December 2, 2008

Over the years, I’ve kept my career moving and paid the bills by working on the art of the cold call. Most of the jobs I’ve landed began with my harried future employer telling me: “Sorry, we have no openings.” To push past that rejection is what makes cold calling an emotional and psychological challenge.

I know, I know….contacting strangers can be scary. And rejection is depressing, especially from organizations that I admire and respect. But stubborn pig-headedness has gotten me many a job. It might also help you find work and/or an internship. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Step #1: Decide where you really want to work.

I’ve only been successful when I target places that I truly care about. This is like dating — for a shot at connecting, there  must  be real chemistry. It never works to fake enthusiasm in desperation. Smart managers have good b.s. detectors.

Step #2: Take almost nothing personally.

It’s known as “cold calling” for a reason. When the initial reaction to me is a chilly one, I try not to feel intimidated. Showing fear means game over. So I can’t falter. I also can’t get upset when prospective employers request my resume multiple times because they didn’t think my stuff was important enough to save in the first place.

Step #3: Look for ways to turn “no” into “yes.”

“I’m sorry, but we’re not hiring.” When I hear that, I immediately find a way to keep the conversation going: “Oh, well, I know you’re very busy. But I hope you won’t mind if I stay in touch, just in case something opens up later.”

And then, be enterprising. Plunge ahead: “In the meantime, could I send you some story ideas?” “Could I send you some ideas for courses?” “Could I drop you a line to get your advice or input on what I’m doing?” (People love to give advice.) Now we’re  talkin’! I’ve never received a “no” to my Step #3 requests.

Step #4: Follow up with confidence.

No one wants to be around insecure, needy losers. Act like a poised winner in both emails and conversations. And here’s a personal test: I find that if I can’t rally my energy to maintain the follow up, I probably don’t really want the job.

Step #5: Be patient and never act desperate.

Job-hunting always takes longer than I expect. The trick is to not call too much; maybe once every two months. And my goal is to book a face-to-face meeting. Once I’m physically through the door, I know that I have a shot at getting hired.

Step #6: Wait to ask about pay.

I never mention money until I’m offered the gig. Now, I can negotiate. By the way, negotiation is not a dirty word. I always ask about health benefits, vacation and pay. Even if I don’t get everything, I often get something. At the very least, I’ve made it clear that I deserve to be treated well.

Step #7: “What’s the worst that could happen?”

At every step of the way, I play out in my head the most disappointing scenarios.  And, I play out how I will recover from the setback. Once I’ve confronted my fears, I’m ready to dance with abandon because there’s nothing to lose.

Step #8 Make sure your dance card is always pretty full.

I’ve learned the hard way that applying for one job at a time is masochistic. If I’m juggling several possibilities, there’s always someone I can call, or some other strategy to think about. It’s important to feel like I’m being productive.

Step #9: Consider working part-time or interning (sometimes a.k.a. slave labor).

When I graduated from Columbia University’s School of Journalism, a bunch of us were jockeying for entry level newspaper jobs. I was getting passed over right and left. Finally, I met one cash-strapped, under-staffed editor — who had no openings. He mentioned that he was short-handed for July 4. When I volunteered to work that holiday weekend for free to get some experience, he jumped at it. That fall, he offered me my first newspaper job.

Step #10: Get familiar with the business of business.

For at least the next year, the imploding economy will be the big story. Which means every industry is looking for talented people who know how to make money. And journalists take note: there are jobs galore on the business reporting beat. For a sampling of what’s available, check out

Whether we’re interested in business or not, I believe it’s really crucial for all of us to get informed on this topic. College students would benefit from taking some business/finance/economics courses. I did while I was in school. And I’ll admit it — I hated them. But they taught me about the world power structure and how to market myself. Reading business stories would help too. If you can’t stand that either, try listening to New York Times business podcasts hosted by my good friend, Jeff Sommer at He has a very soothing voice!

In terms of the bare basics, this is pretty much the deal here. I swear by cold calling and I hope you’ll experiment with the process.  Hope these ideas jump start some new strategies for you!