Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
September 19, 2017

Executive Search 101: Guide for the Passive Job Seeker

During my 10 years in executive search, I have come to realize that there is a great deal of diversity in how executives deal with search firms and their consultants. Some display a high level of savvy — they are, for instance, consummate job hunters or experienced search clients. Others appear to have only a superficial, or transactional, understanding of how our industry works.

To help across the board, I will share a series of articles over the coming weeks detailing best practices for dealing with search firms: an “Executive Search 101” for busy professionals. Readers who should benefit may range from passive to active job seekers, from search clients to executives aspiring to join the search profession.

We start here with a guide for the passive job seeker. This is typically an executive who is open to potential opportunities but not actively seeking a new role. He/she tends not to feel strongly about leaving their current organization, but suspects there may be greener grass somewhere else. To carry on with the horticultural metaphor, here are three steps passive job seekers can take to “fertilize the soil” to develop new career opportunities.

1. Make your resume impactful. Your resume will often be the first way people will determine your potential suitability for opportunities. Search firms and internal recruiters alike will use it to identify your potential fit — and possible gaps — with a role. A lot has been written on how to make a good resume, so let me provide a few tips to help avoid some common pet peeves:

  • Keep it short. Please do not exceed two to three pages, no matter how rich (you believe) your experience is. Succinct communication is a key leadership skill. If Satya Nadella can fit his resume on three pages, so can you.
  • Bulletproof it. Too many resumes still have typos in them. Sometimes even a company name or job title is misspelled. This shows a lack of attention to details and, more generally, that the executive has not put much effort into it. If you don’t care enough about your resume, don’t expect internal recruiters or an executive search consultant to.
  • Avoid jargon. Clarify (even better, avoid) any acronyms. Unless it is evident, explain what your employer does, what products you looked after, etc. Have your kids and your neighbors read it. If they don’t understand something, it probably needs to be explained or simplified.
  • Be specific. This particularly applies to job titles and responsibilities. Example: Being a CEO or general manager does not necessarily mean anything. Over what geography? For which product line? What business size? In the same vein, “P&L holder” is a highly abused term. Clarify the exact scope of your roles. Lack of specificity will only create confusion in the reader’s mind — it may get you a first phone call, but you may not go much further in the process.

2. Polish your online presence. Welcome to the digital age, when anyone can Google your name and get an impression of your whole life, from professional to personal, in seconds. The more distinctive your name is, the more exposed you are. Nowadays, it is rather simple to become famous (or infamous), and a lot harder to be forgotten. While this is a complex issue, there are a few simple steps you can take to protect yourself:

  • Don’t post anything you would not want your mother to see. Better to be safe than sorry. Yes, those pictures of you at the last office Christmas party were hilarious, but maybe they won’t help you get your next job.
  • Google yourself once a year. It is not just about what you put online, but what others post about you as well. Don’t let an inappropriate Facebook tag or chatroom mention damage your reputation. You should also set your privacy settings on social media so that only the right information is made publicly available.
  • If there is something unpleasant out there, own it and be prepared to explain it. I once had a candidate for a group CEO role who had been named as a witness in a corporate investigation many years prior. He had not disclosed it; we found it through our research. Our client’s chairman got spooked, not by the investigation itself but because the candidate had not voluntarily mentioned it. This CEO candidate was quickly dropped from the short list.
  • Use LinkedIn and other online professional networks wisely. It goes without saying that your LinkedIn profile should be complete, up to date and accurate. Respond to message requests, connect with people and consider coffee chats. Always be professional. As a passive candidate, this will help get you considered for the right opportunities.

3. Be available and helpful. Networking, whether online or in-person, is a give-and-take exercise. My personal rule is that I will try to be helpful to someone who has been helpful to me. I suspect many people follow the same principle. Therefore, here are a few good practices to keep in mind:

  • Be a good sport. You will often get contacts or calls from search professionals looking for help or information for a particular engagement. The role may not be right for you, but if you are helpful to that person, chances are that they will remember you positively. In the short term, you may get more “sourcing calls,” but eventually you will be called about the right job.
  • Treat everyone equally and with respect. Many search firms have an arcane organization, and it can be hard to tell how senior a person is when you meet or speak with them. Some business cards don’t have titles. Treat everyone with respect — you never know what good might come out of it. Seven years ago, a candidate asked me outright whether I was a partner in my firm, implying I would be not worth his time if I weren’t. Needless to say, the conversation did not continue for much longer. Remember that executive recruiters are people too, and are more likely to help candidates who treat them with respect.
  • Share your views candidly. The best search consultants will not put candidates forward to clients unless they have ascertained their competency and their culture fit through references. You may get such calls asking for confidential comments on former colleagues. Be open and balanced, and disclose whatever you feel is appropriate. This will be another good way to get into the good graces of the recruiter.

As a passive job seeker, the best you can do is to stay on the radar of the right people and hope for some good fortune. But, as the saying goes, fortune comes to the prepared.