headhunter in the technology sector I am an almost 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 ongoing searches which may be suited
to the job seeker. I am always happy to participate in
courtesy interviews as I neither envy the job seekers’ circumstances
nor take lightly the courage it takes to reach out to me.
After participating in literally hundreds
of courtesy interviews over the years however, I am ever
less inclined to serve as a passive sounding board, listening
patiently as job seekers list their job preferences and
goals. Instead, I have taken to challenging what I am told,
not to embarrass, belittle or discourage the job seeker,
but rather to nudge them to make the most of the journeys
they find themselves on. In the spirit of ‘forewarned is forearmed’ expect
a little push-back on the following assertions in our ‘courtesy’ interview.
am open to anything from running IBM to an early stage
Many job seekers believe that it is
advantageous to frame their search as broadly as possible,
thereby keeping their ‘options
open’. It is the job-hunting equivalent of calculating
the odds of hitting a target with a shotgun versus a rifle.
By emphasizing their versatility and breadth of experience,
job seekers hope to receive consideration for a wide range
of job opportunities while avoiding being narrowly pegged
as a one trick executive pony. While it is difficult to advise
people against expanding their job choices there are a number
of reasons why this approach should be carefully considered.
First, keeping your options open complicates
rather than simplifies your search. How do you conduct
an efficient job search when your target market includes
both large and small companies, Canadian and subsidiary,
as well as a whole host of technology segments? This
may not be an insurmountable issue in smaller communities
where every firm can be identified within a defined geographic
area, but in the greater Toronto area your target market
is concurrently everywhere and nowhere. Where to start
and how to plan your job search becomes a major challenge.
Job opportunities become islands onto themselves and you
find yourself jumping from one to another without ever
getting a feel for any given market. Without some rigor
in narrowing your target employment markets you risk becoming
scattered, unfocused and eventually frustrated.
Second, the odds are high that you
are not equally suited to managing both IBM and a startup
company let alone across the full spectrum of contexts
faced by these companies. Early stage companies call for
different skills than large corporations, and it is likely
that your portfolio of skills, personality and experiences
skew to one end of that spectrum more than the other. 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 have figured out, or are being honest about, your strengths
and preferences. You unwittingly shift the onus onto the
interviewer to do the sorting and since many search consultants,
not to mention potential employers, are not up to that
task be prepared for a lot of unproductive activity. For
example, you may find yourself initially buoyed by a flurry
of market nibbles and exploratory interviews. Companies
extend invitations for you to return for second and third
interviews involving an expanding number of stakeholders. Eventually,
the lengthy deliberations prove frustrating and you become
confused by the indecisiveness of the organizations in question. Meanwhile,
the employers cannot evaluate whether the ‘generalist’,
as you have described yourself, can deliver the specialist
results they seek. They waffle or mitigate their risks by
extending contract assignments thus ‘test driving’ you
before buying. You cannot see the link between your strategy
of keeping your options open and the situation at hand.
2. I think I am ready to do a start-up
I frequently meet job seekers who,
after a career with a large corporation or a series of
large corporations, decide that they would like to manage
a small entrepreneurial company. They have a predictable
line of reasoning to support their decision; perhaps they
established the Canadian subsidiary of their corporation,
or they were assigned responsibility for a small profit
centre. They argue that they have always been ‘entrepreneurial’ despite
working for firms not known for those qualities.
It is not my place to dissuade the
job seeker from such aspirations. However, many employers
understand, and if they don’t it is my job to advise
them, that the transitional issues in such moves are not
insignificant. Employers can be expected to be cautious
and thus the job seeker genuinely seeking to make such
a move should be prepared to mount a vigorous, well-researched
defense of their rationale if they hope to be successful.
Rather than offering unsubstantiated
generalities, a job-seeker attempting a major career shift
should do their homework starting with reaching out to
executives who have successfully made the transition being
contemplated. They should probe into how the corporate
life being sought differs from the one they have lived.
They should enquire into the specific transitional challenges,
the adjustments and the qualities required to successfully
address them. What evidence is there that these align with
the job seeker’s strengths? A
professional manager contemplating a move to a small company
is like a professional boxer, trained to perform in a regulation
sized boxing ring deciding to become a back-alley, ‘anything-goes’ street
fighter. While both are forms of fighting, they are very
different and the candidate better be able to speak to and
prepare for those differences or risk a lot of pain. The
homework process itself is extremely helpful as it may dispel
the job seeker of his or her transitional notions or better
equip them to explain why they will be successful.
3. I want to move into the tech sector.
I am regularly approached by executives seeking to transition
sectors. It may be an automotive parts executive who wants
to move into the wireless communications sector, or a forestry
executive who desires to move into the software industry.
Such moves, while difficult, are achievable though they will
not happen simply because the job seeker wants them to.
