You won’t get “the meeting” if your outreach message is, “I’d like to meet and learn about whether you have any regional sales manager spots open.”
If you want to take the next step in your executive career, ignore anyone who says one month is better than another to find an awesome executive position. Even though fewer of these spots get filled in Q4, thanks to end of fiscal year belt tightening, that doesn’t mean some awesome jobs aren’t in play during that time. Sorry…you can’t slack off for three months!
The best time to find a position or start a new career is right now. Today. This hour. If there’s one thing I’ve learned working with executives, it’s that they usually don’t have a sense of urgency about these things. True, they often exit their most recent positions with nice parachutes and the luxury of a leisurely transition. That’s great, and I always advise someone like this to take some down time and get reacquainted with their spouse and children!
But if you’re in this situation, or just contemplating a move, pick a definite point in time to start job hunting—and then go all out, like the executive maniac you are. And if you’re between positions, your search can’t be part-time. The process we are going to talk about won’t allow for it. As they say, “half-time is half-assed.”[BL1] You have a new full time job—your search.
Ignore the stats about how long it takes “on average” to find an executive position. Are you average? Of course not! Your mother was right—you are special! And you will nail down that next executive position tout suite…if you approach things not only vigilantly but strategically.
Keep your goal top of mind. It’s not to find just any highly-compensated executive position. You’re going to find a highly-compensated executive position that you love—a situation where you can’t wait to get to the office or the airport at 7 a.m. to see what challenges and opportunities await!
I’m going to present here a process for executive job searching. There are no magic bullets, bulletin boards, or short cuts—it’s a lot of work. I used it early in my career and it sent me down an incredible career path. I’ve refined it since then with the advent of social media tools.
Before we get into process, let’s talk about the tools you’ll need.
kills Categorization. Take out a blank sheet of paper and make three columns. In the first, write down everything in your past career that you loved to do—the things that were most gratifying on a daily basis. In the second column, list the things you’ve done that you’re very good at, but are not your favorite things to do. These may very well include tasks and activities your co-workers identified as your strengths. Finally, in the third column, write down the things you’ve always hated doing in your professional capacity—if you never have to do them again, you’d be a happy person. Keep this analysis handy so you can review and discuss executive opportunities—maybe even mold the job in your favor in the course of negotiations.
Keyword list. This one sounds simple, but take your time with it. Pour yourself a glass of wine, open your mind, and contemplate this deeply. Ready? Make a list of the hottest industry terms and phrases that correlate to your expertise, career goals, and target industries. The words and phrases could be technical, the latest business management jargon-based theories, titles, credentials, and so on.
Resume. There are lots of theories on resumes—ideal look, layout, organization, length, etc. I won’t step into that quagmire it’s a whole other article or two. Most of those issues are matters of personal preference and are industry-specific. Just make sure the resume is pleasing to the eye (white space, no dense text blocks, and relatively wide margins) then shift your attention to the content. Pull out your current resume and see how many words and phrases from your keyword list you find. I thought so. Go ahead and do some wordsmithing. HR offices and search firms are inundated with resumes and, as you know, they use keyword-based technologies to screen candidate resumes. So get inside their heads and predict what words and phrases they’ve loaded into their search algorithms.
LinkedIn®. Yes, you have to have a LinkedIn account and it has to be great! Every executive recruiter will look for you on LinkedIn, analyzing what they see—who’s endorsed you and how you present yourself digitally. They’ll also speculate on what they don’t see. No endorsements? No detail about your executive positions? No posts? Major gaps in the timeline? They’ll assume the worst and go to the next candidate. They’re grateful for any opportunity to whittle the list down.
Your LinkedIn profile shouldn’t be a pasted version of your resume—there’s another area on your LinkedIn page where you can upload it. The profile is where you humanize your professional self. Don’t go overboard with the touchy-feely, but talk a little about what makes you tick and the trends in your career. Capture the essence of each of your previous positions in 3-5 sentences. Draw from your list of keywords as you craft this personal message. Use the first-person…”I, me, my” (to sort of quote George Harrison).
