When Kate Gardner was laid off from her job as a magazine editor, she wasn’t sure what to do next. She tried freelancing for a month or so, but the instability of it ultimately made her want to hop back into a full-time job at a company she really liked (and could see herself at for a while).
So she started job searching—but this time she tackled it differently than she had in the past. She decided to take a company-first approach.
“Doing this allows me to be more specific in what I’m looking for,” Gardner says. “I can look for the positions I want and am qualified for at companies I already know I like.” And it worked out for her—she recently landed a job at one of her dream nonprofits.
“I’m so grateful to have found this work I’m so deeply passionate about,” she adds. “For years I’ve been searching for something that’s made me feel alive and like I have a purpose, and I finally have.”
As a career coach, I recommend the company-first approach to almost every client I work with. I believe more people will end up finding great jobs they love, like Gardner, this way as opposed to spending hours and hours scrolling through a job board.
Here’s why you should try it—and how you can get started doing it today.
Why Adopt a Company-First Mindset
The biggest benefit of a company-first job search is that it’s more likely to land you a gig that you’ll want to stay in for a very long time. This can be especially important for those who are making a career change (and want the effort they’re putting into transitioning to be worthwhile), those who are tired of job hopping and are looking for a more fulfilling career, and those who just want a job they can see themselves in for years to come.
“With the majority of people leaving a company because of culture or people,” says Jena Viviano, a Muse master career coach, “finding the company you want to work for first has a higher chance of working out in the long-term.”
The idea is that when you pursue a company rather than a job, you’re looking for a more holistic experience. You don’t just care about the day-to-day responsibilities—you care about the mission behind your work, your growth, and your work-life balance. All these factors contribute to a happier (and ultimately more successful) career.
And by showcasing when you apply for a job that these things matter to you, you set yourself up to be a better fit for the company—which makes them more likely to hire you.
Another point Viviano makes is that companies are calling jobs all different sorts of things these days, so company-first job searching is just strategically more efficient.
“No longer can you just type in ‘HR generalist’ and find all the HR positions available,” she says. “Some companies call it ‘culture’ or ‘people’ or ‘happiness department.’ So it’s smarter to see what companies align to your goals and then to dive into their career pages to find specific roles” to ensure you’re actually applying to positions that you’d be happy in and qualified for.
How to Approach Your Job Search Company-First
By no means is company-first job searching an “easy way out.” It takes true inner reflection and time to pull off effectively. But because it’ll likely produce better results, it’s well worth the effort.
1. Figure Out What You Care About Most
The whole goal here is to get you into a job you love that fits not only your interests and experience, but your priorities. In order to do that, you need to know what’s important to you.
Reflect on past experience and examine what you liked and didn’t like about each position you held and company you worked for (and write them down). If you’re fresh out of college, this part might be a little harder—so you may consider including volunteer and internship experiences in this exercise to broaden your scope.
Here are some possible things you might consider or jot down:
- Size: The number of people at your company or in your department can affect how much your voice is heard, the amount of work that falls onto your plate, communication between teams, and more.
- Location: Do you have a geographic preference, or will you go anywhere? Also, what are your feelings on a company that has offices all over the country (or world)?
- Stage: At what stage of growth is your ideal company? A startup environment is going to be much different than that of a company that’s been around for decades. (And even “startup” can encompass anything from five people in one room to a nine-figure-revenue, about-to-go-public behemoth.)
- Mission: Is connecting with the purpose of the company important to you? If the answer is yes, you’ll want to dig to find out what each company’s detailed mission is and if the work they’re doing actually aligns with it, as well as decide if you want to work for a specific kind of mission (for example, healthcare or climate change).
- Values: Are there values outside the company’s direct mission that matter to you, such as social responsibility? The Muse, for example, has a strict “no assholes” policy, which is such a core value that it’s included in every job description.
- Culture: Do you prefer working collaboratively or independently? Do you like strict rules and guidelines or more flexibility to rethink processes? Do you like dressing business formal or business casual (or have no preference)? Do you want to hang out with your co-workers after hours or be able to leave work on time to be with your family? There’s no right or wrong answer for the type of culture you believe you’d thrive in.
- Diversity and inclusion efforts: How important is it to you that the company you work for invests in diversity and inclusion? What does that look like to you?
