Job hunting in London – 8 tips and reflections

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There I was waking up in London on a February Sunday morning at 10am. A hangover beating in my head. A siren wailing in the distance. The Saturday night had been a somewhat heavy one. We were staying in my brother-in law’s loft bedroom. A curious and frenzied set of circumstances had led to me being there that morning with my family. We’d just arrived from South Africa to live in London. My wife had landed the job role which got us the work visas, which meant I’d resigned from a very decent Head of Marketing position in Johannesburg. So aside from being the first time living outside South Africa, it was also the first time in my career that I was properly unemployed.

As I lay there that morning, the siren fading into nothing, I couldn’t help but wonder what lay ahead. Coffee and painkillers in the short term. But what of the months that followed? The excitement of the move had worn off, and I needed to confront the dreaded real world. I needed to get my CV out there and attempt to embrace this new life in its entirety. It was a fun enough first week in London, seeing something for the first time and spending time with my daughter looking around for schools. But eventually the party ends. It always does. That’s life. The holiday always comes to a close. There are always those footsteps behind us. Maybe a sallow faced man in a long grey jacket and rings under his eyes will tap us on the shoulder to tell us life goes on. The party is over.  

These footsteps felt pretty close that Sunday.

Well, here I am precisely a year after that morning. Three contracts and two short stints of unemployment have made it an interesting ride, to say the least. It turns out maternity cover contracts are a fairly useful thing for someone new to a country – to get the opportunities as well as see what you like and don’t like. And while I could certainly fill a lengthy blog post with my experiences and reflections within the jobs, I thought I’d take the time to instead give some advice on landing the jobs. Having done this for large portions of 2019, I feel pretty well versed in the art of searching for employment. To newbies of London, here are some thoughts and tips on navigating the world of job seeking. Indeed, some of this could certainly apply to any job market. Use and lose as you please.

  1. Don’t get overly attached to perfect opportunities

Roles will come up that are perfect for you. You may even have conversations with agents about them. Even better, you might go for lengthy interview processes for ideal roles, and then not get them. I’ve been interviewed for senior, well-paying roles which I could have done with my eyes closed. Yet I didn’t get them. It hurt once or twice, but then I realised you have to take emotion out of the process as much as possible.

There’s a certain Zen-like avoidance of attachment you need to incorporate when it comes to jobs. With a lot of perfect ones you don’t get a look in. Yet some randoms come up out of nowhere, and an agent is calling you about something you never even applied for. When it comes to job searching, the universe is indifferent.

  1. Don’t look at the job sites every day

It can become quite an addictive thing, looking at job sites. It’s a bit like fishing and casting your line  about ten metres to the left of the last one and excitedly hoping for more bites. There’s a slight thrill out of logging in to see what is new. The problem is, things don’t change that quickly. The bigger problem is that you end up confusing yourself, wondering if you’d applied to something. It becomes more difficult to spot what’s new.

It’s much better to just do it properly in three day intervals. You stay more focused, more organised, and avoid doubling your efforts and confusing yourself.

Also, select two or three job sites, and stick to those. Otherwise you’re being horribly inefficient. LinkedIn, Reed, and Google are enough.

If you’re wondering about Google, it’s actually an incredible source if you know what you want. I knew I wanted to work in marketing within education in London. By typing “marketing jobs education London” Google pulls jobs from all major job sites that fit this. Not everyone knows this. You can even apply a few filters, most useful being the time filter.

  1. Have scenarios in your back pocket

After going to a few interviews, I quickly realised how similar they all were. The interviewer/s have their set questions laid out on pieces of paper with space to write under each question. As you answer the questions they furiously, and perhaps mindlessly jot down your answers. I find it a bit weird and robotic. I’ve interviewed people many times to work under me. I’ve never once worked to a strict script or wrote down their answers. I just tried my best to have a conversation and learn about the person.

The content of the questions is also remarkably similar from one interview to the next. Aside from your experience and background, the common theme with all is asking you for certain situations or scenarios in your working past that you need to use as an example. Questions such as Give us a scenario where you worked as part of a larger team to complete a successful project are common. There are obviously a range of these scenarios you could be asked for. Sometimes one catches you off guard and you start fumbling through the start of an answer, wondering where on earth you’re going with it.

What helped me in this regard was to literally write down as many different scenarios I could from my working past. When did I work as a team? When did I go above expectations? When did I implement an integrated campaign and what were the results? When did I assist team members in achieving their goals? Etc. Etc.

Eventually I had about 12 or so scenarios I had ready to adapt to any question they threw at me. It worked really well.

