6 Ways to Conduct an Effective Executive Job Search

Jobs are plentiful – but landing a new one demands that would-be candidates apply a structured, sustained use of networking, direct outreach and executive recruitment firms. Nine leading recruiters weigh in.

June 14, 2019 – In today’s dynamic and competitive job market, the elements of an effective executive-level job search are very different than what may be utilized for non-executive roles.

A new report by Rob Croner, vice president of senior executive services at CCI Consulting, explores channels of activity that drive any effective professional job search.

“It can be seductive to spend time on job boards responding to advertised openings — but this is a low probability exercise,” Mr. Croner said. “The three channels of activity that drive any effective professional job search are networking, targeted direct outreach and executive search firms.”

“Actively working all three channels through specific and sustained activity yields the best results,” he said. “This is especially true for an executive-level search as the level of competition is intense, and there are fewer opportunities at this level than at lower levels.”

1. Getting started.

An effective job search begins with a realistic assessment of skills, background, and experiences to define the value proposition that you bring to the market. “With a realistic assessment of yourself, the next step is to define the range of industries, organizations and roles that have a need for your unique combination of skills and experiences, and in which you would likely bring value,” said Mr. Croner. “Resume, biography and social media accounts (i.e. LinkedIn) are then created, or updated, to reflect and highlight your relevant background and experience as they relate to the industry, function and/or opportunity you are trying to secure.”

2. Limit the time spent on job posting websites.

Most people spend way too much time trolling around job posting websites, but this is usually a time waster that does not yield success unless coupled with other more active efforts. “Online postings typically generate hundreds of eager and well-qualified responses,” Mr. Croner said. “However, the typical applicant tracking system uses algorithms to filter the pool of applicants so only a select few are ever seen by the people involved in the hiring process. It’s a very efficient process for the hiring company but it is unrealistic to expect a positive outcome if an individual is passive and simply waits for opportunities to present themselves.”

3. Spend a lot of time networking.

Mr. Croner explains that the most important factor in an executive-level job search is the sustained effort to secure introductions, conversations and interviews with individuals and organizations who might have a need for your skills. “Networking involves a pragmatic approach to identifying and connecting with people who can provide information, insight or connections that bridge to potential opportunities,” he said.

“Effective networking requires an investment of time and commitment to follow-up and follow-through on potential leads even though many will not directly result in a job. Some conversations yield valuable information or connect directly to a specific immediate opportunity while other networking conversations lead to connections with new networking contacts. Be patient and maintain the effort.”

While networking often starts with those who are close, it should expand as a job seeker stays connected with their personal network. The expectation is that the broader group will then provide additional insight and connections within the industry or with specific organizations or opportunities.

4. Do targeted direct outreach.

While networking seeks to leverage the strengths of personal relationships, business connections and social interactions, direct outreach involves proactive outreach to targeted organizations and individuals without the benefit of prior relationship or a network referral. Direct outreach is as simple as connecting with a targeted individual to see if they would be receptive to an initial conversation to explore the possibility of mutual interest.

“There are two things that make direct outreach effective,” said Mr. Croner. “One is targeting so there is a clear and obvious connection between your skills and background and the potential needs of the organization. The more alignment, the more likely there will be a positive response to the direct outreach.”

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“The second key to successful direct outreach is the breadth and depth of the outreach. In terms of breadth, there needs to be enough activity to generate a positive result,” he said. “If someone only reaches out to two organizations, they would need a 50 percent response rate to secure one follow-up. If that same individual reached out to 10 organizations, a 10 percent response rate would yield a meeting. Extend that to 100 organizations and apply the same math, and it could result in 10 follow-up meetings.”

“Successful direct outreach requires appropriate follow-up to help increase the odds of a positive response. If a job seeker sends a single email to a busy executive, it is not likely they will hear back,” Mr. Croner said. “If on the other hand, they send a follow-up email a few days later or they reach out by phone as well, the odds of contact and conversation are greatly increased.”

5. Tap into executive search firms. 

Many executive-level roles are filled through executive retained search. The larger and more visible the role, the more likely it is an organization will hire a search firm to manage the process. “To be considered as a candidate for these roles, the job seeker must first gain visibility and credibility with the external recruiter,” Mr. Croner said. “This is typically done through networking and direct outreach.”

