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the future of work

When Josh Cobden graduated with a political science degree from Queen's University in 1992, he found himself facing a question that plagues many of us: What career path should I take?

When a professor introduced him to a former student who was then a rising star at a multinational public relations firm, Mr. Cobden was immediately captivated by the idea of working in PR, but needed a way to hustle his way in. He researched the industry and latched on to various contacts at the firm with all his might, regularly calling and sending résumés, but nothing ever materialized.

One morning he discovered that his contacts had left to start their own firm, called Environics Communications. Mr. Cobden felt this was his chance to win them over. After some persuasion, he managed to snag an interview with two of the principals at the new firm. To stand out, he rushed to the beer store, bought a six-pack and affixed labels to it called "Cobber Lager," after his university nickname. He added the tagline: "The perfect tonic for Environics." The logo featured descriptions such as "Loyal to the finish," and "Bold but strategic," Mr. Cobden recalled. At the end of the meeting, he pulled out the "icy-cold Cobbers" and the three kicked back and drank beer.

Getting hired, or landing a new client is, in many ways, like dating. With hundreds or even thousands of others potentially vying for the same prize, getting noticed requires creativity and determination, or more specifically, scrappiness, according to Terri Sjodin, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based author of the new book Scrappy: A Little Book About Choosing to Play Big.

She defines being scrappy as having a fighting spirit – "a little person who can still kick some ass, despite the odds."

The concept really hit her after she watched the film Wall Street, where the young stockbroker Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, cold calls Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, for 59 days in a row, all while learning his birthday and his favourite cigars in order to "bag an elephant."

"I thought, that's what I need to do. I need to get scrappy like that."

While she had no ambition to become a stockbroker like Bud Fox, she did begin applying some scrappy principles at work. She pursued a big client by waiting in his assigned parking spot. When he pulled in, she gave him a white rose.

"He asked me what I was selling. I told him that right now I just want to deliver this rose. Then my toe was in the door and eventually I closed the opportunity," Ms. Sjodin said.

So why does being scrappy work? Ms Sjodin said that engineering a pleasant surprise is more appealing than trying to get in through the regular channels. "It's going through a side door, instead of the front door," she explained.

Her book is filled with examples of how being scrappy has worked, such as the Girl Scout who sold 117 boxes of cookies in two hours by opening up a shop outside a medical marijuana dispensary.

She also recounts the story of Damion Hickman, a graphic arts designer who worked across the street from surfer wear retailer Quiksilver. It was his dream to do design work for the company, so every few days at lunch he would pop by to chat with the receptionist at the front desk, who would promise to leave a message for the appropriate person. Finally, the decision maker happened to be walking down the stairs while Mr. Hickman was leaving a message. The receptionist introduced them, after which the executive asked him to present 10 designs. Though each was intially rejected, he was eventually commissioned to do some other projects for the retailer, because the hiring manager valued his tenacity.

Embracing a scrappy approach is easier said than done. Ms. Sjodin warns that being scrappy can sometimes be mistaken for stalking and recounts tales when scrappy went wrong. One unlucky hopeful tried to surprise a CEO by storming into an auditorium with a birthday cake. Not only did he get the date wrong, but the stunt was considered a security breach.

When you get scrappy right, there is normally one of two outcomes, Ms. Sjodin said. You move the ball a little or you fall flat. When the latter happens, it's not a failure. You just need to start again.

In Mr. Cobden's case, he didn't land a job the day he shared his signature beer at Environics. That opportunity came two years later. Turns out his boss had saved his Cobber Lager bottle and handed it back to him when he started his new job. Mr. Cobden has now worked for Environics for 20 years and currently runs the firm's corporate and financial practice group.

"While my audacious, desperate move to get hired didn't convert them immediately, I like to think it was a memorable move that ultimately opened the door," Mr. Cobden said.

"Bringing that beer to my job interview was my best career move yet."

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.