The Most Important Letter You Will Ever Write

by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

My 1920s Antique “Standard Underwood Typewriter No. 5,” is a family heirloom. I remember my mother typing the statements for my dad’s medical practice on it. This beast weighs 28 pounds and is not suitable as a laptop. Several neighborhood teenagers inspected it from top-to-bottom, and on all sides. They were really puzzled, and one of them finally asked, “Where do you plug in the printer?” 

Fifty to seventy-five percent of good jobs come from friends and acquaintances—and from their friends and acquaintances—by word of mouth. The higher the level of the job, the more that rule applies. At the senior executive and professional level, for example, as many as 90 percent of good jobs come through personal friends.

Therefore, it’s urgent to involve your friends in your job-search, not just notify them of your plight (“I’m out of work. Let me know if you hear of anything.”).

Job campaigns often stall because job-hunters leave their personal networks too quickly to go off into the world of “strangers.” Strangers will seldom be as responsive to you as people whom you’ve met before, even briefly. Surprisingly, your attendance at a trade show can qualify you as a “friend” in someone’s eyes.

Make sure you get your campaign strongly established with personal friends and business acquaintances before you spend a lot of time answering job postings, working with recruiters, or cold calling.Cold calling isn’t very appealing—that’s why they call it cold calling!

The letter you send your friends is absolutely critical.

Here’s why: When you’re in a career transition you’re selling personal services—what you can do—something intangible. People buy services based on trust. Marketing personal services is not like marketing a product. Shoppers buy products knowing they can return them if dissatisfied. But companies can’t return employees who fail on the job. They have to terminate them and start over, both of which are costly. That’s why employers are so cautious.

Crucial hiring decisions middle and upper-level workers are generally made by a team. Key managers meet to define the duties and responsibilities and decide what sort of person they want. Then they ask, “Who do we know that could fill this slot?” Many times, someone in the group knows someone, or they “know someone who knows someone.”

That candidate is interviewed first, given preferential treatment, and often hired.

The moral of the story is that managers hire their friends—known quantities, not shots-in-the-dark. No one likes to hire strangers—there’s too much at stake. One wrong employment decision can ruin a manager’s career.

What does this mean to you?
It means your next middle or upper-level job is probably going to come from one of your personal friends or business acquaintances—or else from one of their friends or acquaintances. Not from a recruiter. Not from an online job posting (sorry, Indeed). Not from knocking on doors or pounding the pavement.

I Googled “Job Posting Sites” and found 50 major players like Indeed, LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter, and Google for Jobs. And as you know, most employers in the United States, even small ones, post their own open positions. That’s a lot of places to upload your resume!

Even so, your friends will be your strongest marketing allies. That’s why it’s important to involve them in your campaign, not just notify them. Most job-seekers simply call and say, “I’ve lost my job. Let me know if you hear of anything.” The friend says, “Sure I will.” And that’s the end of it. The phone never rings. Friends want to help, but they have to know exactly what kind of help you need. Tell them in a “friendship letter.”

Who are your friends?
When I say “friends,” I mean “everyone you know.” Not just your closest friends, but anyone who knows your name. I mean your contact network, both personal and business—especially people you’ve worked with on projects. Begin your marketing campaign by making a list of your friends. Use the following checklist to help you remember names. Record all names. Don’t prejudge people, guessing which ones can help you (you’ll often be wrong). Don’t rule anyone out prematurely.

Go as far back as high school, even grade school. List your old college classmates and roommates. Look at your holiday card list. Write names until your mind goes blank. Then stop and rest, and begin again.

Why do this now? It may seem odd to launch into list making without the letter to go with it. The reason is simple: list making takes time and names will pop into your mind randomly, over a period of days, weeks, or months, and all along the campaign trail until you sign an offer letter.

After one candidate drafting her letter to friends, she complained: “How come you waited to have me remember names? Why didn’t you start that sooner?”

Good point. We should begin now.

The Friendship Checklist 

Common Objections
Many career changers resist doing this exercise. They don’t see the point. They find it time-consuming and come up with a variety of objections, like these:

Objection...

Answer...

All my friends are in Chicago and I want to work in Dallas.

People in Chicago have family and friends in Dallas.

I have to call people and ask for favors.

Same as answer to "I don't want to use my friends", above.

I can't remember all these people.

Yes you can. You just don't want to.

I would be embarrassed to say I'm unemployed.

Say something like "I have some great news. I'm finally leaving HignTek- it's about time. Their accounting system is outdated, and I want to get into a company where I can implement the latest IT solutions. This is great! I've never been more excited in my life. I can't sleep at night. I feel like a kid again."

I'd feel funny writing to people I see in person all the time.

Don't write them a letter. Talk with them face-to-face.

Friends are important
The following story shows the importance of collecting the names of friends, even if it doesn’t make logical sense.

It doesn’t matter where your friends live

Ken Granger was a senior data analytics manager in Denver. He wanted to relocate to Dallas because his wife had family there. I asked Ken to list his friends so he could send them something. He resisted doing the assignment.

His reasoning went like this: “All my friends live in Chicago. I want to work in Dallas. Why should I write to people who can’t help me?”

Finally, after three weeks, Ken made his list. We sent a letter, and guess what? One of his contacts in Chicago had a brother who was president of a data analytics company in Dallas. Ken flew down to interview and was hired. That’s the kind of thing that often happens in networking.

“You never know how many friends you have
until you rent a place at the beach.

Quoted by Wayne Norris in
You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Work Here… But It Sure Helps
(Price/Stern/Sloan).

Don’t guess who your friends are
I’ve seen hundreds of people contact their networks to ask for help, and I see two patterns.

First, friendship letters always work. You get some positive response from some of your friends. That’s a big boost when you’re feeling down. Second, it’s impossible to accurately predict who will help you and who won’t. You’ll be wrong 50 percent of the time—maybe more.

It’s interesting, and sometimes disconcerting, to find out who can be counted on when you need a helping hand. Some of your “dearest friends” will let you down, and some people you have written off will come out of the woodwork and shower you with badly needed love and attention.

Your friends will always help
I contacted my friends—especially former clients—in writing my book, 200 Letters for Job Hunters, from which this text is taken. I was announcing the project, asking for permission to use their materials, and looking for advice and ideas. I was reaching out for support.

I was surprised at the positive responses. They really lifted me and made me feel the whole project was worthwhile. There was one letter I will never forget.

Kay Tubbs said, “My advice: Go for it! It’s perfect. I would buy it (and recommend it) in a heartbeat. It would also solve a personal problem I have, of not being physically close enough to utilize your services. (It’s probably a good thing—I’d be tempted to mortgage the house to hire you as a permanent ‘life consultant.’)” That felt really good.

Some friends didn’t help, and that was disappointing, but not devastating. Maybe they were busy or had other priorities. What I’ve learned myself, and through my clients’ journeys, is that you never know who will help until you ask.

You’ll find that most of your friends will assist you, too, and their heartfelt response may surprise and delight you.

Now it’s time to look at The Anatomy of a Friend Letter

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