“Since search firms are retained to find the best overall candidate for a specific role, they are evaluating and screening potential candidates on a variety of tangible and intangible factors,” he said. “A retained search process usually involves the screening of 100 or more candidates to create a pool of four to five that are interviewed by their client. Those who have the requisite skills, background and experience are in the initial screening pool of 100 or more. The few who have the greatest demonstrated alignment with what are perceived to be the most important success factors for that specific role at that specific organization make it to the interview process.”

Some interactions with search consultants will lead to interviews and job offers while others may lead to disappointment, but the disappointments can also lead to valuable insights and information. “While you may not be identified as the best fit for one role, you may be an ideal fit for another,” said Mr. Croner. “A candidate will not be presented to more than one client at a time, but search firms keep track of those they interact with. If a candidate makes a positive (or negative) impression, search consultants remember and factor it in when they, or their colleagues, are working on other similar searches.”

6. Balanced activity yields the best outcome. 

There is a high correlation between the effort and activity people put into their job search and the success of the search. “Greater success will come more quickly by engaging in active and ongoing networking combined with a high degree of direct outreach and targeted interaction with executive search professionals,” Mr. Croner said. “Individuals who leverage all three will generally land better positions faster than those who put more limited effort into networking, outreach, and navigating the executive search arena in favor of simply responding to open online postings.”

“The executive job search has always been a difficult process, and it has been made more complex with the introduction of various online distractions and increased connectivity,” Mr. Croner said. “With the right coach and a structured approach, job seekers can take advantage of this new reality to land in a firm that values their contributions.”

Search Veterans Weigh In

“We are inherently empathetic with executive level job seekers and pay added attention to those referred by our corporate clients and by our previous executive level candidates,” said Steve Schrenzel, COO of the Taplow Group.

“We also encourage those executive level job seekers to enhance their network with relevant search firms by getting references and or permission of their industry contacts – at the “C” level for introductions to us and other firms thought well of by their industry contacts.”

As virtually every search we conduct requires elements of business leadership, line management, professional expertise and salesmanship, he said, “we are amazed at how poorly many executive prospects communicate those attributes – particularly if they are prospective candidates for a leadership or short-term succession situation or are positioning themselves for such roles.”

“At the level we work at,” he added, “we expect most executives to understand that we are in a global economy and our business works across 90 percent of that. There is no sense in not being out front about relocation limitations even though at the most senior levels this might limit the executive seeking a new role.”

Conducting an effective job search should mimic the proactive way executive search consultants execute searches, said Joseph B. Hunt, managing partner at Hunt Executive Search.

“Clearly identify the target company environment and proactively connect and engage with the appropriate stakeholders through the most effective means. Networking and getting introduced by a credible sponsor is ideal, but if push comes to shove, there is nothing wrong with cold calling to make a self-introduction to a hiring manager.”

Irrespective of whether there is a job opening or not, “most companies are always interested in ‘A’ player talent and will figure out a way to bring in top talent that can improve the leadership team and realize the value creation plan.”

“Retained recruiters could retire early if there was a way to monetize the number of executives who reach out when conducting their own job search,” said Todd Bennett, CEO of  R. Todd Bennett Retained Executive Search. “That volume makes it very hard for search professionals to help everyone.”

Key Considerations

A couple of key considerations for candidates may enhance their ability to enlist search professionals to help broaden their network and ultimately land a role.

“First, recognize that we work for specific clients for specific roles, not for candidates seeking a role, so timing is key,” said Mr. Bennett. “One percent of the time I have a specific search related to an executive who reaches out. Second, sending a long cover email and resume generally goes to the bottom of the list. Brevity is the key to getting our attention. Third, we know a good resume vs. a bad one, but we don’t provide resume services.”

The fact is, he added, “we love when accomplished executives reach out and can help them expand their network at the same time providing us the opportunity to reach out to current and potential clients. That is a win-win situation.”

“For executives, the avenue of applying for job through job boards has a low probability of success but also, more importantly, you don’t have control of your information once you enter your details into those internet platforms,” said David Evans, managing partner at Watermark Search International.

”The majority of executive level appointments are made through the individuals own networks and executive search firms. At our firm, we advertise less than 10 percent of our active searches and in interim executive, we don’t advertise any opportunities.”

“Executives are appointed through referral, prior history/contact or active approaches – headhunting,” said Mr. Evans. “In order to be considered for many of these jobs you need to be on the radar. Ideally you are known to the executive search firm or one of the partners.”

