Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
September 29, 2017

Executive Search 101: Guide for the Active Job Seeker

So you have decided to ramp things up from passively “listening to the market” — you are now planning to take it up a notch and start to actively look for your next opportunity. There could be many reasons for this, but before you do anything else: Sleep on it. We all have had short-term frustrations with our job, missing a target, losing a major deal or simply having a tough conversation with a colleague. Try to keep things in perspective and avoid rushing to mass-mail your CV because tomorrow might be a brighter day. But if it isn’t, read on.

In truth, it is a fine line between passively and actively looking for a new job. I encounter many senior executives who are in that gray zone, and seem like consummate “job magnets” — never closing any doors to new opportunities. More often than not, they work in senior roles in large multinationals and know (or think) that their blue chip pedigree is in high demand. Regardless of your current professional situation, there are a few things you can learn from these leaders as you accelerate your efforts to attract new opportunities in the short term.

1. Know what you want and get ready to tell the story. You have to help others help you. It is your life, your career and you cannot count on someone else to put in the hard work. I see too many people simply stating that they are looking for “a significant leadership role” (because they are very experienced) in any industry (because they learn fast), located in a major city (because their kids need a good school). This is too broad. It suggests that you have not done your homework and are expecting others to do it for you. Instead, you should:

  • Reflect on your trajectory. Where did you come from professionally? Which competencies have you developed and where are they likely to be most valuable in the future? Taking time off for self-reflection can be an invaluable investment as you prepare to make a transition. Coaches and outplacement firms can be a great resource. Tip: If your employer is making you redundant, you should get them to sponsor you for this. Many executives have found the experience to be transformative.
  • Set some concrete boundaries. It is perfectly OK and understandable not to have an exact idea of what you want, and to try to keep doors open. But you also need to be specific in your wish list. Decide which industry sectors are not likely to be right for you so you can narrow choices down. Determine which countries/cities would or would not work as a base location. If you want a role that will have impact, define and explain what that means for you. The more specific you can get, the more people will be able to think of the right opportunities for you.
  • Create a compelling narrative. Whether you have a sales background or not, let’s face it, you are now in sales mode, and the product is you. Like any good sales person, you should have your pitch ready. You need the infamous 30-second elevator pitch that gives the basics of who you are and what you seek. You also need a longer version that elaborates on your specific achievements. Think of developing a toolkit of stories, highlighting different competencies you have developed, and be ready to pull them out as needed.

2. Connect to the relevant individuals. Once you are ready to tell your story to the world, you need to be strategic in how you approach the market. You should avoid unfocused throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall approaches. While it sounds wide-reaching and time-saving, a mass email addressed to “Whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam” usually achieves nothing other than the pressing of the “delete” button by recipients. Instead, you might want to:

  • Reach out to the relevant search consultants. The operative word here is relevant. Find search firms that are serving your target industries. The top global ones will surely do, but there could also be a range of relevant boutiques. Within each firm, target the one consultant who is most likely to be able to help you. Write them a personalized email, with your resume attached. Request an in-person meeting to introduce yourself, but do not be offended if that consultant has other priorities — as long as s/he has your resume, you will be on the radar.
  • Aim for the decision-makers. Five years ago, I met a senior executive who had been made redundant. I asked what his plan was and his answer was compelling. He had taken a few weeks off and, rather than lying on the beach, he listed and researched the companies he admired the most. His list contained some of the most forward-thinking companies in the world, such as the GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), and were often completely unrelated to his background. He was determined to target them so he identified and reached out to the regional business heads of each company to schedule coffee chats. Within a few months, his proactivity had landed him a VP role in a global packaging company and he has been there since.
  • Find “Connectors.” In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes personality types that play a key role in social epidemics. He highlights a type that he calls the “Connector.” They are the few people with a truly extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances. You may not be a Connector yourself, but you should invest in spotting and getting close to the ones in your business circle. They are the most likely to make the right introductions and to give you exposure to career opportunities that may otherwise be hidden. 

3. Take ownership of the process. It is tempting to want to rely on search firms to help you find your new job, but in reality this is only a piece of the puzzle. As you may have gathered by now, the overall theme is that you should take matters in your own hands. Therefore, in addition to the above, you should:

  • Get smart. If you are considering an industry shift, you will need to get educated quickly on your new sector. I recently interviewed an executive who wanted to transition from a legal background to the renewable energy sector. He quit his job and took six months to travel the world to visit wind farms across Europe and solar projects in the U.S. He moved quickly up the learning curve. As a result, he secured a new role in the wind turbine industry. Even if you are not considering such a dramatic shift, make sure you stay current on the dynamics of your target sector and speak their language.
  • Show that you are committed. If you’re considering a change in location, particularly a change in country, you will need to show that you are serious about it. Make frequent visits to that location. Connect with the local business communities, such as chambers of commerce. Always make an effort to be present and visible (without becoming a nuisance) in your target market.
  • Stay engaged. If you have been made redundant or are in between opportunities, make sure that you stay active and connected. Why not join the board of a nonprofit organization? You may also want to start your own consulting business, if only so you have a business card with more than just your name on it. This will help you keep busy and may turn out to be a helpful vehicle if you decide to take on project work or an interim management role.

When it is time to switch from being a passive to an active job seeker, the biggest shift you should make is a shift in mindset. Active job seekers need to take charge of their destiny and should not merely hope for good fortune. Failing to plan is planning to fail, and the stakes are too high for that.