How quickly times change. Only a few short months ago, business was booming and demand for dynamic, go-getting professionals (people just like you) was at an all-time high. In those happy times, getting a new job could be as easy as having lunch with one of the recruitment execs who called up every couple of weeks. Even if the position looked risky, the balmy business climate made your chances of coming out on top good.
Now, of course, the picture isn't quite so rosy. But even though the economy is in the doldrums, there's no reason why your professional star shouldn't remain in the ascendant. Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, take some tips from the trade and manage your own career. After all, success in a downturn means taking the time to make the right decision (get it wrong and 'last in, first out' may apply), and you know your own mind better than anyone else. Here's the MT guide to becoming your own agent, headhunter and marketing director, all in one. Try it, says DAVID BUTCHER, and you could find yourself much better placed when the upturn finally comes along.
1. DON'T BE A PAWN
You can't rely on your boss to guide your career. If you do, you'll end up with drift rather than drive. Think about what your company's vision of your future is (assuming it has one) and ask yourself: 'Can I do better?' If the answer is no, fine. If it's yes, start digging an escape tunnel.
'People tend to react to their own career,' warns Janice Chalmers, editor of jobs site workthing.com. 'They react to moves by their employer when what they need is a planned strategy. Take a businesslike approach. Think about it as though you're a little plc: what is your next strategic move?'
2. LOOK INTO YOURSELF
If you're going to sell yourself, you need to be an expert on what you're like and how you operate. That's not easy. According to John Nicholson of business psychologists Nicholson McBride, few managers understand what their impact on other people is. 'People are often utterly unaware of the good they can do and the damage they can do. They just don't see it,' he says. We're not talking here about knowing your Myers-Briggs personality type or where you fit in the Belbin team model, though these templates can be useful. We're talking about the deep stuff, what makes you tick, your values, your fears, your frustrations.
At search firm Bird & Co, Isabel Bird gets all her candidates to look at themselves before they do anything else. 'Ask yourself: 'What kind of leader am I?'' she advises. 'Turn inwards and interrogate your abilities and achievements.'
In the process, you may uncover issues that need resolving before you can move up a level. 'You probably know all you need to know to be good at what you do,' says Bird. 'But it's not about training, it's about finding what are the secret hidden barriers that keep you from being superb.'
3 BECOME A STALKER
Once you've got a better sense of what you have to offer, consider which firms you should pursue. Don't just wonder what ones you like the look of; ask instead: 'Whose problems am I the best person to solve?' Then do your research.
Get the low-down on the firm you want to work for. Build up a detailed picture. 'Look at the annual accounts, read a broker's report,' advises Roddy Gow of City search firm Odgers, Ray & Berndtson. 'Talk to somebody you know in your community who knows the company - an audit partner, a broker, an analyst - and get a grasp of the particular problems that they're facing.'
Company accounts are easy enough to get hold of (the web site at companieshouse.co.uk is a good place to start), and so are press releases and news stories (run a search online). But look for press profiles of key individuals at the company too, and see if you like their style. Then map the company and work out who you should approach.
4. MAKE A COLD CALL
It's ballsy, but it can work. 'The very good candidates contact the company directly. They call the managing director and say, listen, I'm out there looking for something,' says Curly Maloney of Maloney Search. 'And, if the person's a real high-flier, the MD thinks, fantastic, I don't have to pay a head- hunting fee!'
Don't expect an instant job offer, though. Making yourself known is more likely to pay dividends down the road when the company is hiring. If you don't fancy risking everything on a phone call, write a short, sharp letter or send an e-mail. Headhunters agree that a surprising number of jobs end up being filled this way.
5. GET ON THE RADAR
Sometimes the best way to manage your career moves is indirectly, by stealth, by making yourself a presence in your industry so that the good jobs will come to you. Speak at conferences, give quotes to journalists, write articles and letters for trade magazines, be active in your industry bodies. You never know when getting yourself noticed will pay off.
'We had a few people on the list for one job,' recalls Steve Huxham of HUX Executive Recruitment. 'As we were doing the shortlist, one of the people on it appeared in a Sunday Times supplement on the sector. When that happened, it immediately promoted his profile to pretty much the top of the list. He was already well qualified, but it gave him an edge.'
6. MAKE IT PERSONAL
Use who you know. It's the oldest job-hunting wheeze in the book, and it works. As one headhunter admits: 'In the recruitment industry, we like to think we're very important. We're not. The number of people who get jobs through their own contacts rather than through intermediaries is very high indeed.'
So work your contacts, schmooze at conferences, go to networking events, keep your ear to the ground - the obvious stuff. But bear in mind, as John Nicholson points out, that it's not just about making and using friends. 'In terms of getting right to the top, good friends are less important than not having influential enemies.'
7. REMEMBER THE HOME FRONT
Talent-spotting at your present employer is important too. 'Without being a crawler, you need to associate with the people in your company who are successful,' says Steve Huxham. Cultivating the right connections and having a good profile in your place of work is vital, because when other people move on, or start a new business unit, or plan a restructuring, your talents need to be at the top of their mind. How often have you heard of a star manager who moves into a new job, then recruits all his or her old cronies from the previous company?
8. THINK TWO MOVES AHEAD
Take a long view. You may need to take Job B as a way of getting from Job A, where you are now, to Job C, which is where you want to be. 'You have to think about the move after the next one,' advises Huxham. 'Look at a job spec and put that on your CV two years from now. How does it stand you?' Try putting yourself in the dream job 10 years from now, and ask: 'How do I get there from here? How many moves will I have to make? What's missing from my mental toolbox?''
To round out your CV, you may have to zig now in order to zag later. So if your experience to date is in the corporate sector, you may want to spend time in an entrepreneurial environment. Proving you can work in a high-growth business will stand you in good stead if you want to return to the corporate fold later.
9. CHOOSE YOUR HEADHUNTER
OK, not everybody loves a headhunter, but swallow your distaste, because the best ones will be useful to you. They know the lie of the land and they know who's hiring.
The secret to picking a recruitment firm is to pick a person. Even in the biggest and best firms, there'll be stars and there'll be duds. 'Always go on a personal recommendation,' advises Curly Maloney. 'Ask trusted colleagues or friends, someone you know who has made a move and was headhunted.
Ask them to recommend personally an individual at the headhunting firm who dealt with them professionally.' And work out where to pitch yourself in the hierarchy. 'People always try to go to the headhunter who is just slightly too grand for the level that they've got to,' says Nicholson.
10. STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE
Don't bail out for the sake of it. If you're going to steer your own career you have to know when to sit tight and bide your time. Too often, people blame their employer for problems that are personal, then when they move job they take their baggage with them. 'Ask yourself: 'Am I stuck because I have issues I haven't resolved?'' suggests Isabel Bird.
''Or am I stuck because I really do have the potential to get there and it's my employer's issue.' That is the fundamental question that has to be answered.' Use your head.