“If you don’t know who the leading search firms are in your space, you need to find out and you need to build relationships with the key partners to increase your chances of being considered for those jobs that never get out to the active market.”

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When Bill Hawkins, president of The Hawkins Company, started in the recruiting business in 1977, 96 percent of all executive hires came as a result of friends and families, said Brett Byers, executive vice president of The Hawkins Company. “While that number has probably gone down over the past 40 years, it still represents the vast majority of how people land the right top job.”

Formal and Informal Networks

“The ‘Six Principles for Conducting an Effective Executive Job Search’ is a good article that examines how to conduct one’s career search,” said Ms. Byers.

“I would stress the importance of networking and very strategic targeted outreach – it is the bread and butter of a successful job search. The focus should always be on your family and friends (social and professional) and their networks. Remember the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory.”

“You must be very intentional in working your formal and informal networks,” she added. “Generally speaking, people want to be helpful, but you have to ask directly for how you want them to help. Then they can say, yes, I can do that, or no I can’t.  Remember, ‘the closed mouth never gets fed.’ Open-ended requests, like, ‘Please keep me in mind if you hear of something the fits my background,’ versus, ‘I would like to meet Ms. Smith, CEO of XYZ Corporation, can you facilitate a meeting.’ That’s big difference in what you want from the person, versus a passive ‘Hail Mary.’”

“In my experience, some candidates do not spend enough time crafting a readable resume and don’t always think to adapt it to the particular role they are targeting,” said Alison Gaines, CEO of Gerard Daniels. “Some people fail to proof read their LinkedIn profile or keep it up to date. LinkedIn is a major research tool for internal recruitment teams and external search consultants.”

“An important network for managers and executives is their professional network,” said Ms. Gaines.

“It’s a great career investment to engage in professional education and development, conferences and seminars and volunteer with professional associations. Many good recruiters and executive search consultants will seek out recommendations about standout candidates from amongst professional peers.”

“If you get into the diary of an executive search consultant for a general discussion about your next career move make sure you have an efficient conversation – be clear about what you want out of the meeting, have some thoughts about the span of your career search and the types of roles, industries, employers, locations and compensation you prefer. Also have a view about the types of career risks you can, or cannot, tolerate,” she added.

Increasing the Odds

“I would suggest any executive who is actively seeking an opportunity and wants to increase the odds of landing the best one, use a coach to help them,” said Richard Risch, CEO of Risch Group Executive Search. “It provides another set of eyes and a professional buddy at your side to provide insight that might not otherwise come to mind. “

“On the executive search side, most of our searches are filled by people who are not actively seeking a new opportunity, so the chances of an active job seeker walking into our offices and finding that ideal job is unlikely,” said Mr. Risch. “Not impossible, but unlikely. It is why we always tell our recruits that see the opportunity we are presenting as an excellent one, but the timing not right, that those two aligning are rare.”

“When the iron is hot you strike, even if the timing is not ideal. That said, every executive should have a deep network already developed in the search industry. Those that land the best jobs usually come through that route.”

“When conducting a search for a new position, it must be a proactive, targeted process that requires discipline and focus,” said Walter Baker, managing partner of Pitcairn Partners. “There are three things critical steps to the process. “First is the ability to clearly and concisely articulate your objective. After assessing your experience and skill set, identify and be able to clearly communicate what you are looking for. Second is to identify and target those companies where reality dictates that you’ll most likely find that job, and provide opportunity for career development. These would include companies in which both your functional and market experience would be valued. Finally, pick up the phone!”

“Use your network to identify how to get in the door. In other words, who can you speak with that can direct you to individuals that can help you get in front of those who really matter at those companies. These would include gatekeepers, influencers, and decision makers.”

“Looking for your next job is not an event. It’s an ongoing process,” said Lisa Maxwell, managing partner of executive search firm Gerard Stewart. “Even if you’re in a great situation and you’re well-positioned in your current role with your current company, you should always be actively managing your own career and thinking about what’s next. Building relationships internally and externally is paramount to this.”

“An important job we all have is to serve as our own career agents – because recruiters work on behalf of companies, not individuals. You need to build relationships with good recruiters so they know who you are.”

“They can be great alliances and sources of information for market trends, compensation trends, job openings and other industry goings-on. At the end of the day, you are your own best advocate and agent,” said Ms.
Maxwell. “You are a business of one and should constantly be working on behalf of yourself. When the time comes to look for your next gig, the foundation should be already there.”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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