Job hunting: Lessons learned from 2010

It sounds simple, but Eric Karl says his job search turned when he started spending more time networking with people who were in position to hire him rather than just people who -- like him -- were out of work.

"Everybody laughs when I say that," Karl, 54, says. The number of his weekly contacts dropped, but the quality of the ones he made rose.

Karl, of Southlake, laid off from his job as chief financial officer for a private equity portfolio company, was out of work for more than 10 months before he got the offer Dec. 3. Three days later, he was on the job as CFO of Smart Start, an Irving company whose aftermarket automotive breath-test products bar drunken drivers from starting their cars.

Karl's job search typifies the lurching of the job market in 2010. The state gained thousands of jobs through November, with virtually all major industry segments posting gains. But it was still a slog, and many Texans remain desperate for work.

Karl, who moved to North Texas nearly three years ago with the employer that ultimately laid him off after the recession hit, spent his first few months of job hunting by updating his résumé, building a social network and joining networking groups. He had few of the tools in place.

Activity picked up in the summer, when he estimates he might have been working on five or six ideas simultaneously, instead of one or two. His networking, he says, went through "evolutions."

"At first, I was just trying to get out of the house and meet anybody," he said. Then he became more focused and the "mental breakthrough" came.

"It was an epiphany," he says.

Not so easy. At his level, the decision-makers for him were chief executives, company owners and directors.

He also learned to "stop trying to control everything" and keeping faith.

"That's really the definition of faith, when you accept that you can't control the result," he says.

He and his family sat down and went through their budget. Karl's wife had just taken a job three months earlier as a psychologist with the Denton school district. The couple immediately let their two children -- a 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter -- in on what had happened.

The first tasks: Find the break-even point, and calculate how long they could go on their savings.

As longtime aggressive savers, they found they could stretch their savings for a long period. "I was a saver," Karl says. "This is the reward."

The family cut its lawn services -- "I have a 13-year-old boy," Karl notes -- cut back on meals out, and re-examined the cable and phone bills and life insurance. Karl estimates the family cut its expenses by 20 percent. He also applied for unemployment benefits when a friend reminded him.

Karl extended his networking to his church and homeowners association, volunteering his financial skills.

He ended up on the pastoral advisory council at his church and as vice president of his homeowners association.

He sifted through his Rolodex and returned to influential contacts whom he'd built trust with. "You have to pick and choose those," he says.

When he did get a meeting with a decision-maker, it often wasn't face to face, or for very long.

"You don't get one of those meetings every day," he says. "You have to be willing to do stuff on the phone."

And sometimes even for just a few minutes, if that's what's offered. "Sometimes, if you just use the method they propose, you can get to them," he says.

Running his job search out of his home, Karl says he watched TV at home once: "right at the end of the U.S.-Algeria soccer match."

The 3 p.m. end of his children's school days became "the natural break point" in his day, and he ended up spending more time with his children. His best friend, a salesman, suggested limiting the job search to six hours per day to maintain effectiveness.

Karl built a mix of groups he attended. Those included the Southlake Focus Group, a popular major networking group that meets weekly at White's Chapel United Methodist Church.

The networking groups are good for technical skills like building résumés and practicing elevator speeches, he says. "They're good for accountability or a little bit of uplift. Sometimes you need to be with people who have the same struggle. But if you're doing that every day, you're not going to get too far."

He also joined the Tarrant County Senior Executives Group, an invitation-only offshoot of the Southlake group; a healthcare support group (much of his background is in the industry); the Dallas chapter of the Financial Executives Networking Group; the Executive Healthcare Network (50/50 employed vs. not, he says); and the Executive Connection, where he estimates 90 percent of the participants are employed.

Ultimately, the breakthrough came at a meeting of the Southlake Focus Group.

Smart Start, in search of a CFO, sent one of its marketing executives to make the announcement.

Karl sent his résumé to the CEO -- but first, "my computer crashed, and it took me two days until I could do it," he chuckles. He followed up "politely" every few days with e-mail messages.

Two weeks later, the CEO called for what turned out to be a 30-minute conversation. The two met that afternoon face to face. Then the following week, Karl appeared before Smart Start's board.

How did he know whether the CEO was open to follow-ups, one of the most vexing questions to any job-seeker?

"You don't know," Karl says. "I tried to modulate my behavior. You have to demonstrate interest. I tried to pick intervals that I thought would give him time to respond."

In his e-mails, he offered updates, more information, dates he could meet, "something that would prompt a response," he says. "Very polite, not demanding. You want it to be really short."

When the offer came, it was the first for full-time work that he'd had during his job search, Karl says.

With job in hand, Karl made a donation to White's Chapel. He wants to stay involved with some of his networking groups, but now he needs to figure out which ones.

"Networking is like saving money," he says. "You should save like you've going to live for a long time. You should network like you're going to job search again. All sorts of things that can happen that are not your fault."

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808

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