by Starla Sampaco for HBR
Contrary to popular belief, pitching yourself directly to employers can give you an advantage over other applicants. Here’s how to do it:
- Step 1: Get your timing right. Plan to pitch yourself to the employers you want to work for as early as possible in your job search. By the time a role is posted online, it’s already been publicized internally.
- Step 2: Identify key players at the company, or employees who have decision-making power at the company and who can influence hiring decisions. Your goal is to get an information interview with them, as they can connect you to hiring managers (and their recommendations will not be ignored).
- Step 3: Nail your informational interview. Ask questions about their experience at the company and how the job you are targeting fits into it all. As the conversation wraps up, ask if they will introduce you to a hiring manager
- Step 4: Connect with the hiring manager. Send an email introducing yourself, expressing interest in their company, explaining the value you can bring to their team, and requesting a meeting.
- Step 5: Follow up … but don’t overdo it. Wait at least a week before reaching out again, and when you do, keep it short.
- Step 6: Sell yourself. Assuming you do land a meeting with the hiring manager, use this time discuss your skills and experience and how you could provide value to the company.
- Step 7: Don’t be put off by a “no.” Rejection is unavoidable, but don’t mistake it for failure. Sometimes, “no” really means “not now.”
Before becoming a news anchor, I received hundreds of rejection emails. There was one particular news station in Seattle that I wanted to intern for, and every summer, I dutifully filled out an online application and emailed my resume to their HR department only to be met with radio silence. When I realized this job-search strategy wasn’t working, I followed the popular internet advice and took more initiative, emailing individual reporters at the company to inquire about open roles.
Still, I was never invited to interview.
It was at this point that I decided I needed to try something different: Pitch myself directly to the news director. During a student scholarship ceremony, I was given that opportunity, and the following week, I interviewed and received an offer soon after. In that role, I worked with some of the best journalists in Seattle and built reporting skills that I could have never learned in a classroom.
Pitching yourself directly to employers can actually give you an advantage over other applicants.
Years later, that news director and I reconnected. “It’s funny,” he said, “in all those years that you were applying, your resume never made it onto my desk. You were a great intern though.”
Although I was clearly qualified for that role, I wouldn’t have been hired had I continued to follow the application process detailed on the company website. This is why I encourage students, mentees, and clients to proactively pitch themselves to employers, instead of reactively applying for jobs after the openings are posted online.
As part of the research I conducted for my company Career Survival Guide — which provides women and professionals of color with resources to help them succeed in the workforce — I interviewed a series of career counselors, educators, and early to mid-career professionals around this topic. I learned that many job-seekers (especially first-generation college students and students who are the children of immigrants) are hesitant to pitch themselves to employers out of fear that it will offend hiring managers or hurt their status as candidates.
But, contrary to this belief, pitching yourself directly to employers can actually give you an advantage over other applicants.
Here’s a seven-step guide on how to do it.
1) Get your timing right.
“A lot of people will know about a job opening before it’s even posted online,” Lizzie Ann Jones, a former Fortune 500 recruiter, told me. “By the time a job description is published externally, the company is late in the recruiting process because the job has already been socialized internally.”
During this time, the hiring manager and other team members are starting to tell their friends and networks about the opportunity, and potential applicants (including internal employees) are starting to express interest in the role.
Because of this, you should plan to pitch yourself to the employers you want to work for as early as possible in your job search, regardless of whether there are current openings that align with your skillset. More specifically, if you’re applying to internship programs that require you to be in school, it’s important to start applying months in advance. Otherwise, you might miss out on your window of opportunity.
If you’re a college student who is looking to have a full-time job lined up, start reaching out to employers at least 12 months before graduation. Making the first move communicates that you’re eager to work for them, and building that relationship will take time. Remember that hiring managers prefer to hire people who are not only qualified for a role, but who are also excited about it.
2) Identify key players at the company (or the hiring manager’s boss).
Once have chosen a place you want to pitch yourself to, don’t just shoot out an email. First, do your research. Narrow down a specific team within the company that you would like to be a part of. For example, if you want to be a salesperson, focusing on the sales or business development departments will likely be more beneficial to you than focusing on the HR department. Likewise, if you want to be a copywriter, your best bet is to look into the company’s marketing or social media teams.
Key players have the power to connect you, and if they do, you’re much more likely to get a response than if you were to reach out cold.
Whatever you decide on, the next step is to identify employees who have decision-making power at the company and who can influence hiring decisions — either across the board or on the specific teams you’re interested in. I call these “key players.” At small companies or startups, this might just be the founder or employees at the executive level. At a larger corporation, these could be folks with the words “senior manager” or “director” in their job titles.