  1. Be sceptical of agents

The vast majority of jobs in London go through recruitment agents. I suppose this is the case everywhere. Step one of the lengthy process of landing a job (after your application) inevitably starts with a phone call from an agent. Always a phone call.

It’s like these agents are all manufactured uniformly in some factory somewhere. They all sound the same. The same telephone manner. The same mechanical, quick way of talking. They ask the same questions in the same order. And it’s always difficult to make out their names when they leave a voice message.

Here’s the thing. You’re just a tool for agents. If you’re their winning horse, they won’t leave you alone. But if the employing company doesn’t want to interview you, you’ll be dropped in a heartbeat, never to be contacted again. I’ve had countless calls with agents where they explain the job, and it sounds great. They’re excited, I’m excited. They tell me they’re going to send it over to the employer and get back to me . . . only for me to never hear from them again.

Work with the agents. You don’t have a choice. But never get sucked into their excitement around roles. Don’t let them get your hopes too far up.

If you get an interview with the actual employing company, you’re in business, and it’s game on. But until then, the odds remain long.

  1. Get used to rejection

Similar to point one, but this is more of a general comment. In London there are plenty of jobs. More than I’ve ever seen. The problem is, there are also plenty of candidates. Before you know it LinkedIn in is you showing you that the role you’re looking at has 178 other applicants.

So it makes logical sense that rejection is the norm. And you’ve just got to deal with it and not let it get to you.

You send tons of applications in, and don’t get a response. That’s fine. What’s a little tougher to get over is getting to a second interview, knowing it’s between you and one or two others, and losing. It’s happened to me a few times. It’s tough. Especially if you have a competitive streak. Especially if the agent’s client feedback is that there wasn’t anything wrong with you, they just went with the other people due to experience / industry knowledge, etc.

  1. Have some opinions on the industry/company interviewing

At the very least, most people will do their research on the company about to interview them. A look at their website, social media and Youtube channel usually gives a good run down of their offering and point of difference. From a marketing perspective, it’s pretty easy to find some light critique of something or other on their social media.

I tend to use Google News to scan articles relating to the company’s industry which I feel might be pertinent. This helps fill your boots with some opinions, and gives you ammunition for questions or discussion. The interviewers inevitably will end an interview by asking if you have any questions. It is absolutely necessary to ask a couple. Not asking anything makes you look disinterested.

This is a great chance to bring up anything you saw in the articles you read. “I notice the government is introducing a new . . . ‘’

A great question to ask is around company culture. “How would you describe the company culture?” It puts the interviewer on the back foot slightly, because it’s somewhat unexpected. But it also makes the interviewer almost have to sell the company to you. It gives them the perception that you’re maybe a little bit picky. You have options. You know what you want and you’re not desperate.

  1. Be likeable in the interview

This seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

But it’s easy to let nerves make you look cold and unapproachable. This is where you do have to fake it a bit. Smile more than you’re used to doing. Pull out the charm, where possible.

Managers want employees who will be easy going and fit into the team, so be that. Make a side comment, laugh, show some charm. Maybe some self-deprecating humour . . . provided it isn’t around your competence for the job.

For example, if I feel like I’ve spent too long answering a question I’ll often smile and say “I’m waffling now, sorry.” If the interviewer did think you were waffling, you’ve diffused it by recognising it.

Try your best to exude an air of casual pleasantness. You want the person doing the hiring to feel at ease with you. 

  1. Learn from each experience

This is a difficult one to embrace if you keep getting rejections, but each interview really does make you better at them. Beyond this, interviews have given me a much clearer view on my own weak points in terms of skills and experience. There are some areas where I don’t answer well, or feel less confident answering. I instinctively know these are areas I need to either get more experience or training in.

Also, it’s all an experience. It’s all part of life. Roll with it. Some of it is even enjoyable. Where else do you get to talk about yourself solidly for an hour, to people who are actually listening?

In November I made it to the 2nd round of interviews at a large, prestigious business school in London. As usual with 2nd round interviews, it involved giving a presentation on a given problem. One of the points in my presentation was around the fact that C-Suite level people being targeted would be reluctant to give away their email addresses. As I made the point, I noticed that my presentation said C-Shite instead of C-Suite. I glanced at my interviewers. They remained stone faced. If they noticed the faux pas they were doing an incredible job of hiding it. I carried on, but I was soon fighting laughter of my own. I eventually made it through unscathed. I answered their questions, said my farewells and left. Yip, I’ll spend more time proofreading the presentation next time, I thought, as I wandered down Baker Street.

The company called me on the way home. I got the job.

C-Shite or C-Suite, it didn’t end up mattering at the time. You lose some you win some. The footsteps follow behind.

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