Also be constructively active with LinkedIn communication. Post anything you’ve written for public consumption (blogs, etc.). Engage civilly in conversations. Share pertinent articles—not just re-posting them but adding your thoughts and perspectives as a preface.
Last, be sure to have some recent endorsements and make sure your skill set blocks are completely filled. Yes, you have to ask for endorsements…and give them to get them. Play this game.
Executive Search Firms. I’ve listed below the major national companies that conduct executive searches for their clients. It’s worthwhile to register with each of them and upload your information into their databases—again, making good use of your keywords. But don’t sit back and wait for the calls for interviews. It’s more along the lines of being pleasantly surprised if this pays dividends—kind of like applying directly for a position online. Don’t count on it, but you never know…
Also, look for smaller, local executive search agencies. You can find them by googling “Executive Search (your zip code).”
Ideally try to meet with a search firm representative so you can make an impression beyond the electronic page. Don’t take it personally if they won’t see you; they’re paid by clients who’ve retained them for searches. But if you happen to contact a recruiter when he or she is looking for someone with your skill sets or industry experience, you may get an audience. Then you have the golden opportunity to form a personal impression and create a professional relationship. Always follow up after this type of meeting with a personal hand written note. Everyone else will send an e-mail; you need to be different, be creative, and leave a lasting impression. I had a candidate once research me on LinkedIn and learned that was active with my undergraduate alumni organization and shipped me a custom hockey jersey with my name on the back – THAT candidate was top of mind AND got placed!
Prioritized Target List. Write down 15 companies you know you’d like to work for or about which you’ve heard good things and would like to learn more. Now make three columns. Put the top five in the first column. You’d work for any of these in a heartbeat—they deliver products or services you can totally get into and for which you have a passion. They have an awesome workplace culture and an enlightened leadership team. In the next column put five more companies. Yes, you’d join these companies if the opportunity arose. They have a good reputation for products, services, and work environment, but they just haven’t cracked your top five. Put the rest of the companies in the last column—maybe you’ve heard good things about them but you need to find out more before deciding if they’re right for you.
You’ll be pursuing all of these companies regardless of how you’ve grouped them, but you’ll focus on, and be less likely to give up on, companies in the first column.
Getting the Meeting
Your next executive position most likely is not posted on Indeed, $100,000 Jobs, or LinkedIn. You may hear of people who found a great opportunity through a job board (though probably not an executive position), but I hear far more people moaning that they “can’t find a job” even though they’ve submitted dozens of resumes through job boards and on corporate HR pages. They’ve spent countless hours on this job hunting “strategy.” It will be a long search indeed if all you’re doing is lobbing your resume into a vat of digital darkness.
So, sure, do those things but also put a more realistic strategy in play. It’s a system I call “Getting the Meeting,” which, at its simplest, is getting your foot in the door in a non-threatening (i.e., non-job seeking) context.
First, let’s make one thing very clear. Let’s say you’re looking for a position in sales management. You won’t “get the meeting” if your outreach message to a targeted person in the company is, “I’d like to meet and learn about whether you have any regional sales manager spots open.” Instead, the magic words are along the lines of, “I’m looking at new opportunities in sales management. I’m only in the research phase but I’d like to learn more about your company—it’s culture, leadership—and other companies in your industry…”
Okay, now that we’re in agreement on the gist of the message, it’s time to do some research on LinkedIn. Start with your A-List companies and then work across your columns. Pull each company up using the site’s search functionality (see below).
If you find someone at the company who is a first or second level connection, pump your fist and say “Yes!!” You’re smart enough to know how to work this process and get a foot in the door—either directly or through your mutual contact.
Things get a little more difficult if you don’t have any direct or common contacts. But LinkedIn still has the information you need. Scroll through the list of employees and find the ones that look like they could be a hiring manager in your area, or someone in proximity to that person. That could be anywhere from 2-6 people in all. Note their names and titles and then check out their profiles. Where did they go to school? In what not-for-profits do they participate? What are their interests?
