Relationships + side projects = my entire career
I can’t remember where I found the stat, but it’s one of those sticky ones. The kind that gets in your head and you just can’t shake it.
You’re nine times more likely to get a job through recommendation than you are from simply applying.
As I look back through my own career, I realise it’s been very true for me. Sure, I’m good at what I do and I work hard. But so do thousands of other people. The difference, in my opinion? Friends, contacts and side projects. More on what that means in a minute. First, a look back just how accurate that stat was for me.
It all started with a side project
My first job was through a friend from my student newspaper – something I spent more time on than my degree. He’d landed an editorial assistant job at The Guide, and their office was next to Guardian Creative, the studio for one-off editorial and branded content. He introduced me to their production lead and I lobbied hard for work experience. Instead, I landed a research gig.
My second job at the Guardian – editor of the children’s section – was through them at same production lead. He had me editing a guide to knitting and that caught the attention of the editor who was running it. I knew craft, I knew InDesign and I was in the building.
My third Guardian job – again – came because I was in the building. I applied for the Head of Guardian Creative job, a role way beyond my experience level – and though I didn’t get it landed a commissioning editor job at the Saturday Guardian along the way. On the side, I wrote about craft for my blog and for their Life and Style section.
That blog got featured in a special supplement produced by Psychologies magazine. I thanked the editor who put it there via email. Months later, I spotted an ad for a commissioning editor job there and, as I’d missed the closing date, I sent my application to that same editor who passed it on to those hiring. I interviewed, and got the job. I don’t think it hurt that three key editors on the key were ex Guardian either and knew the people I had put down as references. I kept writing my blog, about craft for a range of newspapers and other magazines, and eventually wrote a book.
Years later, Psychologies got bought out and I wanted to move again. An editor from Guardian Creative I knew had moved to a content marketing agency and needed a maternity cover. I contacted him, met for an interview and got the gig.
Nine months on and out of the blue the founder of a startup gets in touch. He’d seen my book and wanted me to collaborate. Collaboration turned into a job. That job turned into a founder position at Mastered. Six years on my co-founder stepped aside and I became CEO.
What the ghost rules mean for us all
I share because I think it’s important we all know about and are honest about the invisible rules that govern who gets entrusted to take on which jobs. I see far too many friends and people I follow working relentlessly to find new roles – and I want to make sure that they spend their time wisely.
It is worth saying that this may not be true of all jobs. I’ve always worked in the creative industries – a place known to have less formal/less strict career paths and be more focused on networks and contacts. But my hypothesis is that it is true of most sectors, and most jobs. I work in tech, and have seen first-hand just how easily talent move around the existing ecosystem of startups and scaleups. I’ve seen my dad, my husband and my friends – all in widely different industries – secure new roles thanks to their relationships. I’ve seen the Mastered community – our learners, alumni and experts – get work thanks to the side projects that showcase their unique talent and point of view. And because they built real relationships, not just fleeting connections, with people who went on to champion them and their work more widely.
With all this in mind, there’s a few major implications I’d like to share.
• If you’re trying to find a new role, please don’t spend all your time sending application after application after application. Put time and end but into widening your network and working on passion projects/side projects that showcase the kind of work you want to do.
• As a hiring manager, consciously and very actively widen your network – the more diverse the people recommendations come from, the more diverse your likely applicants will be. We mustn’t get stuck in a rut of relying on our existing community, else we become too exclusive and will never widen access to others beyond our limited circle. And, of course, we must acknowledge that having the time and energy to focus on a passion project outside of paid work is a huge privilege. I’ve been guilty of that for far too long and promise to not let that affect my judgment as much in the near future.
• As an industry, we have to act too. More mentoring, more looking beyond our own industry for talent, more empathy for those who didn’t have the head start we had, more structural changes in not just how we process applicants but how we promote our industry to those who don’t even believe they could be part of it. There’s strides already being made – but there always, always more that can and must be done.