- Benefits: What types of benefits do you care about most? Some things you could think about are: learning and development budget, health insurance, parental leave, PTO, flexible hours, and remote opportunities.
2. Make a List of Companies That Interest You
OK, you have your list of things that you care about most. Now, how do you find companies to consider? Here are some ideas:
- Search for the “top” or “best” companies to work for. You can narrow it down further by specifically highlighting the qualities that matter to you, such as “best companies for working parents” or “top organizations to work for as a remote employee.” The Muse actually creates several lists like this for different locations that may help you identify some good companies in your area.
- Check out B Corporation and Idealist. If you want social responsibility to be a core value of the company you work for, then these are two great resources. Idealist is a site that specifically highlights organizations that want to make the world a better place, and Certified B Corporations “are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
- Browse social media and recent news. We interact with companies day in and day out as consumers, so consider what brands you love and what’s being said about them online. Maybe you found out that a tech company you follow on Twitter recently instituted four weeks of PTO for its employees, or a retail store you constantly shop at invests in volunteer efforts. Those could be great places to apply to because you already know, believe in, and follow them.
- Leverage your network. You most likely know plenty of people who work or have worked at a variety of awesome companies. Ask them about their experience! You may be surprised which companies you’re drawn to.
3. Evaluate Whether or Not They Meet Your Criteria
Once you make a list of say, 10 to 20 companies of interest, double check to make sure they align with the attributes you highlighted in the first step.
This will require some more research. You can start with The Muse, of course, as well as the company’s own website, and social media and news coverage can fill in everything in between.
But your network should be your biggest asset in this step. Lean on old colleagues, friends of friends, or extended family to understand what working at these companies is really like and to ask any and all relevant questions about the things that you care about most.
The important thing to note is that you have to learn to let go when a company doesn’t resonate with you. It can be difficult to turn away from a popular brand or flashy corporation when everyone around you is dying to work there. But even a well-known name on your resume can’t make up for a work environment where you won’t be happy or feel challenged.
4. Keep an Eye Out for Job Openings (and Apply When You See a Real Match)
Once you’ve narrowed down and fact-checked your list, make it a point to check in consistently for job openings at those companies. (Pro tip: Set a weekly calendar reminder.)
This is a long game. Because you’re looking at the company first, you may not immediately see a position that works for you—but remember that companies are always hiring and talent is constantly shifting. So as roles start to pop up, note the ones that seem most interesting to you and apply as soon as you can.
As a reminder, you don’t want to just pick any job you’d remotely be a fit for and apply (putting your name out there too much at one company has its consequences). Rather, choose only the ones you’re truly excited about and that align with your experience and skill set.
Here’s some advice on writing a killer cover letter and tailoring your resume to show you’re the perfect fit. The key to applying with a company-first approach isn’t just to highlight how great you are for the role—you’ll also want to emphasize your passion for the company and what they’re doing.
5. Find an “In” at the Company
It’s no secret that networking is key to landing a job these days. But networking isn’t just a reactive thing—basically, don’t wait around for it to come to you. You need to be proactive if you want it to reap rewards.
So why should you be reaching out to people who work at a company, even if you’ve already applied to a job there? First, you can learn even more valuable information about the company, its culture, and its hiring process. And you might learn that there’s a job open that isn’t posted to the public that would be great for you.
Just as important (if not more so), networking gives you that extra boost you’ll need to make it to the next round. You’re much more likely to stand out from the pile and get your application in front of a hiring manager if someone (especially someone internal) refers you.
If you don’t have any contacts at the company and decide to reach out to a second or third degree connection, you could connect with them and shoot them the following note on LinkedIn:
Hi James—I hope you’re having a great day. I saw you work in product design and I’m looking to transition into this field. I’m reaching out because I’m extremely interested in the junior designer role at Fun Company. Would you mind hopping on the phone with me to chat about your experience? Thanks! Abby
A few minutes talking on the phone is plenty of time to forge a meaningful connection (here’s how to make that informational interview go off without a hitch—and get one step closer to a job).
For more advice, read this article on finding an “in” at your dream company and this one on leveraging your network to get through your job search, as well as these email templates to ask your network for a job.
As I said, this isn’t necessarily an easy process, and it requires a lot of time and patience. But if you’re looking to find a job and company you love, this strategy is your best shot.