Nine great tips from talent experts on how to fine-tune your career and land the perfect job—now.
Ah, the dream job. Just as work has been reshaped by technology and globalization, so too have our professional fantasies. While jobs atop the corporate ladder haven’t totally lost their luster, more and more Americans are seeking work-life balance. And now that leaner, recession-tested firms are hiring again, they’re looking for something different too. Given the new landscape, we asked a few experts—career coaches, headhunters, and recruiters—to weigh in with their best, most relevant tips for today. The old rules still apply—network, network, network!—but here’s the latest on how to land that ideal job, whatever it may be.
1. Define what you want
Before you network, and certainly before you step into an interview, know your goals and what you’re dreaming to do. That sounds like a no-brainer, but our experts say the No. 1 mistake job seekers make is not being able to articulate what kind of job they want. “A lot of people will say, ‘I’m not exactly sure,’ thinking they’ll never get that perfection,” says Patti Johnson, CEO of PeopleResults, a human-capital consulting firm that advises clients like PepsiCo, Accenture, and Microsoft. “You need to be able to describe what you want. If you can’t share that, you waste people’s time. If they leave without knowing how to help, forget it.”
2. Learn to be flexible
Your dream job today may not exist tomorrow, let alone five, 10, or 20 years from now. You’ve got to be open to whatever industry change comes your way. And recruiters will reward you for it: “Comfort with ambiguity” is among the most sought-after qualities in job candidates today. “In the past you looked for people with a certain playbook,” says Jeff Sanders, vice chairman of CEO and board practice at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles. “Now you need people with relevant experience who are adaptable and quick learners.”
3. LinkedIn matters
Unless you’re Jamie Dimon, you need to be on it. According to our experts, more than 90% of recruiters use LinkedIn to find talented candidates, even when looking to fill top management jobs. And it influences them. Turnoffs include casual photos, sloppy writing, and incomplete or inconsistent profiles. (It should have all that’s on your résumé and then some.) Turn-ons: recommendations, thorough documentation of work accomplishments, engagement with groups, and content. Think of your profile as a place to “provide your career narrative rather than your career his-tory,” says Caroline McClure, founder of ScoutRock, a talent strategy consultancy.
4. Mind your intangibles
Traditional credentials—tenure at a big company, affiliations, top-school pedigree—don’t cut it anymore. Recruiters, even those looking for less senior employees, are increasingly focused on intangible qualities like leadership and EQ. “Management is expecting more and more maturity at younger levels of experience,” says Smooch Repovich Reynolds, an executive vice president at DHR International, an executive search firm. Don’t be surprised by the personality assessments, and cultivate those skills early, says Reynolds, who adds that having meaningful conversations with colleagues is a great place to start.
5. Change with the pace of business.
Companies don’t just want people who can perform; they want people they can promote, says Matt Paese, vice president of succession management at Development Dimensions International, a human resources consulting firm. Individuals who make a personal investment in staying valuable by seeking feedback, learning new skills, and thinking ahead—“Worry for your boss,” says Paese—show that potential. Present yourself as “a professional in motion.”
6. Use social media for creating your brand, not for self-promotion
In the era of self-publishing and social media, it’s easy to get cynical about “brand building.” Recruiters recognize the opportunistic white paper, though. Instead use platforms like Twitter genuinely—to develop a professional voice and share industry-related news you’re actually passionate about. Throw in some personality—or put on your “social media mullet” (business in the front, party in the back)—and you’ll really shine, says Stacy Donovan Zapar, founder of recruiting strategy firm Tenfold and the world’s most connected woman on LinkedIn.
7. Find ways to stand out
You’re one in (quite literally) 300 million potential job seekers on LinkedIn. “People have to be incredibly more creative than they were in the past,” says Bob Damon, executive chairman, Americas, at executive search firm Korn Ferry, who gets 150 to 200 emails from dream-job seekers a day. “If someone sends me an email with a résumé attachment, I don’t even really look at it anymore.” What impresses him? Handwritten notes, someone who’s done enough research to know he goes by Bob, not Robert, and an old-fashioned (if Google-researched) personal touch. In this game, it’s quality over quantity, says Damon.
8. Appoint your own board
Network, of course, but Dale Winston, chairwoman and CEO of Battalia Winston, an executive search firm, advises people to go further by creating their own personal board of directors made up of trusted professionals they’ve worked with previously. “Identify a group of three or four people you can consult on a regular basis,” says Winston. She recommends casting former bosses, peers, or executive consultants like herself to help you think through questions like “How can I enhance myself?” and “Is this the right time to make a move?”
9. Don’t look too hard
Now that there’s so much info on the world’s potential workforce out there, Steven Knox, the global talent acquisition leader at General Electric, says recruiters like him are far more focused on finding the perfect “passive candidate”—the person who is performing so well and getting recognized at a job that they’re not even looking to leave. “We leverage social media platforms to identify and engage in meaningful conversation with the candidates everyone is after. You don’t want someone who’s unhappy in a role or who is having performance issues. Those may be the ones active in the job market.”
Illustrations by Dan Matutina
This story is from the September 22, 2014 issue of Fortune.