The key to making a major sector shift
is finding bridges to your desired destination. You are
unlikely to easily transition from 20 years in the trucking
sector to being considered for a role in a consumer software
company. There are
simply no obvious links between the two worlds. To switch
markets or sectors you need bridges which minimize the risks
for all parties concerned. Bridges are knowledge, contacts
or experience with technologies, markets, sales channels
or people. Thus, if you are intimate with the world of trucking
but want to move into the tech sector, consider the many
technologies used by the trucking sector. It may be a host
of services, software, communications or hardware technologies.
Talk to the head of IT in your current organization about
developments in the field and emerging technologies which
will impact the sector. Your knowledge of the sector, its
cadence, procurement patterns and your contacts are effective
bridges to any organization seeking to do business into that
market. This is the easiest way to engineer such a
Second, a job seeker endeavoring to transition into a different
sector or type of company should be clear about the price
they are willing to pay for such a move. Tuition is often
required in order to learn something new and the job seeker
should have a price he or she is willing to consider. The
tuition may be in the form of a reduced role, title, or compensation
as the executive demonstrates his or her ability to make
a contribution to a new employer. While bridges will reduce
the tuition needed they will not always eliminate them. The
executive who has significant obligations in the form of
university-aged children or large financial obligations such
as mortgages may not be in a position to bear the burden
of a large transitional tuition and should adjust their short-term
aspirations and strategies accordingly. Otherwise, the journey
which faces them promises frustration.
4. I am comfortable
and experienced in marketing, sales or business development.
Listing the functions you have worked in does not tell me
what you have accomplished, in what contexts you have been
most successful, or where you are most passionate and effective.
My job is to help companies and candidates make the right
hiring decisions. It is about fitting square candidate pegs
into square employment holes. I cannot do this if I am left
to divine where the job seeker fits.
While you may well have managed sales, marketing and business
development over the years in a variety of situations, there
are likely themes around where and when you were most effective,
not to mention where you had the most enjoyment. This is
not to say that there are not executives who thrive in almost
every role across every situation, though these are the exceptions
rather than the rules and employers are seeking to minimize
not maximize their hiring risks. Know your career themes
and be prepared to openly discuss them.
5. I left my employer yesterday and thought I would
call you immediately.
Many executives equate losing their jobs to falling off
a horse, and believe they must immediately climb back on.
They start making phone calls filling their schedules with
networking and related job search activities. In interviews,
they invariably describe a desired future eerily similar
to their immediate past.
While many of these executives may well be genuine in their
aspirations, I am often left with the feeling that they are
missing or avoiding an opportunity to step back and take
stock of their careers before jumping back into the fray.
One of the key attributes organizations look for in executives,
or at least should look for, is self-awareness. Knowing your
capabilities, style, preferences, personality and developmental
opportunities is a precondition to the purposeful pursuit
of personal growth and to making a good employment decisions.
Job-loss is a perfect opportunity to calibrate, to reflect
on where your career has taken you relative to where you
thought you were going to take it. It is a chance to discuss
options and tradeoffs with your family and to reset your
If you have been offered outplacement
counseling, take it. It will provide you with tools and
resources which will help you navigate this inward journey.
If you haven’t, there
are scores of resources available to help you start the journey.
Either way, don’t immediately jump back on that horse
as it may very well have been trying to tell you something
when it threw you off.
6. I am making
the rounds of all of the headhunters…
There are hundreds of search firms listed in the Toronto
directory of recruiters and some job-seekers send their resumes
to all of them. In fact, it becomes the singular focus of
their job search activities. I regularly receive resumes
and phone calls from fork-lift operators, chemists, oil and
gas workers and teachers. Since my firm focuses almost exclusively
on finding senior executives within the technology sector,
it is highly unlikely that I can be of any assistance to
many of these people.
Search firms specialize in sectors or functions and so should
you. Enquire into which firms work in your field or specialty
and are most likely to undertake the type of searches of
greatest interest to you. These are the only firms you should
be contacting. Also, there are big differences between search
firms and placement agencies. Know the difference and what
each can or cannot do for you.
Finally, headhunters are one piece of your overall job search
strategy. You do not want to entrust them with the responsibility
of your job search. Only you should own that. Keep in touch
with a few but do the bulk of the work yourself in a systematic
and purposeful fashion.
As you are now forewarned and hopefully forearmed, I look forward
to our courtesy interview.
About The Author
Robert Hebert, Ph.D., is the Managing Partner of Toronto-based
StoneWood Group Inc, a leading human resources consulting
firm. He has spent the past 25 years assisting firms in the
technology sector address their senior recruiting, assessment
and leadership development requirements.
Mr. Hebert holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Relations
as well as a Doctorate in Adult Education, both from the
University of Toronto.