You’re ready to reach out with a cold call—which in this case is actually a warm, handwritten note. Invest in some personal business stationary and a good pen. Yes, you don’t wear white socks with black shoes…and you don’t use a 99 cent pen and a sheet of paper from the copier to send a professional business note.
What should you write? This is not the time to sell yourself; the message is focused on the recipient. A little flattery and subtle messaging is in order. Start modestly along the lines of, “I hope you are the right person to reach out to…” (No one wants to be the “wrong person,” so that will get their attention.) Continue, “I’ve been a successful sales manager in the XYZ industry for the past 20 years and I ‘m very privately beginning to explore other opportunities…” (Note: “very privately” is a powerful trigger phrase, showing your vulnerability and your trust that this person will maintain your confidence.) If you have any significant areas in common, throw them in as well. “I noticed you’re a Ferris State Bulldog, class of 1995… “
Refer to the company’s stellar reputation, strong performance, and recent developments (based on your review of their news releases). Show a personal connection between your values and the company’s, such as: “It’s impressive to review the success you’ve had in the third quarter, but I’m equally impressed with your fundraising efforts for the United Way.”
Then comes “The Ask.” Again, you are trying to get a coffee meeting to learn more about the company. Use language like, “I’d appreciate the chance to briefly talk with you next week about your company—the culture, the management, its sales philosophy, whether it’s team-oriented…so that I can determine if it would be a good fit for me.” There are two important hidden messages in this language: the visit will be non-threatening and you’re in a position to be selective about whom you work for. Additionally, when you use this approach, during the meeting the person will be put in the position of selling you on the company—strategically a good place for you to be.
Include your contact information of course and ask the person to email or text you some times that might work to meet. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, so that’s why you tell them you’ll follow up by phone to set up the meeting. Then do it.
Remember the big picture—this is just one of the companies in your list of targeted employers. You should have 3-4 notes going out within each of those companies, so things quickly can get busy and confusing. Don’t let anything fall through the cracks. Create a spreadsheet or whatever process works best for you to stay on top of all the contacts, meetings, referrals, and follow-ups.
By the way, when you go to the meeting, show up empty-handed—no resume, no list of references, no portfolio of your work—just your pen and whatever notebook you would take to any business meeting. You don’t want to cheapen this meeting or reduce your standing by becoming a supplicant. The image you want to project is of two business executives of equivalent standing comparing notes. If the person asks for a resume, act surprised and grateful. “Oh, sure, thanks, I’d be happy to send you one…”
Only good things can come from this meeting:
- The person will be impressed and explore creating a position that takes advantage of your skills.
- The person will be impressed and confide that you might be right for future opportunities that haven’t been announced yet. A new sales office will open in Dallas next year. The Director of Sales is retiring at the end of the quarter. And so on.
- The person will be impressed and you’ll be asked to contact an executive recruiter that happens to be privately working on filling a sales position for the company.
- The person will know of a sales opportunity with another company and happily refer you to that hiring manager.
- You’ll learn there are absolutely no opportunities available. But you’ve made a valuable addition to your network. Ask to stay in touch…and then do so.
- You won’t be impressed. Don’t scratch the company from your list based on just one meeting with one person—especially if the company is on you’re A-list. But if additional encounters go the same way, move on. Trust your instincts.
After the meeting, follow up in day or so with—you guessed it—a handwritten note and with anything else they asked for or that you promised to provide. If they referred you to someone, be sure to let them know when you have followed up on that.
This system generates a workload that can grow exponentially. Coffee meetings lead to referrals and more meetings and more follow up and more meetings. It’s an exciting and consuming process that quickly becomes a full time job. But at the end of each day, you’ll know you’ve doing everything you can to find your next great executive position.
The key is doing the little things that make a difference—the things that set you apart. Unfortunately I’ve seen the system break down when someone loses track of all the balls in the air and irons in the fire—and confuses balls with irons! (Don’t think too much about those analogies, just focus on the principles!)
But when you’re ready to start the system, go all in. And, by the way, the time to start is now!