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The Biggest Mistakes C-Level Candidates Make When Seeking A New Job

After interviewing a string of unprepared senior level executives for various jobs, I started wondering what was going on. In one such case, I was interviewing candidates for an officer position, which required a minimum of 15+ years of prior experience. After several interviews in a row where the candidates had not even looked at the website and had very few questions, I realized the lack of preparedness was more than an aberration. Why were candidates, all of whom having achieved significant levels of career success, showing up without having done the fundamental work required to successfully navigate an interview? To better understand this phenomenon, I turned to Henry Flores, Partner of Radius Partners, a C-Level executive recruiting firm that specializes in recruiting executive management for companies across technology & business services, internet & digital media, and consumer goods & services. I asked him to provide his decades-long experience regarding the key mistakes C-level executives make during the search process and provide advice on how to overcome this.

C-level Mismanagement of the Search Process Flores indicates that while there is variance across executives in terms of their ability to effectively manage the search process, there is a substantial group that is unprepared to navigate it successfully. The less frequently an individual has proactively sought out a new position during their career, the more likely they are to be rusty and mismanage the process. Further, there tends to be a subset that approaches the process incorrectly, thinking they are unique and therefore above needing to sell themselves. In today’s more competitive environment, that perspective is just wrong.

Biggest Mistakes C-Level Executives Make When Working With Recruiters Flores suggests that there are many, but below are the top 4 mistakes C-level executives make when searching for a job.

Transaction versus relationship oriented: The biggest mistake candidates can make is believing that working with executive recruiters is a discrete transaction and doesn’t require relationship development. Some candidates don’t respond when a recruiter calls or emails because they “don’t need them at that moment”. The problem is that recruiters have a long memory (and a database). With the days of “life-time employment” far behind us, everyone will be in a job search at some point in their career. That same candidate will need help and when they call that same recruiter, s/he won’t have a compelling reason to help. Prior rudeness or lack of courtesy will also likely result in unanswered phone calls. Flores shared a situation he was aware of where a candidate had treated another recruiter’s staff poorly. Five years later, another recruiter contacted the original recruiter to get insight on the candidate. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a glowing review. Flores indicates that candidates should think about treating executive recruiters (and their associates) like insurance – you regularly invest (in developing the relationship) so that when you actually need it, you will get the help you need.

All tactics and no strategy: While it may be surprising that some senior level candidates think they can rely on LinkedIn to find a job, this is a typically fruitless plan. Rather, Flores indicates that senior level executives often forget to do the basics: 1) what companies are you targeting, 2) what’s your unique positioning, and 3) what’s your strategy for creating “warm” introductions? Many executives immediately start calling people because they’ve been told they need to network. However, they need to first understand what they want. As Flores indicates: “Never forget that it is your job to make it easy for other people to help you." This means being prepared before you contact anyone and includes making sure that there is a seamless story that connects the verbal story (personal elevator pitch – where you’ve been and what you, specifically, would like to do next) with your LinkedIn profile (career summary) with your resume (detailed business accomplishments). If your resume indicates you have had a string of CMO positions and yet you verbally indicate you want a GM role, it’s confusing. It’s not about you, it’s about them: Throughout the process, Flores indicates that some people consistently think that it’s about them and not the company they are interviewing with. Candidates show up at the first client interview thinking they are there to get their questions answered and not the other way around. I made this mistake in my 20s. I went into the first interview with a targeted company and wasn’t sure that the company was a good fit for me. This belief clearly must have been conveyed because the feedback from the recruiter was that the company didn’t think I was seriously interested in the role. I never made that mistake again. I now have a different approach – until I have made it past the preliminary interviews, I reserve judgment regarding the degree of fit. Of course, I wouldn’t interview in the first place if there wasn’t sufficient interest. As Flores suggests, too many candidates consider interviews a fact-finding mission. Rather, in the early stages, candidates should approach the process as a seller rather than a buyer. He counsels candidates to redefine their objective for a preliminary interview – the goal should be to get invited back rather than to have all of their questions answered.

You are unlikely a unicorn: While most of us think we are very special (our parents have told us so our entire lives), the reality is that there are many candidates that can fill a position. Humility, an ability to accept coaching, and effort placed to create and communicate differentiation will all benefit any candidate. In contrast, Flores recounted a time when he was trying to help an executive in transition understand that their experience was not as differentiated as they thought. The candidate refused to accept the counsel, reiterating how unique and special they were. Recruiters see hundreds if not thousands of resumes a year. They are in a better position to provide a market-based understanding. And at a minimum, it’s only wise to respect their opinion.

Why Do These Mistakes Matter? Unfortunately, candidates don’t realize two things: 1) executive recruiters tend to remember outliers, especially rude, discourteous behavior (like any of us do), and 2) if you aren’t helpful to a search firm, they will never remember you. Karma really exists when it comes to the job search. Lack of engagement or poor treatment of others usually comes back in-kind. The Golden Rule is the best way to approach the process.

What Can C-Level Executives Do (Before And During) To More Successfully Navigate The Job Search?

  • Create a story: Where are you coming from and going to? Why? Is this story consistent throughout all materials and verbal explanations? Be crisp.

  • Build a strategy: Approach the process like you would a strategic initiative. What are your goals, strategies, tactics, and measures? How will you position yourself to best achieve your goals?

  • Treat every recruiter interaction as an opportunity to continue building a relationship: It’s really a bad idea to not cultivate these relationships. Think in terms of long (very long) timeframes (years, not months). Return calls / emails; make recommendations for potential candidates; and, make an effort to stay in touch as you change jobs and your career progresses.

  • Cultivate “warm” introductions rather than “cold” calls: Focus on networking through people you know versus calling people blindly. Recruiters are inundated with requests for help. They prioritize those people with whom they’ve had a prior, positive relationship and referrals from their network.

  • Sell then buy: Once you have decided to interview with the client – and they want you to interview – balance questions you have regarding whether the company is right for you with providing information about yourself. Use your questions to both answer your questions and demonstrate a clear interest in the company and position. Questions about the trajectory of the company, the firm’s leadership, expectations of the role you would be filling, the culture of the firm, etc. demonstrate that you’ve done your homework, you are inquisitive, you have thoughtful and insightful questions, and overall, you are clearly interested. You can’t get the job if the client doesn’t believe you want it.

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