There is one source of employer information that is usually easily obtainable and unsurpassed in value, yet very few job seekers ever read it: the annual report. Why is it so important? Because the annual report contains that marvelous insider report known as the "Letter to the Shareholders" written by the President or CEO. This letter catalogues not only the history of the past year, but even more important, the company vision for the future. Therein is contained all the insider information on what is important to the company; the insider information on what managers are focused on for the coming year; the current buzzwords in the company; and all of the insider hot buttons that you can push in getting the interview and getting the job.
In addition to the Letter to the Shareholders, you will also find information on principal lines of business, financial statements, principal suppliers/customers (often showcased), target markets, challenges/ difficulties, and the internal view of their competitive advantage: past, present, and future. Truly insider information.
You may rightly ask: "Why do you call it insider information? This information is available to the public, right?" Right. But most people look at an annual report only if they are interested in stock ownership of the company, not if they are interested in the company as a potential employer. When the information is used in the job search, it becomes insider information because you now know what is known only by people who are company insiders.
How to get one? Try first at the company's website, where the annual report, if available, is usually located under "Investor Relations" or "Shareholder Information." If it's not online, call the company's corporate office and ask for its Shareholder Services Department. Tell the appropriate person within that department that you are interested in the company and would appreciate a copy of the most recent annual report.
Key fact: your competition is not reading the annual report. Make sure you do. It will give you a distinct competitive edge.
P.S. If you have difficulty with reading financial statements, now would be a good time to learn. Connect with a Finance major or Accounting major. Or go to one of your Business School professors to ask if they could provide you with a quick intro to understanding corporate financials using some real data (bring the annual report with you). The primary areas you should focus on are the year-to-year trends in revenue (top line) and profit (bottom line). Then look for changes and trends in other income and expense line items which may be reflected in a change in strategy noted in the Letter to the Shareholders. The Letter to the Shareholders is the positive spin the on the numbers. But the numbers are the numbers. Learning to read between the financial lines is an important life skill to develop, both for personal financial investing as well as evaluating future employers.
This resource is also valuable, yet can be more difficult to come by. This source of information goes by a variety of names, but typically it is titled "Employment Opportunities with…" or something similar. Sometimes the information is geared specifically toward the college market and lists the entry level jobs and corresponding departments (or business units). Larger employers may also have this information online as a "College Careers" link under the "Careers" section of their website. There is a detailed listing at CollegeGrad.com of the Top Entry Level Employers, which is a good place to start your research by simply going directly to each employer's website.
Ironically, most students do not read this valuable information until after their first interview with the employer. Take the time to access the information ahead of time. If it's not available online, your Career Center may have this information in its employer files, in which case all you need to do is make some copies. But if the information is not there (these materials have a tendency to sprout legs and disappear—make sure you make copies only if there are no extras), call the company directly, ask for the Human Resources Department, and use the following script with the first person who answers (usually a secretary or receptionist in the department):
"Hello, my name is _____. I am planning to interview with your company in the near future and would appreciate it if you could send me some information about your company so that I am better prepared for that interview. Can you help me?"
If you ask politely, the person will usually send you the information or refer you to a webpage. Once they have agreed to supply you with the basic information, feel free to ask for additional information. If you do happen to get shut down, read the information in Getting Inside Hiring Companies to learn how to get past any Guardian of the Gate.
Although the above-noted documents can provide you with very detailed information, they are usually available only from larger companies. Yet nearly every organization has a third type of information that can assist you in your job search: marketing information. Nearly every company posts this information online for prospective customers. Just go to the company's homepage, then click on "Products" or "Services" to find out more. If it's not there, either go to "About Us" or the site map. This "brochureware" is almost always the first information that any company puts on the Web.
If you're unable to find the information on the company's website, call the company directly, ask for the Marketing Department, then ask if they would please send out some general marketing information about the company and its product line. Marketing people are usually more than happy to assist anyone who wants to know more about their company.
Why product information? Because most entry level interviewees are woefully ignorant of what a company actually does for a living. For example, everyone knows what Google does, right? Internet search? But is that it? When you look in depth, the actual breadth of products and services under development may surprise you. Same thing with Amazon. "I buy stuff at Amazon." OK, but there is much more to Amazon than its online retail operations. You need to do your research.
Remember, the Marketing Department is the one department authorized to blab about the company. The information you are given from this department can often be quite comprehensive and available through no other source. If you find a friend within the Marketing Department, even one who will talk with you for just a few minutes about the company, you have found a true gem.
An excellent question to ask a marketing person is:
"What gives your company its competitive edge in the marketplace?"
Most marketing people are well prepared for the question—they answer it every day, either directly or indirectly, with their customers. Let them know that you are potentially a "future customer" of the Marketing Department by virtue of your prospect for the interview. Let them know that if you do eventually get the job, you will do your best to support their department and their product line.
Astute marketers will understand that any customer, external or internal (even those who may be nothing more than "potentially future internal"), is a valuable resource to be cultivated. They will usually be more than happy to assist.
You are probably already scanning the online news and industry trade publications for information on people in your industry (if you are not, you should be). So the next time you see someone's "name in lights" you may want to send the link to the person, noting that it was nice to see that they were referenced and/or quoted in the new. Ironically, the higher up these executives are, the less likely they are to be aware of stories where their name appeared in print. Even if they are aware of the story, most will appreciate receiving the link. And this is also an excellent time to give a brief bio on who you are and your interest in their company. You've clearly been following them, which gives you an insider track. You can optionally attach your resume (aggressive approach) or wait for them to request one (passive approach). When you do pass along your information, if will now be on an internal track for further review, passed along by the person you contacted.