Wallace Immen
Globe and Mail Published on Wednesday, Oct. 21/09

Justin Riem wanted to cast as broad a net as possible in a competitive job market, so over the course of an eight-month search he ended up contacting 230 potential employers and more than 300 networking contacts.

But the Toronto finance manager quickly learned that if he wasn't meticulously organized, all those contacts could become a hindrance rather than a help.

At first, he kept a spreadsheet on his computer. "But when someone phoned me, I'd have to say 'Wait a minute while I boot up my computer' and search through four levels of directories to find out what job the person is calling about," the 47-year-old says.

For the sake of simplicity, he turned to a seemingly old-fashioned alternative: a 3-inch ring binder, in which he kept chronicles on paper of the discussions and insights he had from interviews about potential jobs.

He believes that it hadn't been for his scrupulous note taking and follow up, he might have missed out on landing a position as VP of finance at McKenna Logistics Centres, a Mississauga-based warehouse and distribution company, a job he took in September. "To get an edge in a crowded job market, you have to stay scrupulously organized in your job search," he says.

It's a lesson all too few job hunters take to heart, career experts say.

"I find many people unconsciously put themselves out of the running by sounding vague and disorganized at the other end of a phone call from a potential employer," says Patricia Polischuk Diver, executive coach and transition adviser for Knightsbridge Human Capital in Waterloo.

"You can't afford to not have information readily at hand because meticulous organization shows you are on top of things," she says. "It shows you've got the soft skills of staying organized, being fast on the uptake and [the] ability to build relationships."

But it is important to use an organizing system that feels comfortable for you otherwise it can be a distraction when you want to focus on what the job contact is saying to you during a discussion, she says.

Things to note in your diary should include information you can follow up on, Ms. Polischuk Diver says. Build a contact sheet for each person you deal with that includes key points discussed and personal information to help you build rapport, she recommends. The recruiter is planning a vacation to Europe, his kids are in a hockey league, she is an avid golfer. "It means a lot to people that you take your job search seriously enough to recall that personal information," Ms. Polischuk Diver says.

Make sure you flag what has to be done next to move the process forward, recommends Ottawa-based career strategist Maureen McCann, senior consultant to the Graham Management Group in Toronto.

"Too often people have a conversation and it goes well and then nothing happens because they don't have anything to prod you to take the next move. You can take control of the process by tracking when you sent a thank-you note, when you agreed that you would follow up and what you talked about, so you can anticipate an opening to make another approach," she says.

"I recommend the minute you get out of the meeting, sit down and write down things that went well and impressions of things that you could have improved on," Ms. McCann says. Jotting down what things you didn't know and what questions surprised you will help you frame an answer for your next discussion, as will notes about what you learned about the company's challenges and priorities.

All of this helps keep the conversation going, says executive coach Wayne Pagani, principal of WP Consulting Associates in Ottawa and also a senior consultant to the Graham Management Group.

"On a computer I personally like to file copies of information in folders in a couple of different categories and also put all the information you need on your calendar so you are prepared for the scheduled meeting. Set a reminder and it all pops up ready ahead of schedule," he says.

The original folder may be job opportunities, within that will be subfolders of companies you have applied to or are planning to approach. Then within those folders file all relevant information you have gleaned from research and networking. And who you spoke with and what the next step is.

He suggests that a good system must have ways of identifying needed files quickly - for example, colour coding to pick out information in categories, with immediate priorities in a "hot file" at the top of the list.

These were steps Mr. Riem took and he found that as his big binder of notes grew beyond about 200 contacts, "it reached a critical mass where I would know someone who knew someone in the company where I wanted to apply."

Early on he joined HAPPEN, a group of executives in transition that meets once a week to trade networking leads and advice on leads in the job market. He found it a way to get leads quickly and he soon was networking face to face and by e-mail.

That proved invaluable, because he realized that one of his networking contacts knew the president of a company he was eager to work for but who had not responded to his résumé.

But, having not heard back from the company, Mr. Riem checked his notes and found a network contact who knew the president of the company, and "I asked if he could put in a good word. To his credit he fired off an e-mail to the president saying 'you should really check this guy out.' Right after that, I got a call saying they would like to speak with me."

After he signed the job offer in September, "the CEO confided to me he had my résumé on the pass pile. It turned out that in scanning my résumé he had initially missed a lot of my experience," Mr. Riem says.

"It was only because I had kept copious notes and found a network contact who had an in that they decided to pull the résumé out and take another look at my background."

The write stuff

A job search can produce a daunting pile of research and notes. Here are tips from the pros for staying on top of the stack:

Keep it comfortable
Use a system you know; fumbling with an unfamiliar program or note-taking system will cost you credibility.

Make it portable
You'll want to have the information at the ready as you do meetings.

Find memory aids
Colour is an excellent for separating and highlighting essential information; computer programs allow you to customize prompts.

Write it down
When you are fresh from a job interview, the ideas are clear in your head but if you have had three interviews in an afternoon the discussions can all blend together in your mind by the time you get home.

Note trigger words
Jot down key attributes that the employer wants to see in someone in the role you are applying for. Use these in your follow-ups to stress that you demonstrate those traits.

Include impressions
If you spoke to three people, make note of which showed the most favourable reactions to help you choose a target for follow-up.

Flag next steps
Set up a system to alert you to follow-up opportunities.

Take it personally
Make a note on hobbies or interests of contacts that create an opening to create more rapport.

Be sincere
Don't try to stretch a connection. If your contact is into hockey but you're not, don't try to sound like a fan or you may end up sounding uninformed.

Review regularly
Going over the progress you're making will keep you on track and give you a sense of momentum.

Set a limit
Most experts discourage broadcasting hundreds of résumés and recommend focusing on the most likely prospects to avoid unnecessary complexity in a job hunt.

Save notes for reference
Those contact names and numbers are valuable. Even if you don't need them for another job search, in networking you can offer leads for other job-seekers.

Simplify your job hunt with organization