Eight lessons learned from a former journalist's job search
As the AARP solicitations in my mailbox arrive with ever-increasing frequency, I am reminded of something a friend once told me about our aging: “When the rock starts rolling downhill, it picks up speed.”
Next month I’ll mark my 10th anniversary as a member of Poynter’s faculty, and in addition to wondering where that decade went (and, by the way, when did Paul McCartney get to be 72?), I find myself thinking about how this gig has fit into the journey we call a career.
My resume: Journalist, 27 years. VP of Communications, 3 years; journalism teacher, 10 years.
The jobs are, in many ways, very different. But each one gave me the opportunity to try something new, to learn from talented and, often, inspirational people, and to contribute something I care about passionately: giving people the information and meaning they need to live better lives.
Often, I tell people who ask about my career that I’ve been blessed. And I have. I also recall, however, the point in that resume when I spent many months looking for work—just as many journalists and other professionals are looking today. Some, like me, chose to part ways with their organizations, and some had no choice in the matter.
Many of us have one thing in common: We never expected to be out of work.
Eight years ago, I wrote a column about my transition from journalist to PR professional, and some of the lessons I learned about how to approach a job search – especially when it involves changing your line of work. Are they original? I doubt it. But none of them had mattered to me until that day when I thought about not being able to contribute to my family’s well-being.
Here’s a short list of the things I learned:
Truth 1: The process takes time. Some people are lucky; they leave a job on Friday and start another on Monday. Most do not. I needed almost six months (thankfully, I had a buyout check in my pocket.) But planning for a lengthy process increases the likelihood that you’ll create a plan for your search.
Truth 2: Your resume is important, but the people you know are more important. In an age when it’s way-too-easy to submit your job application and resume online, differentiating yourself from the crowd often involves someone’s personal intervention. You need to know people. If you don’t, you need to meet them.
Networking is not a cliché. It matters. When I decided to leave The Inquirer after almost 20 years, I also decided to look for a job outside journalism. First stop was my contact list (okay, we called it a Rolodex back then, but I’m trying not to date myself too badly.) I had hundreds of phone numbers and email addresses, but they were all for journalists. I needed a different source list if I was to find a non-journalism job.
That’s why my plan’s first objective was to build a network. For the first few months of my search, my goal each day was either to talk with a new contact about my future, or to arrange a meeting with one.
How did I arrange to meet them? Two ways, referrals and chutzpah.
Sometimes I would ask a friend to introduce me to someone whom I considered creative or well-connected, or both. And sometimes I would simply call or write to people I wanted to know and ask them for a meeting. Both approaches worked.
Call people you don’t think will talk with you. This is where being a journalist served me well. While many job seekers might hesitate to call people who help run universities, sports franchises, big companies and other organizations, journalists routinely seek interviews with people in positions of power and influence. It impressed me how many of those people said yes, I'd be happy to talk with you.
When I called someone I didn’t know, here was the gist of my request:
Hi, my name is Butch Ward, and I’ve recently left my job as Managing Editor of the Inquirer. I’m exploring possibilities for taking my career in a new direction, and I believe you are someone who could help me think through the possibilities. I promise not to ask you for a job. I would just appreciate a half-hour of your time.
During the four or five months that I spent building a network, I made that pitch at least 20 times. Only one person told me she was too busy to talk with me. The others, along with the people I met through referrals, not only gave generously of their time and ideas, they invariably suggested someone else I should meet—and offered to introduce me.
So don’t be afraid to ask.
Just get a job. When I left the Inquirer, I was almost 50 and had spent my entire career with two companies. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, but PR was not on my list. After five months of looking without success, though, I realized that I was being really picky—looking for the perfect job I could ride into retirement.
That’s when I realized I should just get a job. If it didn’t work out, I’d have to look for another one—but I’d be working from a better starting point:
It’s easier to find a job when you’re employed than when you have to explain to someone why you’re not.
That’s when I considered business communications, or PR—but not just any PR.
Try to honor your values. Two factors convinced me to take the communications job I was offered at Independence Blue Cross. First, one of my closest friends had worked there for almost 10 years and believed in the company. I trusted his values.
The second was that working in one of the major sectors in America’s health care debate appealed to the part of me that wants to do work that matters. It seemed to me that my ability to invest myself fully in the new work would be enhanced if I believed in its value. And that proved to be right.
So think: What are the values you want a new job to embody? Can you balance them with your need to find work that helps you fulfill the responsibilities in your life?
Talk with everyone—and anyone. In the beginning, I believed that my challenge was simple: I needed a job, and I, Butch Ward, needed to find it. But as time went on, I realized that success might occur because I stayed open to letting a job find me. That realization led me to share my story with many more people in my life.
Other parents on the soccer field. A friend at church. Relatives.
Some offered ideas. Some offered words of support. And some asked questions or offered opinions that helped me to broaden my search or challenge my assumptions (about jobs in PR, for example).
As a group, they helped me wrestle with the questions that guided my search:
- What jobs was I qualified to do?
- What kinds of work could interest me and address my passions?
- Who could help me answer these questions?
Nourish your life. Without a doubt, the best part about being out of work for a long time was the opportunity to participate more fully in the other aspects of my life. I saw all of my daughter’s high school soccer games. I saw more of my wife and our friends. I tackled some projects at home. Truth is, I had needed to pay more attention to these areas while I was employed, and my hiatus from work helped me recommit to doing better with work-life balance in the future.
But for the time being, the non-work part of my life helped carry me through a period of my life when I needed to feel valued and productive.
Eventually, my search led to a networking meeting with a man at Independence Blue Cross who was about to retire—and told me I should apply for his job. He introduced me to his boss, and within a few weeks, I accepted an offer. (My friend at IBC stayed out of the process, so as not to prejudice it. That was his way of saying he believed in me.)
If you are one of those journalists who find yourself out of work, I hope at least two things buoy you during your search: a belief in yourself, and the belief that others have in you. I also hope that you make at least one more discovery: people want to help you. Some may not have a job to offer, but they might have ideas, or questions, or support.
They want to help. Don’t be afraid to ask.
And believe this: All will be well.