In game shows, contestants who feel stumped are allowed one lifeline call to ask for help. Suppose you're out of work and frustrated about having disappeared from sight in your industry. This time, you can make as many as 20 calls. Who do you contact?
I put that question recently to Ron Drabkin, one of Silicon Valley's nimblest job finders. Back in the 1990s, Ron worked for a typical big company (in his case, Intel, the microchip company.) Since then, he has switched jobs at least four times, without ever typing up a resume or filling out a job application. Instead, he has become a master at staying noticed in his field, and making the most of a wide range of professional contacts.
For people like Ron, new jobs just seem to happen. He started out in manufacturing management, but in a pinch, he can do sales, online-ad strategy or general team leadership. Bosses seem to like the way he gets things done. Over coffee one morning, I asked him to pick apart the ways he stays visible, no matter how the job roller-coaster is playing out. Here's what he told me:
Help other people, especially newcomers on their way up. Year after year, Ron does a lot of free, short-term consulting with students, job-hunters and start-up founders. If those people's fortunes take off, Ron says, "they don't forget who was on their side at the beginning."
Keep in contact with your mentors. Early in your career, get to know the savvy pros in your field. Ask them periodically for informal advice about how the field is changing and what opportunities you should be seeking. If you stay in touch during lulls, it's easier to reconnect in urgent times, too.
Be imaginative in building your network. Don't mingle only with your old office mates. Get to know your customers and suppliers, too. Stay in touch with high school classmates and people who came to your wedding. Get to know insiders at great companies where you want to work. Often, it is friends of friends of friends who will bring your next job lead. Staying well-connected can pay off in ways you wouldn't expect.
Get your industry thoughts into public view. You don't need to be a great writer or speaker to do this. The world is full of low-stress opportunities like blog posts, being a conference panelist or judging a college contest. You can even post your thoughts on SlideShare or the comments sections of well-regarded web sites. I've met people who've won good job offers on the strength of their Twitter posts.
Volunteer at social causes you care about. That can be a double win if you're between jobs. You get to show fresh leadership skills that you can talk about in job interviews, and you improve your chances of meeting other can-do people who might hire you or recommend you for jobs at their regular employers. Ron is working on setting up a new public school these days; other people benefit from their work in churches and social services.
Know how to explain yourself to a busy person. If you come across as bitter or withdrawn, all the networking in the world won't open doors for you. Rebuilding your visibility will require you to do five things when you meet someone new: explain what you want to do, bring something exciting to the conversation, be succinct, be upbeat and be authentic. Focus on where you want to be, not all the bumps in the road that have left you where you are today.