Executives in Transition- Why a rifle beats a shotgun in nabbing that perfect job

June 21, 2010

As a headhunter I am an obligatory stop on the networking circuit of many executive job seekers. I hold the promise of a barometer on the employment market, contacts, ideas, and even suitable ongoing searches. I am always happy to participate in courtesy interviews as I neither envy the job seekers’ circumstances nor take lightly their courage in reaching out to me.

However, after participating in hundreds of such interviews over the years I am ever less inclined to serve as a passive sounding board, listening patiently as executives list their wants and preferences. Instead, I have taken to challenging what I am told, not to embarrass or discourage, but rather to nudge the job seekers into making the most of the journeys before them.

Among the most common and ill-conceived opening lines that I hear is, “I am interested in finding a company, large or small, which requires expertise in anything from turnaround situations to high growth”. Intuitively, most job seekers believe that it is wise to frame their job search broadly, thereby enhancing the pool of opportunities for which they may be considered. It is akin to choosing a shotgun over a rifle in the hopes of hitting something, anything. And while it is difficult to advise candidates against expanding their job choices, the truth is that the strategy often backfires.

First, casting a wide net complicates rather than simplifies the task at hand. How do you conduct an effective job search when the target market includes large, medium and small companies running the gamut of high growth through to turnaround? This may not be an insurmountable problem in smaller communities where every firm can be identified, but in large metropolitan areas the target market proves to be everywhere and nowhere. How do you plan an effective job search when every path is a full-time pursuit? When job opportunities do surface, they become islands onto themselves with the job seeker jumping from one to another never building momentum or depth of understanding in any given one. Scattered and unfocused, the search strategy generates activity but few results.

Second, the odds are high that despite your assertions, you are not equally suited to managing both large companies and small let alone across the full spectrum of situations faced by them. Early stage companies require different skills than large corporations, as do turnarounds from high growth, and it is likely that your portfolio of skills, personality and experiences skew better to some more than others. While you may argue, and many do, that leadership and management skills transcend firm size, life stage or context, be prepared for more than a few skeptics who will question whether you really understand, or are being honest about your strengths and abilities. By casting yourself as a multifaceted, adaptable generalist you not only increase the chances of making a poor job decision you also unwittingly shift the onus onto the hiring organization to sort where you really belong. Since many potential employers are not up to that task, they will struggle with whether the self-described ‘generalist’ before them can deliver the specialist results they seek.

A better alternative starts with some serious soul-searching on the themes that have cut across your career, the successes, stumbles, lessons learned and what is most important to you and your family going forward. You narrow in on a few key areas of interests and strength and extend your job search outwards in concentric circles of best fit. When you meet headhunters and potential employers, you walk us through where, how and why you have thrived in the past and explain how these inform your preferences going forward. You impress with your self-awareness and the clarity of future you envision for yourself. The shotgun is shelved in favor of the more narrowly targeted rifle and you significantly increase the odds of hitting the target role you covet.

Now let’s talk about those wants and preferences…

About Author

Robert Hebert, PhD is Managing Partner of Executive Search Firm StoneWood Group Inc. He can be reached @ rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or at 416.365.9494x777