Your goal is to get these employees to be your advocates and eventually refer you to the hiring managers of the teams you’re interested in. Key players have the power to connect you, and if they do, you’re much more likely to get a response than if you were to reach out cold.
Especially if you’re targeting larger organizations, expect to spend a significant amount of time on this step. It helps to have contacts within the company who can assist you in identifying key players, but if you don’t, the internet is a good substitute. When applying for journalism roles, for instance, I searched “news director + [company name]” and “executive producer + [company name]” on Google and LinkedIn.
Once you find a contact you want to reach out to, it’s time to request an informational interview. Message your key player, either on LinkedIn or through their work email. Say something along the lines of:
My name is _____, and I’m reaching out because I noticed you work on the _____ team. I would love to learn more about the work you’re doing on [team] and your experience at [company], as I’m planning to apply for [specific role] openings on your team this fall.
Would you be interested in meeting with me 1:1? I would really appreciate your feedback on ways I can set myself up for success in the application process.
Thanks in advance for your consideration!
Expect to wait at least a week for a response. Not everyone will get back to you, but some will — so don’t give up if you don’t hear back from the first few people.
If you have the name of the team member you want to connect with but cannot find their contact information for some reason, email guessing tools can help you find their work email addresses.
3) Nail your informational interview.
Now that you’ve landed an informational interview, make sure to do some research on the person you have reached out to. You’ll get the most out of these connections if you build relationships around shared values, and it will be much easier to carry a conversation if you and the other person are discussing topics you’re both passionate about.
During the conversation itself, be sure to express your interest in their specific line of work. Ask questions about their experience at the company (“What’s the workplace culture like? Do you feel supported in your role?”) and how the job you are targeting fits into it all (“What types of decisions would I be making? Do you know how responsibilities are split up among that particular team?”). See if they have any tips for you as you prepare to apply.
As the conversation wraps up, ask your new contact if they would be willing to introduce you to a hiring manager or other employees who can influence hiring decisions. You can say, “Thank you so much for your time today. Our discussion has made me even more excited to apply for a role here! Are there other team members you would recommend I speak with before I apply? … Would you feel comfortable introducing me to the hiring manager for this role?”
Another option is to reach out to a junior member of the team on LinkedIn, express your interest in their work, and ask if they’d be willing to speak with you. After forming a relationship, you can then ask your new contact to connect you to their manager. This person can also give you tips around how to best communicate with the manager: Do they prefer emails to be short and to the point, or do they prefer to read longer, detailed emails? Are they slammed with work right now? Would it be better to reach out after the fiscal year ends? These are all important considerations to keep in mind.
4) Connect with the hiring manager.
Hopefully, by this point, you’ve secured the hiring manager’s contact information or been introduced formally by a key player at their company.
Now it’s time to send your first email. In this message you have a few goals: Introduce yourself, express interest in their company, explain the value you can bring to their team, and request a meeting. While it should be clear that you are interested in a job at their company, don’t ask for a job offer in your initial email. Your pitch will come later, when you talk to the hiring manager one-on-one. After all, you don’t know what their specific needs are yet, and you’ll want to tailor your pitch to this information.
The higher up the recipient is on the corporate ladder, the less time they’ll have to read your email, and the shorter your email, the better.
Your initial email doesn’t need to be as long as a cover letter, but you should include relevant details about your skills and past experience. Follow this format:
- Start with a descriptive subject line.
- If you are emailing them without a formal introduction, introduce yourself and explain how you got their contact information.
- Briefly explain your relevant skills and experience. Most importantly, connect this to how you would add value to their team.
- Be clear about what you want to discuss with them.
- Link to your LinkedIn or portfolio, so they can learn more about your background or view your work samples.
Below is a sample email I would send if I were a graduating college senior, pitching myself for a political news reporting job in television.
Subject: Meeting to discuss MMJ roles at [company/team] | Referred by [mutual contact]
Hello [hiring manager],
My name is Starla Sampaco, and I am an intern at [company]. [Name of mutual contact] recommended that I contact you, as I am highly interested in starting my career at [company/team] after college.
I am currently double-majoring in journalism and law, societies, and justice at the University of Washington and have interned at various newsrooms in Seattle, including KING 5. In my most recent internship, I was an on-air host and producer at TVW, where I covered Washington state’s legislative session. I hope to continue covering politics and immigration as a multimedia journalist after I graduate from UW in June. I have enjoyed watching [company]’s political coverage for several years and would be eager to contribute to this coverage as a reporter on the immigration beat.
