long at all. But all of my jobs have had two things in common. First, I learned something valuable at every one of them, no matter how miserable I was, and second, at each job I met new contacts to add to my job hunting network. For example, I once had a job where I worked in a windowless basement sitting at a card table facing seven other unfortunate IT people. The walls were painted battleship grey and we all shared one smelly, uni-sex bathroom, which made me feel really sorry for the lone woman on our team. I hated that job; at least I hated the work environment. I stayed there for exactly one year, just long enough to deliver a project that I promised to my manager when I was hired. But don’t think that job was a loss to me in my career. In fact, while I was there I learned about the inner workings of a state regulatory department, and I met some people that later would introduce me to business opportunities in other business sectors.
There are two takeaways for you here:
1) You should always be preparing for your next job. Later I will discuss what it means to prepare properly.
2) Every job, no matter how tedious or dull, is a learning experience. You must use every opportunity to lay the groundwork for landing your dream job.
I Know a Little 'Bout It
Let’s talk about what it means to prepare for your dream job. There are two aspects to your preparation, the WHAT and the WHO. In this section, we will talk strictly about the WHAT. Throughout your career, you may find jobs through many different channels, and you may get interviews based on who you know, but unless your daddy owns the company, you are going to get hired and be successful based on one thing and one thing only: WHAT you know. So the first thing you need to do to land your dream job is to “KNOW YOUR STUFF”.
I've noticed throughout my 20 years of working in IT that within any organization of people there is a bell curve of success. What I mean is that there are about 20% of people that are really successful, and seem to thrive no matter where they work. You know these people. They get the good assignments, the good offices, and the good promotions. Then there are about 60% of people that are solid workers, but not rock stars. Simply put, they are dependable, but replaceable. Finally there are about 20% of people who just don't belong. They are lazy, or inept, or both. So tell me, which person are you? If you can't honestly say that you are in the top 20%, I can tell you right now that you aren't going to land your dream job. Why not, you ask? It’s because of the "Birds of a Feather" principle. You know it, so say it with me, "Birds of a feather flock together." Think of it this way; your manager probably wants to be successful. His manager definitely wants to be successful. And the person who owns the company most certainly wants to be successful. Consequently, those people want to surround themselves with other people who can help to make them successful. If you are one of those people, you will most certainly get promoted, get recognized, and eventually land your dream job. If not, you are just a cog in the wheel, and as the man said, “The squeaky cog gets replaced.”
So what does it mean to know your stuff? It means you need to have a deep understanding of your job from the inside out. There is a solar system of knowledge revolving around you when you are at work. Nearest to you are your daily tasks and assignments, and those of your co-workers and manager. You need to learn them all. Why? It’s because it will help you to think strategically about your job and its place in the company. Next is the knowledge of what your department or division does for the company and how it relates to other divisions of the company. You should create a set of mental (or physical) flowcharts about how things like sales, products, people, inventory, etc flow through your company. You should understand your company’s budget process, and where they spend their money. This will help you talk intelligently at meetings, when it counts. It will also help you to see opportunities for cost improvements, one of the three grails of corporate success. Beyond that is your company's place in its industry. Is your company a leader, a niche player, or a has-been? Who are some other players in your industry? You should know these things because you are most likely to find a dream job at a competitor of the company that you work for now. Finally, and most importantly, know your industry. If you are in marketing, you should know the marketing industry inside and out. Where did it come from? Where is it going? What is driving change in the industry? Will your industry survive into the next decade? Knowing these things will guide your thinking about where to find your dream job, or whether you should be thinking about a career change.
It will take time for you to learn all of this stuff. Some of it can be found in books and magazines, or on-line. But a lot of it will be found in conversations, meetings, seminars, and trade shows. You should take part in as many of these learning opportunities as you can. This is the cardinal rule of career growth for non-executives: NEVER PASS UP A MEETING. Remember that rule. I know it is against most people’s nature to want to go to meetings. But meetings are where decisions are made, and where knowledge is turned directly and sometimes instantly into power. Meetings give you three things: visibility, knowledge, and experience. It's a stone cold fact that people who go to meetings (and participate enthusiastically) get noticed, and consequently get better assignments.
