Want to know the secret ingredient of the top retained search firms? You wouldn't guess in a million years. It's not the top recruiters -- the big shots, the high earners. Nope. And it certainly isn't their fancy offices in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles with their mahogany desks and partners who look like they just stepped off the pages of Fortune magazine. That's not it at all.

At every firm, the secret ingredient is two or three people who work very hard inside their IKEA cubicles. Over the door to their section you'll see a sign that says "Name Generation Department." These are the people who figure out who does what within a company -- because if a recruitment firm's recruiters don't have any names to network with, then the recruiters can't do their jobs. Yes, name-generation experts are the heroes of their firms.

I was reminded of this recently when, after I gave a talk on the joys of networking, a postdoc attendee asked me a question -- a common one but one I have always tried to avoid. I'll wager it strikes a chord with your concerns. "I get that it's important to reach out, to learn about and be in touch with the right people. But how do you do that anyway? I've tried to contact companies and find out who their hiring managers are, and all I get is a click on the other end of the line." I have avoided this question because it's hard to answer.

But I'm not going to avoid it any longer. Instead, I'm going describe exactly how the unsung heroes of the big recruiting firms do their work. Because you can do the same work they do. You can get the same names. You can find the name of the hiring manager behind an ad in Science, or a whole list of names to serve as networking contacts for your job search.

Low-hanging fruit

I have a friend who works as a name-generation specialist for a recruiting company. She has a bachelor's degree in biology and a lot of passion for her job. I asked her what her first step is when she gets a new assignment. How does she figure out whom her recruiters need to network with to fill a particular job?

"The first thing I do is start picking the low-hanging fruit. That is, I go to the published information on the Web and start gathering it in stages. If I'm looking for a director of analytical chemistry, I'll go for three layers of contacts: those who are right on the mark" -- actual current directors -- "those who are managers, a notch below what we're looking for, and those who are senior directors or VPs, a notch above my target. In other words, I surround the names we are looking for with names above and below the level I was asked to find. I learned a long time ago not to be fussy and pass up a name from a company just because it's at the wrong level."

Most of that "fruit" is published on LinkedIn, company Web sites, and corporate sites like Hoovers.com. But Hoover's and other Web directories can be expensive for the job seeker (even Hoover's student subscription costs $50 per month, though Hoover's does offer a free trial), and they focus on executives instead of the senior scientist that would be most useful to you. That's why LinkedIn is such an important tool: all levels of contact names are listed there.

I wish there were competitive sites so that it didn't feel like I was promoting a specific company. (I already wrote a column on LinkedIn, in October of 2008.) But there aren't any competitors. As a search engine for name gathering, LinkedIn has it locked up.

Credit: Kelly Krause, AAAS

On LinkedIn, the bigger your list of personal contacts, the more people you have access to because your searches draw upon the connections of your friends, your friend's friends, and your friend's friend's friends. When doing a people search, you can use either the advanced search function or the find people function on the top right of your home, profile, or contacts page. In Advanced Search, type in a company name under "Current or Past Employer" and a parameter -- say, "Bioassay" -- and click "search." Within moments, you've got a working list of people who do that work within that company. Do a Google search on those names and you'll find all kinds of interesting information about a lot of these prospective networking contacts. Some people who aren't big on LinkedIn will list only their names and titles there, whereas others show their education, their postdoc information, and paragraphs of detail. Some of these people could be the hiring managers you were searching for!

Advanced name gathering

Of course, if you have only 10 LinkedIn contacts, your pool of prospective names is going to be small. (Quick, send me a LinkedIn invitation and rave about Tooling Up and Science Careers. You'll get a prompt link from me and access to my connections and those downstream from me.) But even with a big pool to draw from, networkers need to have skills other than working with this one Web site.

"The tried-and-true way to get names is by asking someone else in the organization for contacts," my name-generation friend says. "That sounds difficult, but just being friendly does the trick most of the time. Also, ask people you know for attendance lists from conferences. Or look up conference organizers and see if they publish their attendance lists on the [conference] Web site. Even if it is just the speakers and session chairs for the conference, you're going to come away with gold because those names will lead to others."

How does one name lead to another? As my friend says, you just have to ask. But it's not quite that simple: You probably have already discovered that when you call a company and ask the operator for the name of the manager in the bioassay laboratory, you get nowhere, fast. "I'm sorry, but we do not provide information like that." Operators follow company policy and are trained not to give out names to random callers.

But inside the company, people operate under their own rules. Call the quality control manager who works with the bioassay lab all day long and ask politely whom in the lab to contact about its current opening. You stand at least a 50-50 chance of getting the contact information you need. There's no secret here; it's a matter of asking politely and not sounding like some kind of widget salesperson. Just be honest; you're a job seeker hoping to connect with the decision-maker. We've all been there and everyone can relate. Sure, sometimes you'll be rebuffed, you'll get referrals to human resources, and sometimes you won't get past an assistant. So what? Sometimes you fail. And sometimes you succeed.

If you must deal with a company operator or an assistant, you still might be able to salvage the situation. Remember, these folks are not allowed to give you information if you are totally clueless, but they are okay with -- and often enjoy a great deal -- correcting you if you have bad information. Here, you might need to act a little bit like a widget salesperson. My name-generation friend tells me that if you have one name, you can get another one. Let's say you have the name of Dr. Prasad Patel, quality manager (a fictional name; any resemblance to a person living or dead is purely coincidental), and you want the name of the assay lab manager who just ran an ad in Science Careers. Just twist those names around and get corrected:

Caller: May I please speak to your assay lab manager? I believe his name is Dr. Prasad Patel.

Operator: I'm sorry, but Dr. Patel is our quality manager. Dr. Ken Smith is our assay lab manager. Who would you like to speak with?

Caller: Oh, thank you so much. This call is for Dr. Smith, please put me through.

Common mistakes

I've made this process sound really easy, but you will hit snags, and your results will vary. Still, I can help you avoid making a couple of common mistakes.

LinkedIn offers a feature they call "Get introduced" that allows you to ask one of your contacts to pass on a memo to a friend of a friend. This might be fine for a few informational-interview requests, but it isn't the best way to meet people during a rapid-fire job search. You want quicker action than this. It's a big mistake to forgo meeting people by e-mail, phone, or face to face in favor of this third-party "introduction" process.

The other mistake I see people making is getting caught up in finding one name. It's human nature -- okay, scientist nature -- to stay focused on a detail, but that doesn't make it a good idea. While searching for this one name, these folks bypass dozens of other names belonging to people who could be tremendously helpful. So take the advice of my name-generation friend and cast a wide net. Go a "notch above or below what you are looking for."

A final piece of advice: Get used to being a friendly caller on the phone, fearless of rejection, because it is the friendly -- and fearless -- job seeker who finds the best leads.

Photo (top): Credit: Marco Raaphorston Flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.