If any multimedia journalist roles open up at [company], I would love to be considered. Would you be interested in meeting with me over Zoom? I would like to learn more about how I can set myself up for success as I apply for openings on your team.
Below, I’ve linked to my reel and recent work samples. You can also find more details about my background on my LinkedIn profile:
In general, the higher up the recipient is on the corporate ladder, the less time they’ll have to read your email, and the shorter your email, the better. Mirror the communication style and email etiquette norms of your industry. I’ve noticed that in academia, for example, emails tend to be more verbose than emails sent in the media and technology industries.
5) Follow up (if necessary).
Once you’ve sent your first email, be patient! It’s okay to follow up, but don’t overdo it, as you might risk annoying the manager. Wait at least a week before reaching out again, and when you do, keep it short:
Hi [hiring manager],
I’m writing to follow up on my previous email. Would you be available to chat in the coming weeks?
Thanks in advance for your consideration!
If you still don’t hear back, wait around two weeks between follow-up emails. You can say something like:
Hi [hiring manager],
I’m writing to follow up one last time. Would you be interested in meeting with me over Zoom next month to discuss potential openings on your team?
In the case that you are ghosted, move on to contacting other employers, and try not to take it personally. It’s possible that this person receives a high volume of similar emails and simply cannot respond to each and every one.
If you still haven’t heard back after multiple emails, try adding the hiring manager on LinkedIn. If they have an inbox filled with unanswered emails, it’s easy for messages to fall through the cracks. A LinkedIn notification might be the reminder that prompts someone to finally respond to your emails.
6) Sell yourself.
If the manager accepts your invitation to meet, congratulations! You’ve basically landed an informal job interview, and you should treat it as such.
This first meeting, like any job interview, needs to be a two-way conversation, not just an opportunity for you to list your accomplishments, so show up prepared with questions to ask them. I recommend starting with questions about the company’s business needs, their priorities, and the direction their team is heading in.
Then, discuss your skills and experience and how you could provide value to the company. Remember to tailor this part of your conversation to their response to your previous questions about the company’s priorities. As an applicant, it’s your job to connect your skills and accomplishments to their needs. Show them how you would make their work easier or how your skills could help their team reach their goals faster. You can also do this by giving examples of new projects you would start or sharing how you would fit into the team’s existing initiatives.
It’s not about bragging or showing off — it’s about giving the other person evidence that you can actually do what you say you can do.
Throughout this conversation, demonstrate that you’ve done your research on the company. Suggest areas of the business you would like to focus on or possibly develop further — this will make you look like a go-getter and someone who is passionate about the company’s missions.
Lastly, make the ask: “The work you are doing here at [company/team] is very interesting, and I would love to be part of a team like this after graduation. Are you considering opening any roles in the coming year? … And based on what we’ve discussed, do you think I would be a good fit for this team?”
The manager’s response to that last question will either give you confidence that you’re on the right track, or you’ll get feedback that can help you improve your candidacy.
Pro tip: Many people find it difficult to talk about their accomplishments out of fear that they will come off as inauthentic or arrogant. In response to this, Jones suggests framing these accomplishments within the context of passions or topics that bring you joy. For example, Jones said, you could say something like: “I love creating content, and I recently created a blog post on [topic] that had 10,000 views.” Jones told me that it’s not about bragging or showing off — it’s about giving the other person evidence that you can actually do what you say you can do.
7) Don’t be put off by a “no.”
Rejection is unavoidable, but don’t mistake it for failure. Sometimes, “no” really means “not now.”
I learned this years ago, when I pitched myself for a video reporting role with the help of a mentor who worked for a company I was interested in. When I first pitched myself to the hiring managers, they saw value in my skill set but didn’t have space for me on their team. While I was bummed that our meetings did not immediately result in an offer, my time was not wasted. We kept in touch, and only three months later, those managers created a role that was a good fit for my skills, and I was hired.
Pro tip: If your ideal role doesn’t exist, pitch a new role. Don’t underestimate the power of having internal allies who can advocate for you.
My last piece of advice…
When you are on the job hunt, it doesn’t hurt to set up job alert emails or to apply for job openings you find online. However, proactively reaching out to hiring managers will give you more advantages over the other applicants. Once you’ve built these relationships with employers and people who can influence hiring decisions, you’ll be more likely to receive notice about upcoming openings before they are posted online, and you’ll have access to more insider information that can help you strengthen your candidacy.
So don’t wait. Go make the first move!