Who is looking out for your career - your boss? Probably not. Your accountant? Doubtful. Headhunters, search people, and employment agencies may seem to have your interests in mind, but they're retained - and paid - by the company. So although they can be very nice to you, at the end of the day, their goal is to place candidates and collect a fee.
It's time to think like an entrepreneur, with marketable business skills and abilities. It's time to conceive of your career as a high-potential venture, with you as CEO. In this environment, you've got to be your own agent.
Learn to look out for your own best interests, even while appearing to offer your employer a combination of passion, creativity, skills, and experiences. As your own agent, keep a poker face throughout the negotiation process - know your real values and goals, and use information carefully, at the appropriate moment.
An agent knows the client
You as agent will want accurate information about what kind of candidate you are. Any decent agent can deliver the numbers, but finding your monetary worth in the marketplace is easy compared to finding a good fit with your goals and values. The better your answers to some essential questions, the closer you as agent can get to making yourself happy.
Who are you, professionally? What are your skills? Where do you want to be?
Do you like to work in an informal, freewheeling environment or in a place with a lot of structure? Do you like to work odd hours, or do you simply want to go to work, do your job, and get out at 5:00? (Good luck.)
Are you looking for a step up from your current job, or would you make a lateral move to learn something new? Would you even be willing to take a step down in order to get into a high-profile organization?
Understanding who you are - what is critical to you, what are you willing to give up to get what you want - and establishing your standards for what's important in a job is your first step. Then you-as-agent can determine whether and how your standards track with the company values.
How can you know your own standards? Compare things like company culture with your own professional likes and dislikes. Are you an introvert who prefers to work on your own, or an extrovert who likes to be part of a team? Is professional challenge more important to you than money? Are you eager to be part of a get-up-and-go company populated with inexperienced, but energetic people, or are you looking for a more mature and/or predictable environment?
You won't be happy in one type of company when you're really suited for another. As you do your research, be sure to look for clues that will help you assess your fit within an organization. Being your own agent means being honest with yourself about what you want, and then looking in the right places to get it.
What does success look like to you?
So, what does success look like to you? Is it money, power, influence, interesting work, a life balance, creativity and inspiration; or a combination of these? Many people define success as money and responsibility. But standards of success can vary significantly - in fact, "failure" is often simply the result of a difference in standards between an individual and a company. To be truly happy, find yourself a work environment where the criteria for success match your own.
What kind of company (or department) do you want to work for?
Maybe you're in the right place, or maybe you're ready for a change. Headhunters can send you on interviews, but they may not screen for a good cultural fit. You-as-agent will have to do some homework to find the right type of company.
Tried-and-true, established companies. They've been around for years, have gone through cycles, but manage to prevail. Maybe they had to dramatically reinvent themselves - and survived. Think major banks. Think AT&T.
Top-echelon companies. If you have one or more of these companies on your resume, you will have a very important punch in your career ticket. Think IBM, Exxon, P&G.
Consulting firms. In some respects you get to be your own boss here, and in some respects you're really at the mercy of the client. But they provide an incredible opportunity to learn. Think Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, Accenture.
The "we're going to make a difference" companies. They have a vision about making the world a better place. You may not get top salary, but you usually get good benefits and a warm, fuzzy feeling that you're doing the right thing. Think Tom's of Maine, the Body Shop, Ben & Jerry's.
Startup/pre-IPO companies. You may not have much of a life outside the organization, but it's a high-risk/high-reward environment where you get the "building a new business" buzz. So what if you have to bathe at the sink in the unisex bathroom? If that floats your boat, this is where you need to be. Think dot-coms.
Work/life balance companies. More traditional companies that put a premium on enabling you to have a personal life. This might be reflected in flexible working hours, in reduced schedules for working parents, in leaving at 5:00. Think nonprofits. Think Patagonia and Timberland.
Other combinations. Of course, it isn't always cut-and-dry. There are startups that encourage employees to do volunteer work and traditional firms that encourage creativity and entrepreneurship. Most respectable employers want to have a diverse workforce. Don't assume that the tradeoffs are rigid. As they say, "Think different."
An agent does lots of homework
If you are looking for a new job, you can find out about companies that are hiring through recruiters, ads in the paper or online, or through networking. Or, you can conduct a job search in targeted industries and identify companies where your talents could be used.
Technology is on your side - go to your target company's Web site. Learn what it does, what it believes in, how it expresses itself, how it talks to people. Get a sense of the culture, of how your skills could fit in, of what's not being said. Use this information to position yourself in your pitch and to design questions to ask in the interview. Read the company's annual report, its 10K, and proxy statements. If you can read the benefits book before the interview, all the better.
Then, find people who have worked at the company and talk to them. Ask past employees about their experiences. If a company claims that "we are family-friendly" but you've talked to three people who say they work 60 hours a week, there might be a disconnect.
Trade associations and industry news can help you see how the company is positioned in its industry. And, of course, there's always the media. Read the papers and visit the news sites every day. But don't forget, the agent who is best equipped to look out for your best interests through transitions and negotiations is you.