Conducting an effective job search is a developed skillset. Yet unlike other realms of competence, job searching is a skill few want to develop, at least via extensive practice. For many executives, job-searching is the unpleasant somewhat straight-forward manipulation of a relatively small set of variables. There is cleaning up the resume, networking and applying for jobs. As a result most job seekers choose to wing-it and end up paying a big price.
As a head hunter, I am approached by a steady stream of unemployed executives who want to meet with me, discuss their careers and stake out the roles for which they want consideration. The majority of such job seekers use a similar strategy. They cast a wide opportunity net into the water in the hopes that the catch will include something meaningful. The larger the net, the better the chances of success. For example, I recently met an executive who indicated that in the course of his career he had held roles in sales, sales management, business development, marketing and product management and was ‘open’ to any of these functions for his next role. Furthermore, since his career had included stints at both small and large enterprises he indicated that he was ‘agnostic’ to size of company as was he to head-office or branch-office situations. This person, let’s call him Mr. Flexible (and there are many I meet who present a variation of this narrative), believed he was prudently hedging his bets by presenting himself as a generalist open to a wide variety of opportunities. Unfortunately his strategy can actually limit rather than open up his options.
First, where and how does Mr. Flexible organize his job search when his potential employers range from Fortune 100 corporations to start-ups, head offices to branch offices, and across a myriad of roles? By casting so broad a target market, Mr. Flexible makes it impossible to proactively learn about and pursue the one or two that might be best suited to him. The best he can do after reaching out to his network is regularly scour job boards and reach out to head hunters in the hopes they will have a multiplicative effect on his market coverage. It is a weak reactive strategy. I must get six calls per week from executives (and it cannot be easy to make these calls) who work in sectors for which our firm does no work and as a result can offer no value, none at all. But hey, reaching out to all of the head hunters means calling ‘all’ of the head hunters doesn’t it and, as many say to me, ‘you never know’.
Second, by casting himself as a generalist Mr. Flexible has in fact reduced the value of his stock. While he may well have worked in sales, marketing, product management and Lord knows what-else over the course of his career, the odds are high that some of those functional shoes fit him much better than others. It is also likely that if he excels Fortune 100 companies he is unlikely to thrive equally in a ten person start-up. Building a brand for a Canadian company is a different set of challenges than leveraging a brand in a subsidiary environment. And on and on and on….By insisting he is all things to all people, Mr. Flexible is either being slightly disingenuous or exhibiting a lack of self-awareness. The market knows that Mr. Flexible is not equally universally adept at all things. By trying to hedge his bets or failing to hone in on his unique set of capabilities, the Mr. Flexible puts the onus on the potential employer to figure it out. Some won’t bother, while others will take forever deliberating. Either way, the job search gets longer.
To be fair, self-awareness is a less commonly found trait, one often associated with high performers who tend to seek regularly feedback and are constantly calibrating themselves and their careers against their goals. They have coaches and speak easily about the careers they are constructing for themselves. For most of us, taking stock is intended for those moments that never seem to come. It is instead forced upon us at key inflection points such as death, divorce, and job loss. Whatever the trigger, self-awareness pays huge dividends for the job seeker as it minimally reduces the likelihood of error.
Consider a second example of an executive who contacts me to say that she is interested in finding an opportunity that leverages her ability to help small Canadian technology firms navigate/scale through rapid stages growth. She describes the roles she has played, the successes and stumbles along the way, the lessons learned, the expertise she has developed, and the types of companies, contexts and cultures in which she thrives best. She indicates that she is contacting me because she is aware that I work in her sector and she would like to chat about the market, companies she should target, and our clients. She knows herself, and exactly the type of role and company she wants to catch, and puts the appropriately baited line or two at the right depth and in the spot they tend to congregate.
Whose chances do you like, hers or Mr. Flexible’s?
About the Author
Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.