Job Hunting: Getting Past the Gatekeeper

Gatekeeper lock

One skill that will serve any job seeker is the ability to get past an organization’s “gatekeepers” and in front of its “decision-makers.”

Job-hunting is a lot like learning to drive a car. No one is born knowing how to drive or how to conduct a job search—yet both are very learnable skills. It is simply a matter of learning the rules.

In the perfect world job seekers can bypass the gatekeeper by finding out who inside the organization is the decision maker and connecting directly with that person. Remember, getting past a gatekeeper is not about being sneaky or dishonest. It is about being strategic and building key relationships.

Once I had a client interested in an executive position at a not-for-profit organization. She applied online and tried several times to reach the recruiter/gatekeeper to no avail. Then she looked at the organization’s annual report and learned a former boss was on their advisory board. She reached out to him to ask what he thought about the organization and whether or not he thought she would be a good match for the role they were looking to fill. He called the organization on her behalf and within 24 hours the recruiter contacted her to set up an interview.

Here are some pointers:

Ask people in your personal network if they know anyone in the company. Even if they don’t know the decision maker, the person they do know may be able to provide some insider information. Remember, they have access to the company telephone directory.

Visit the company website to see if you can find the name of the person responsible for hiring — or better yet for the department you are interested in. Look in the obvious places (like the career page) but also dig deeper. Check out the “Investor Relations Page” or “In the News.” If it is a public company you should be able to find Annual Reports (which list board members and key officers). Then you can loop back and ask your contacts if they know any of those people.

Use the public library! Libraries have access to premium databases —worth THOUSANDS of dollars – that can help you find the name of someone inside a company to contact. Check out Reference USA Business Directories Online. It is a suite of directories of all U.S. employers—including government and non-profit entities. Job seekers can tailor searches by industry, size and location and get detailed information about the company, including contact names of people in management. Best of all, you can create and download your very own contact list of potential targets.

If you are targeting smaller, regional employers, make friends with the reference librarian in your town. They can be a great source of information.

Don’t forget to use LinkedIn. You can look by company (and it will list all the employees on the site) or by name. Sometimes you can reach out directly to people, BUT if you are trying to build a relationship you cannot just send LinkedIn’s standard, “I would like to add you to my professional network” email. Say something about WHY you want to add them. This is not the place to say, “I want a job with you!” It is the place to highlight why they would WANT TO meet you. (Because you can help them solve their problems!) Spend time trying to craft something compelling.

One of my most memorable stories involves a client who tried unsuccessfully to find an entry point into his target employer. Through researching their website, he discovered that the company supported a specific charity and they were hosting a fundraising event. He bought a ticket to the event, made it a point to meet people within the company, and asked how he might get involved with the charity.

While on the surface that may sound manipulative, it was a charity he was genuinely interested in supporting and it put him in the sphere of people he was interested in meeting. Like the attorney example, he planted seeds to build relationships based on mutual interests. Over the course of a few months, he revealed he was looking for a job, talked about what his skills and talents were, and, because he had impressed a few people within the organization, they were able to help introduce him to the people responsible for hiring.

Unfortunately, sometimes there is no way around the gatekeeper and you must go through them — especially if you are trying to connect via telephone. The very essence of the gatekeeper is to keep the unwanted world away from a busy boss. Your challenge is to position yourself so that you are not thought of as the “unwanted world.”

Figure out how you can make the gatekeeper look good by positioning yourself as someone the boss NEEDS to meet. This requires doing your homework. You need to focus on their needs/problems and how you can help solve them. Some tips:

Be respectful of their role. If you treat them like an obstacle, instead of as a potential ally, you are doing yourself a disservice. It is your job to briefly explain why you are trying to reach their boss and ask for their help in a respectful way. (“Is it best to send an email/leave a voice mail? Is there a better time to call to reach him?”)

Never lie and say you are friends. Don’t say it is personal. You could say, “I am following up on some correspondence.” The key is to sound confident…like someone the boss typically speaks with so that you are not screen out. If you can’t get through, say you will call back. When you call back (a day or two later), ask the gatekeeper’s name. “Joe, I think you were the person I spoke with yesterday. I am mindful of how busy you are; is there a better time for me to try?”

If it is impossible to turn the gatekeeper into an ally (and sometimes it is) try calling before 9 or after 5, when the target is likely to answer the phone him or herself. (You could also try during lunch hour.) Be careful of dialing and hanging up. Most corporations have caller ID. They will know this is the 20th time you’ve called, and they will be annoyed before they have even spoken to you.

About the Author

Kathleen Brady, CPC is a career coach and corporate trainer with more than 25 years of experience helping people realize their career goals.

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