After more than two decades in the Executive Search
business, I have learned a lot about what goes into a
successful hire. I try to impart my knowledge to both hiring
managers and candidates. Nevertheless, at many job
interviews I find myself listening to questions that make me
cringe and answers that make me want to cry.
Now it's my turn to talk.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Week Before Christmas

’Tis the week before Christmas, the time of the year
To eat lots of cookies and be of good cheer. 

To ring in the merry, to ban the distressing,
I’ll take just a minute to count up my blessings.

A book that’s been published and, yes - even sold;
That listing on Amazon never grows old.

A candidate nestled all snug in a job
After a phone call from Headhunter Bob.

A brightly wrapped e-mail upon my computer -
Yes! It’s a client who needs a recruiter.

And Old Ebenezer, a.k.a. Bob
Is thankful for ALL who have helped with my job:

The candidates, clients, the colleagues, and all
the ones who don’t silence my incoming call.

 And Ms. Cratchit, my co-author, skillful at rhyming-
Who puts words together with just the right timing.

And you who are reading this Headhunter’s blog.
I like you as much as nutmeg on egg nog.

The reindeer are ready, the sleigh’s set to lift
Heavily loaded with all kinds of gifts.

But my gifts are all here before Santa takes flight -
So Thanks, Merry Christmas, and to all a Good Night!

(We’re taking a break, but have not a fear.
The Headhunter Files will join you next year!)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Very Curious, Indeed

Children learn and grow by being curious.  I know.  As a father, I (sometimes patiently) answered the relentless questions of two little girls as they learned the whys and what-abouts of life. Sometimes we forget that adults also learn and grow by being curious.  If you are not curious about your profession/ your company/ technology/ the world around you – you might as well add the word “forever” to your current title. 

If you enter your office each morning with no interest in anything that occurs before the train ride home at 5:04, your career advancement will be at a snail’s pace, if not as dead as an escargot.   “Same stuff, different day” will define your workplace and all your waking hours spent there.  Forever.

If, on the other hand, you can view the routine of your day in a different light, taking interest in your environment, in what your peers and superiors do, in the activities that drive your department or company, your outlook will have a positive impact not only on your own morale, but on the way others view you. 

I am not suggesting that you make yourself a pain-in-the-ear to your boss by asking inane questions all day.  (Sometimes the challenge is knowing what inane is.)  In fact, curiosity does not need to involve asking questions at all.

Here are some suggestions on how to develop a curious nature:  Try a different way of doing what you have done the same way for the last 879 work days.  Try to solve a problem that has plagued you daily.  Experiment with Word, Excel, Act or whatever technology is a part of your daily job.  Run your fingers across the tool bars at the top of your screen and see what is there.  Talk to a co-worker about his/her job.  Ask your boss if you can take on a project that might add to your knowledge base.  Look into learning opportunities offered by your company.  Take a class outside of your company.  Show an interest in the responsibilities of your “underlings.”  You might be surprised at how much they can teach you.

I cannot guarantee that your new curious nature will win you an immediate promotion to the next level.  But I can assure you that the CEO of your company did not become the CEO without being somewhat curious about what was going on around him/her. 

(Without Steve Jobs’ curiosity and creativity, you would not be reading well-written blogs on your iPad.)

As a recruiter, I look for signs of curiosity in my candidates, whether it is shown in the questions they ask about the current opportunity or the breadth of knowledge they have managed to acquire in the process of “going to work.”  An attitude of curiosity can benefit everyone from an entry level assistant to a CFO trying to improve his/her staff’s processes. 

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a lack of curiosity can kill a career.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Hamburger With A Headhunter

Last week a friend called me to have lunch, an infrequent pleasure since this executive’s weekly schedule pretty much defines the word “hectic.”  It turns out she was in the throes of a major career decision and looking to bounce some ideas off of someone she could trust.  Having survived several job changes in which I played a part, she elected me.  Always a good choice.

As we spoke of life-altering job changes over hamburgers and fries, I tried to lead her through a decision-making process that would help clarify her next step.  Should she accept a position with a different company that was courting her?  Or should she stay where she was?  As you might imagine, this subject matter is not unfamiliar to me.

We ate and talked.  We analyzed and evaluated.  We laughed and did not cry.  We talked about both positions and tried to assess each.  My objective was to get her thinking about her long term career aspirations and to place this decision within the framework of what immediate action would better position her to get where she wanted to go. 

Talking to my friend reminded me of the mental torment that I may unwittingly inflict on the candidates who receive my recruiting call.  Taking a chance with the unknown may be well worth the risk, but it often a source of anxiety. 

Here are some of the points you might consider when analyzing a job opportunity:

·         How does this opportunity advance you toward your ultimate career goal?  Is it better for you to be a big fish in a small sea or sustain a record of success in a large, prestigious company?  Will you have more responsibility?  Will you have a more impressive title?  Will you have input into major decisions?  Does the opportunity present you with a chance to broaden your experience or re-direct your experience toward a desired destination?

·         How does the new opportunity affect your personal life?  Is there more/less travel involved?  Is the commute better/worse?  Are there expectations that you will work 60 hours a week?  Is there more flexibility in one situation or the other?  Is there indication that significant stress will be involved?  Are you unhappy or unsatisfied in your current position?