Another place to learn your stuff is on special assignment. I once spent a month at a metal extrusion plant learning how to install network gear. It wasn’t part of my core expertise when I went there. But by the time I left, I knew something about networking, something about metal extrusion, and a whole lot about what makes a manufacturing plant tick. Special assignments are often shunned by lazy workers, who would rather be in their cubicles looking at YouTube. But if you want to land your dream job, you need to know a lot more about your business than you can learn in your cubicle. So do yourself a favor and take that trip to Ontario. Better yet, go with your manager to the convention in St. Louis. That will give you industry exposure and management exposure.
Once you know your stuff, you are what is called an expert in your field or industry. Experts don’t need to hunt for work, work hunts for them, that is if the hunters know that the expert is available. And that’s where the second part of our lesson comes in, the WHO.
Who Are You?
Since about the fifth year of my career, I have never had to hunt for a job. I have in fact, on several occasions, had people on the phone offer me jobs while I was sitting at the desk of another job. And while this is partly a consequence of my inate ability to learn, codify, and regurgitate industry and technical knowledge with some clarity, it actually has more to do with the fact that I know a LOT of people. When you know a lot of people, and you stay in touch with them, you have a better chance of being thought of when they are in a conference room together asking questions like, "Gee, I wonder who is smart enough, and expert enough to be the CTO of our new start-up Internet company?" See what I mean? By the way, this actually happened to me. I went from programming at a manufacturing firm to the dream job of being CTO at a million dollar consulting firm in one step. It was partly luck, but it was mostly “knowing people”, and being well thought of by them. So this is my simple lesson to you; get to know the right people.
You might ask, “Who are the right people and how do I meet them?” Good question. The right people are
- Anyone who owns or works in a business that interests you, even casually.
- Anyone who recruits for companies that interest you, or for consulting firms that work in companies that interest you
- Anyone else
In other words, you can never know too many people in business. Now, how do you meet them? Well that’s a little trickier, because you can’t just insert yourself into the lives of business people (unless they are paid recruiters) because Business people are, by definition, busy. So you need to get to them when they are most vulnerable, namely when they are learning. But that is really no big deal because, you see, successful business people are always learning; that’s why they’re successful. To learn, they do things like read industry journals and magazines, surf the Internet, go to seminars and conferences, and other stuff that I am sure you can think of if you try. So if you want to meet them, you need to be at these places and in these media outlets. And if you want to really impress them to the point that they come right up to you and shake hands, then you need to be presenting at the conference, or writing for the journal.
When I was an up and comer in the IT industry, I did some pretty audacious things to get noticed. For instance, I spoke at Oracle Open World, a huge industry conference, on a topic that I was only moderately versed in. I also wrote a monthly article about IT in a regional business letter. I guest lectured at CMU and Georgia Tech about IT strategy and transformational thinking, all this from a guy who never even finished college! Granted, I didn’t just start doing this stuff out of the blue. It was a snowball effect; one article in a trade magazine lead to another, a membership in a local “Birds of a Feather” group lead to speaking engagements at conferences and Universities. The point is that I had the goal of meeting people in my industry and I made it happen one step at a time. This eventually culminated in one of my dream jobs in the IT industry, Chief Architect at a Federal Agency.
You can do the same thing I did. In fact, today there are many MORE opportunities to write and speak at industry events. The Internet provides almost unlimited opportunity to get the eyes and ears of your industry focused on you. All you need it the willingness to put in the time and effort to become an expert, and then to leverage that expertise into a dream job.
I know you’re probably thinking that all of this preparation is a lot of work before you ever get a shot at your dream job. And you’re right, it is a lot of work. And that’s why so few people get to the top of their chosen field. The truth is, it’s easier to sit around and gripe about how you have to “know somebody” to get a promotion in your company than it is to learn all of the things you need to learn and then go out and meet all of the people you need to know to get that dream job. But I guarantee that if you put in the time, you will reap the rewards. Your dream job is out there waiting for you, but it’s not nearby. It’s more like over the mountain in the next state. You have to get off your butt and go get it.