Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
March 27, 2023

Practical Advice for Experienced Job Seekers: A Reactive and Proactive Mix

One of the joys of being an executive recruiter is having the opportunity to help talented executives plot the next step in their career. As a retained search firm, we work on behalf of our clients to find the right candidates. However, our results depend on us having access to the best talent and on building trusted relationships with that talent. Oftentimes, those relationships start with a “career conversation” and advice on how to approach their own personal search.

The beginning of the year tends to be when we receive a lot of inbound requests for help as people start the new year invigorated, with resolutions and intentions to take the next big step in their career journey.

Be it searching for a new full-time executive role or a non-executive board director role, our advice to those seeking counsel has remained the same over the years.

Your search effort will be a mix of being reactive and proactive.

The exact ratio of energy spent on the reactive side versus the proactive side will depend on the person and the situation at hand, but there is no question that a focus on both will lead to the right outcome, with valuable learning and energy spent along the way.

Before you tackle the reactive and proactive sides of the search plan, you first need to reflect in two key areas.

  1. Inventory the moments in your career when you have been at your best and the most fulfilled and glean insights/patterns that can be applied to the next role. What were you doing? Who were you working with/for? What was the purpose of the organization, the culture of the team, the condition of the business (growth, turnaround, etc.)? Just as importantly, inventory the moments when you were most unhappy or unfulfilled. How can you make sure you avoid similar dynamics in the future?
  2. Articulate future career goals and think about the next role in the context of where you want to be over the long term, as your aspirations may affect the decisions you make now that set you up for achieving the long-term goal. Do you aspire to be a CEO? Do you want to change industries? Do you want to shift functions?

With those reflections, you are ready to get the wheels in motion! Outline your ideal role (be specific as possible) and the areas adjacent to the ideal role that would also be interesting to consider. Keep in mind, sometimes it may be better to pursue opportunities inside your current company, especially if your aim is to pivot to a new function where you do not have experience. In those situations, you are relying on the trust and reputation you have built inside the organization, which may allow for the organization to take a chance on you in the new role.

Building your reactive plan

There is an “open inventory” of opportunities available at any moment that align with your career aspirations. The more experienced one gets, the smaller the inventory, but over three, six and 12-month windows, there will always be opportunities. The inventory that travels through the executive search industry is large, and the inventory of opportunities that companies and boards handle directly or through informal networks is even larger.

The goal of anyone looking for a new opportunity should be to increase their access to the inventory of the types of roles they are interested in learning about. So, how does one do that?

  1. Raise your hand with recruiters. Through your network, figure out the executive recruiters who are closest to the inventory you seek to access. Your best shot for engaging with those recruiters is through an introduction from someone in your network who can vouch for you. Recruiters come in all forms ― large global firms, smaller specialist firms, and internal executive recruiters ― you should consider all that are relevant. Some will want to engage in a live conversation immediately, some will wait until they have an appropriate role to discuss, and some will just want your CV. Take your cue from them. Your goal is awareness building.
  2. Leverage the “connectors” in your network. There are people in every network who are more connected than most. They always seem to be in the know and are the types of people that hiring managers seek out as sources of talent recommendations. They might be former bosses, board members or peers, and you know that they have extensive networks and are trusted for their opinions. You want these people to have you and your aspirations front of mind and be ready to refer you when they are asked for candidate suggestions.
  3. Talk to people who are already in the role you want. This is perhaps the best way to access the inventory because those already doing the job will be on the lists and receiving the outreach from the hiring managers and recruiters (internal and external). This is especially true for board roles where the search criteria tends to be specific and narrowly defined.

There are likely tradeoffs to be considered with the opportunities surfaced through this channel, including scope of responsibilities, location, title and compensation. It is unlikely everything will align perfectly with your goals, so you need to build a filter and establish a few non-negotiable constants that will help you save time by focusing on the roles that represent the best fit. The more opportunities you see, the more perspective you will have when the right one comes along.

Quick words of advice: it is all about the people. A challenged business with a great team has a higher likelihood of being a successful experience for you than a pristine business with terrible people. Do not compromise on the quality of the team you would be surrounded by and do not fool yourself into thinking that if you are the boss, you can replace everyone. It is not that simple!

Putting your proactive plan in motion

While chances are your next opportunity will come by reacting to a role already scoped, we have witnessed countless examples of people taking fate into their own hands and proactively seeking out the next opportunity and, in some cases, creating the perfect role.

While the likelihood of success with the proactive strategy is lower than the reactive strategy, the work to unearth proactive opportunities is more interesting and stimulating. You’ll inevitably be thinking about ways you are uniquely suited to help a company at a moment in time, and you’ll be gathering intelligence to make the first conversation impactful.

Here are tips for starting your proactive strategy:

  1. Build a running list of the organizations you admire and humbly believe you could impact. You can do this in a page of a notebook over a period of time; just jot down the companies as you come across them in your day-to-day travels. After a few weeks, look at the list and notice patterns, then segment the companies and get to work going deeper.
  2. Once you have a short list of companies, look at the leadership teams. Do they have someone like you? If not, prioritize this company. Did they just hire someone into a role that would have been perfect for you? If so, deprioritize this one, as the timing will be off. With the short list you’ve whittled down, start to gather intelligence from contacts who are on the inside and find your hook or angle on why you and why now.
  3. Next, find your best chance of gaining an audience (who do you know who can broker an intro?) and make contact with the right person. Don’t lead with, “I am looking for a new role.” Instead, say, “I’ve admired your company from afar. I suspect you are facing challenge x,y,z, and I have some experience in similar situations and I’d welcome the chance to share some insights.”

Your aim here is to plant a seed. The seed may germinate quickly with fortunate timing such that a role is created or shaped for you. Or it may never germinate, but you made a contact. And who knows where that relationship will intersect in the future?

Good luck on your journey and fine tuning the mix of reactive and proactive that is right for you!