Our Take: Lessons from a Job Hunt

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As Wall Street resizes itself, applying for jobs while unemployed appears set to become far more ordinary - maybe even respectable.

Given all that's going on with layoffs and rumors of layoffs, this may be a good time to jot down the lessons I drew from a recent job search, which took far longer than expected.

More than a year ago, after nine years as an analyst of varied fixed-income markets and instruments, I was laid off by a boutique firm. Fighting like a wounded bear to regain a place in my profession, I was hamstrung by a long-ago career change, a background with too much breadth and not enough depth, and being over 35.

As the months wore on, I felt like a loser: I was out of work while new jobs were springing up in every nook and cranny of the financial markets. Demand wasn't just buoyant; it was positively frothy. That made it doubly hard to pursue opportunities while imprisoned on what is quite cruelly called "the beach" or "the garden." In boom times especially, unemployed candidates bear a stigma that can make their task still harder.

So if one has to find a silver lining in the current and coming rounds of headcount reductions, this is it: If you fall victim to a mass layoff, at least you'll be in good company. With the industry in turmoil, a prospective employer won't be as prone to think, "What's wrong with this guy that he hasn't found a new job after four months?"

Here, then, is my first takeaway from my own recent job search:

'Standing out' is overrated. Instead, first strive to fit in.

All manner of career experts are forever urging candidates to go all-out to distinguish themselves from the crowd. This leads to the often-heard injunction to build resumes around impressive accomplishments, credentials and other unique differentiators, rather than emphasize past job responsibilities.

But candidates who adopt this approach in a mechanical way risk being out-of-step with a particular employer's needs. Whether you're in sales or structuring, M&A or marketing, currency hedging or compliance, when applying for work you should always view yourself as a salesman and prospective employers as potential customers. Then apply Rule No. 1 of financial services sales: Be client-focused, not product-focused.

Your first priority should be figuring out which qualities make up the ideal "best fit" for a particular role, in your prospect's mind. Tailor your resume to spotlight those qualities, and only those qualities - not those you think make you unique or show your biggest achievements. The latter have their place in a resume, to be sure. But don't make the mistake of elevating the features you're most proud of over and above those the employer is consciously looking for.

If you're applying to a posted opening, the most important requirements are often stated in the published job description. Incorporate every significant buzz word and buzz phrase from the ad that you legitimately can into your response. Copy the ad's exact phrases - don't substitute synonyms of your own. The employer's resume-screening software won't know or care how adept you are at rewriting things in your own words - even if it's a writing job you're applying for!

So the next time someone urges you to "stand out," think Japanese: "The nail that stands out gets hammered down."

Jon Jacobs was on vacation this week, so we're rerunning one of his previous columns. Look for Our Take to resume on July 11. (Originally published Nov. 30, 2007)

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