Most of my posts are directed towards corporate leaders. This time is different. The number of people looking for employment, including senior executives who may be looking for a job for the first time in a decade, is historic. I am speaking to this group.
Executive Springboard usually gets involved with leaders once they have begun a new position. In this respect, we can be considered in the "search aftermarket." We talk to search firms, human resource groups, transition coaches and outplacement organizations all the time. And the advice I offer here is the result of the wisdom they have shared.
Know what you want.
Transition is always a good time to take stock of the arc of your career. A good sense of what you’d like to do will spare you a lot of wasted time investigating opportunities. It will also help bring a sense of commitment to your discussions.
I’ve noticed a split in how senior and middle management searches are being addressed in the COVID recession. If you’ve been a manager or a director, you have about six times as much competition for your next position as you had back in February. Don’t expect hiring companies to exhibit much imagination in projecting how you might perform in a role you haven’t held before. There are too many others who can demonstrate their relevant experience.
It’s different at senior levels. A Silicon Valley executive recruiter told me that he started three new CEO searches the day California shut down. The reason: CEOs decided that fixing their businesses was just too hard. They had enough money to walk away from their position, even if their wealth took a hit in the first quarter. Boards were panicking and the recruiter got the calls. So, counterintuitively, there may be more room for stretch at senior levels than at junior ones.
Don’t take things too personally.
I’m not talking about what happened when you were let go, but about what happens in the search itself. Having been in a position of authority in your last gig, there are a few things that are hard to get used to you. First, your search is more urgent to you than it is to anybody else. Target companies, headhunters and networking connections won’t get back to you immediately. There are simply other things on their plate. And the radio silence can be unnerving.
Even more disheartening can be the amount of rejection you face. An Emmy Award winning actor once told me a story. His niece was staying with him in NYC, looking for a job out of college in publishing. Interview after interview went poorly. It got to the point that, as an interview began, she just broke down and cried. When she told him what happened, he asked her, “Would you consider me a professional success?” ‘Of course,” she said. Then he asked, “How often do you think I get rejected?” “I don’t know, maybe half the time?” “More like 90% of the time!” he replied. “But I don’t let the rejections get me down. I remain confident in my ability.”
Build your marketing campaign.
Make sure your resume and your social media presence are attractive to HR algorithms. How are you stacking up keywords? Here is a strategy worth considering: Take your resume and input it into tagcrowd.com. Do the same thing with your LinkedIn profile. Now copy the specs for 8-10 jobs that get you excited. Look at the resulting word clouds. How close do your marketing efforts match your desired positions? If there is a disconnect, you are not talking about yourself in a way that is consistent with your goals.
Create themes from your resume that differentiate you and are important to the hiring company. Capture those themes in your cover letter and interviews. Do you have success in turnarounds? Do you have extensive global experience? Have you scaled businesses from $2M to $20M? Your command of the details and metrics in your resume is less important than driving home how you offer a unique solution to them. You are taking an essay exam, not a multiple choice!
Developing your channel strategy.
The three major channels of a search involve networking, headhunters and online postings.
Most senior positions get filled with the help of search firms. So, being in a headhunter’s data base is important. So is having the headhunter know who you are, to a point. People sometimes have the wrong idea of the role of an executive recruiter. The search firm wants to present you in a positive light, as a reflection of their good selection skills, but they work for the hiring company, not for you. And outside of an initial conversation when sending them your resume, continued conversations at your initiative have diminishing returns.
If a search firm contacts you for a position they are trying to fill, recognize that you are one of a couple hundred contacts they are making. Don’t read into the interaction that there is necessarily something special happening. They want to keep you warm, while they continue to contact another hundred candidates. The search firm is looking for three broad areas of fit: skill fit, culture fit and career motivation fit. Leave your self-doubt behind when you speak to them about your accomplishments, how you like to work and what you are passionate about. Have the headhunter play a role in selling you on the company.
Responding to a post on a job board or on LinkedIn is what an expert once referred to as “pajamas and slippers work.” I liken it to a reptilian approach. Here’s what I mean... A reptile lays hundreds of eggs, trying to beat a low chance of survival through sheer numbers. And you can easily respond to 15-20 Easy Apply opportunities before lunch. But you’re probably one of 300 applicants. And if you get a call from the corporate recruiter, chances are you won’t even remember what the company is about.
Compare this to a mammalian approach: fewer applications well researched. Focusing on companies that excite you for work that fits your goals. There is probably no better way to find these than online, particularly if you are open to a new geography. And to get consideration, you will need to apply online. But that is only the beginning of your work. Tailor your resume and your cover letter to the opportunity. And use your network, as I will describe two paragraphs from here.
