Watch the Typos, Call at 8: Advice From a Pro

Posted September 19, 2008 at 2:36pm

My first “real” job was scouting talent for Vin Di Bona’s TV show, “America’s Funniest People.” It was a freelance position and I had to watch people do really incredible, strange, gross and unbelievably stupid things. It’s amazing how so many folks can swallow a piece of spaghetti and pull it out their nose.

How did I get such a great gig? I walked up and asked for it. I was direct and eager, but before I landed that first job, I did 1,000 things wrong in my job search. Only out of sheer stubbornness did I say, “What do I have to lose?” The answer was nothing — and the question turns out to be my best advice. It shows just how I have reached almost every success, professional and personal.

In 1989 when I graduated from college, I had no real plan for finding a job, no mentor or guidance, no real knowledge of the job market. I wanted to work in television, but I really didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do as I hadn’t had an internship, nor had I talked to people in the industry. I went to the university in my hometown, and as my brother had gone to school there, they let me peruse their alumni records for people in the entertainment business. I typed (on a typewriter!) letters addressed to the Human Resources Department and panicked over which side the watermark went on my pretty, cream-colored paper.

And then I waited. And waited. And waited. I didn’t follow up with phone calls for fear of being deemed pushy or desperate, and although I did have some nice replies and an invitation or two for an informational interview, I had no real offers or encouragement. So I lay on the couch for a few weeks and watched television and imagined that everyone else I went to school with had landed their dream job — earning six figures, living in their own apartments, and wearing suit dresses with really big shoulder pads! (Hey, it was the ’80s.)

During an unbelievably dark day, I read the local paper to see if there was a job in my hometown, and as it turns out, I saw an article about “America’s Funniest People.” The producers of the show would be in town that night and were looking for, well, funny people. I had a glimpse of opportunity — of encouragement — and went to see the open call. I watched and waited and walked up to the producer and expressed interest in his job and asked how he got his start. That is how I got mine.

Spaghetti tricks led to logging football games on Saturdays at ABC: $50 a day and all the pizza I could eat (TV really is that glamorous). I eventually moved through the ranks of sports production and covered everything from college football to World Cup skiing. I proved myself through long hours and hard work and found success on many levels. I earned an Emmy Award, interviewed everyone from World Series champions to Olympic water polo players and traveled the world.

I loved the work I did — which is important — and I never measured success financially. I believe that if you do what you love, it will all come together. I segued my skills as a producer (pitching and telling stories, juggling creative wants with corporate needs, coordinating the whos and whats and whens) to find a perfect second career for me — an executive search consultant specializing in the media.

I now work with people on all sorts of career paths from editors and writers at the most popular magazines and Web sites to creative types at the nation’s most prestigious advertising agencies. It helps that I understand their language, but also I believe that I am familiar with where they are — looking for the “best” fit in terms of a career. All these job experiences have taught me certain lessons about what to do in searching for a great job.

Here are some pointers:

• Research the company and the person or people with whom you are scheduled to interview. Find out how big the company is, what product or service they offer. Ask yourself: How does your experience tie into this company?

• Call the person at the company you are interested in reaching at 8 a.m. Key executives are usually in the office early and might pick up the phone.

• Treat informational interviews as you would an actual interview (with the same preparation, professionalism and follow-up). Be “suited and booted,” as my friend in the U.K. says when expecting her sales staff to meet with clients. Be prepared — have a copy or two of your résumé and examples of your work, if possible. Thank the interviewer and mention that you will follow up within a few days. Always do what you say you’re going to do.

• Show up early to your meetings. I follow this rule: “If you are early, you are on time. If you are on time, you’re late.”

• Come prepared with questions about the company and the specific position.

• Always follow up in writing (e-mail initially and if inclined, a handwritten card or note as well).

• Don’t send thank-you notes from your PDA — typos are way too common.

• Find someone key to reach out to directly, if you can’t do it through networking. People love to talk about their path and in general, are happy (and flattered) to help someone starting out. Perhaps ask them for a cup of coffee to pick their brain about openings they might be aware of, etc.

• Be direct, and know what you want. You’re not special, and no one is going to single you out for any innate superstar qualities you have if you don’t tout them yourself. (Of course, you need to back up said touting.)

With these suggestions, job-seekers can be well on their way to job success. It worked for me.

Amy Shigo is director of the Howard-Sloan-Koller Group, a New York executive search firm specializing in media.