At least 70% of successful searches are a result of using your network well, especially the “ripples” beyond the people whom you know. Your buddy seldom comes through with a job for you (and you might not want to work with them), but friends of friends do a lot of heavy lifting. Coronavirus may have made networking easier. Few people are meeting at Starbucks; they are meeting on Zoom instead. This saves commuting time and effort, making people more open to talk.
Don’t stop with these investigative meetings. The endorsement of people in your network is one of the strongest tools you have. As good as your resume might be, don’t rely on the company’s artificial intelligence to select you. Get your resume in front of a decision-maker or influencer. Do you have a friend who works there? Tell them you’re interested, explain how you can add value and ask them to be your ambassador. Do you have a friend who shared a position with you? Ask them to recommend you to the recruiter instead of doing it on your own. Target as far up in the organization as you can. A resume sent from the president to HR is bound to get attention, and it leaves the internal recruiter trying to ascertain whether this is a suggestion or a direction.
Screening and interviewing in the age of COVID.
A cottage industry has developed on preparing executives for interviews. At a time when virtually all are being conducted virtually, getting your scene right is important. My wife and I have running commentaries on the backgrounds of cable news contributors being interviewed from their homes. What does it say when the books on their library shelves are arranged by color? When they are in a spotless kitchen with just a perfect bowl of fruit or maybe flowers behind them? Before jumping on Zoom, go to Photo Booth and see how you and your background appear. Are you well lit? Is the background a distraction? And be aware of the level of background noise and assume the other person on the call will be, too. Organizations are forgiving because so many of us are making do in home offices, so apologizing for your dog barking is an ice breaker. But if your next-door neighbor is mowing her lawn, maybe you should close the window. Remember that looking at their image on the screen has you looking down from the camera. Try to remember to look the camera "square in the eye," at least occasionally.
Come with 3-4 killer questions for each interview. Those that show you have researched the industry, the company and the person you’ll be talking with. My daughter, Jess, gave me this invaluable lesson: Get the interviewer to talk about themselves and their company. The more they talk, the better they feel about the interview.
Remember what I said about themes in your resume? These are the talking points that you want to make clear in an interview. Maybe this is a company that grew quickly to $10M in a market and has stalled out. How does your experience in opening new markets apply? Perhaps their lack of financial controls created a problem. Can you relate a mistake your company made in the past and how you learned from it to come up with a solution?
Have a goal of what to emotional impression to leave the interviewer with. These can tie into your themes of differentiation, but that is not necessary. For example, working too hard to convince somebody how you can solve their problems may come across as arrogant. Instead, can you inspire them? Make them want to have a beer with you? Feel like you could have their back in a tough situation? Many interviewers take no notes during your time together. They may scribble some things down afterwards, or they may forget almost all content of the discussion, when they have to address the next crisis immediately after your interview. They may not remember facts from your interview, but they will remember how they felt about you and how you made them feel about themselves.
Use your buying skills, not just your selling skills. How do they address hard questions about their business? Dig deeper, if you are skeptical of the answer. It’s better to piss somebody off by shining a light on an inconvenient fact than to gloss over it in the interview and own it once you have the job. Do the answers you get match up with Glass Door or other platforms? Ask questions about the culture that are non-judgmental, but can help you decide if you fit…
Negotiating your offer.
Once you accept your position, enhancements in compensation and benefits will only be incremental. Negotiating your offer is the best chance for a step-change from your last position, or at least not to take a giant step backwards. Here are some things for your consideration:
The company made you an offer because you are their top choice. They have an investment of time, money and emotion in a decision to bring you on board. They don’t want you to wriggle off the hook, because their proposed compensation is not satisfactory, unless what you want creates equity issues with other employees.
Know the market value of your position. I don’t think that fundamentally changed because of COVID-19. If the work is similar to your last position, adjusting for company size, etc., where you were before is a good starting point. Most likely, you would be comfortable with that compensation level. If the new employer knows what you made before and holds firm on something substantially lower for an equivalent position, they have to realize that they are only renting your services short-term.
Salary is not the total picture. Consider how you can get to a desired outcome through short- and long-term bonuses, vacation, PTO and other benefits. The value of a week’s vacation may be $5K for a $250 salary. A company that resists that last $5K in salary might be willing to break policy and give you an additional week of vacation.
If you’ve been waiting for me to become self-serving, here you go (and at least I saved it for the end!)… incorporate onboarding and development as a benefit. Companies often recognize the ROI in retention and accelerated performance that comes from hiring a coach or mentor, at least for the critical period of assimilation. If this is a new concept for the company, consider splitting the cost of a coach with the company for a few months until the value is made clear. Executive Springboard works with executives over an 8-month time frame; by the end of that period, an exec has found their footing, is performing at a high level, has adjusted to the culture and has made the alliances needed to sustain success.
Good luck in the weeks that follow. As always, I welcome your comments.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.