·         Which position feels more stable?  Are your fellow employees disappearing mysteriously from their desks in your department?  Are you considering building a future with a company that is still at the “garage” stage?  Are you willing to tolerate some risk for a great opportunity?  Or are you supporting a family who has become accustomed to eating well?

·         In my book, I describe the “Parking Lot Test” which is basically a method of evaluating your “gut feel” about a position.  Do you feel excited about the opportunity?  Did you like the people you met at the interview?  What was the chemistry? Could you picture yourself working in your new office/cubicle? 

As I finished lunch with my friend, she was still not sure what her decision would be.  But the hamburgers were definitely keepers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

All I Want For Christmas

It’s that wondrous time of year when adults like to reminisce about those irresponsible childhood days when the only worry of the season was what gifts Santa would bring.  As an adult, you may now be playing the role of Santa.  If you are both Santa and unemployed, the closest you come to irresponsibility is justifying the postponement of your job search because the holidays are not a productive time.  “After all, what company would be hiring now with all the parties in full swing?  I’m going to sit back and enjoy the holidays and wait until January 1.”

If you are actively pursuing a new opportunity, the above is one bad thought process. (No presents for you!)  I can tell you from personal knowledge that companies are hiring and that there are, in fact, many jobs that have gone unfilled for long periods of time.    And these jobs are not all oil rig opportunities in the Congo.
Yes, some open positions are those in which an employer is demanding a fully-trained, Mensa-qualified, low-maintenance, inexpensive individual who will be understand the job and be productive from day one – in other words, an employee that does not exist in human form.  And other positions are open long-term due to a difficult location, narrow skill set requirements, and/or salary issues.  But there are also prime, desirable positions that will open up in December and be filled almost immediately.  These are the positions you cannot afford to miss due to time-consuming Christmas shopping.

It has been my experience that many companies develop their annual plans in the September/October time frame (Don’t have a plan yet? Better get to it).  The final plan is in place by late November so that each manager can begin executing his/her piece of the plan. The forward-looking manager may well begin processing new 2012 staffing plans right about now.  As an example, if you are a sales manager and your 2012 plan calls for an additional salesperson, would you begin to recruit in January or February?  Not if you want a shot at a full year of benefit.  The smart manager will be recruiting now for a Christmas hire and a January 1 start.
At Ward & Associates, we have seen an uptick in phone activity in the recent month.  There have been inquiries as to the availability of candidates capable of being controllers, manufacturing managers, IT managers, sales support, and quality control managers.  It would appear that companies are either actively looking for specific candidates or are planning to do so very soon.  It is in your best interest that companies who may be hiring know you exist.  Be ready with a resume when an employer or a recruiter calls.  Continue all avenues of personal networking.  Make lots of phone calls. 

You may be some employer’s January 1 new hire, but not if you are taking a month-long holiday from your job search.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rules of Engagement

A few months ago, I flew across the country, was picked up at the airport by a young professional woman in a 750 BMW, and drove off with her to a hotel for an “extended conversation.” Sounds like a headhunter behaving badly?  It wasn’t.

 The extended conversation was actually a job interview to determine the woman’s qualifications for an engineering position I was attempting to fill.   The interview took place in the hotel’s lobby with cleaning staff and visitors roaming freely through the area. The hotel was chosen as the interview setting because its proximity to the airport enabled me to meet my strict time constraints.  Immediately after leaving this young woman, I flew another 500 miles to another airport, another interview, another candidate.

As a recruiter, my livelihood depends on meeting unfamiliar individuals, both men and women, in what usually are considered social, non-office settings.  When arranging and conducting such meetings, I am constantly aware that my actions must not only be above reproach, they must appear to be above reproach. Whether you are a hiring manager or a job candidate, in this day when sexual misunderstandings are commonplace, I advise you to share my attentiveness to interview propriety. 

With this in mind, here are some common-sense guidelines:

·          Neither propose nor accept an interview on any floor above the first floor of a hotel. 

·          If an interview must occur when an office is unoccupied, try to make sure there are at least three people participating in the interview.

·          Dress professionally.  Do not comment on any other interview participant’s attire or appearance.

·          Refrain from any discussion of present or past romantic relationships or experiences.

·          Avoid discussion of sexual preferences.

·          Avoid using offensive or suggestive language or humor. 

·          Conclude after-hours interviews by 10 pm.

·          In general, avoid drinking alcoholic beverages during an interview.  During dinner interviews, a glass of wine or beer may be acceptable.  Any candidate who is pressed to have a drink or more than one drink should assume that what is happening is not a job interview.

·          Do not initiate any subsequent social arrangement (date, bar crawl, vacation) of any kind during the course of a job interview.

·          A good rule of thumb is to treat the person seated across from you as you would want your daughter/son/spouse/sibling treated.

The boundaries of acceptable behavior between men and women in the workplace have never been more ambiguous.  When women and men work side-by-side as peers, things happen.  Colleagues lunch together, travel together, share personal conversations and attempts at humor.  Occasionally a flirtation occurs.  Occasionally something more occurs.  Camaraderie? Courtship?  Harassment?  Whatever.  Just make sure “whatever” does not occur on an interview in which you are a participant.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ward, Bob Ward

A confidential search does not require the dashing good looks or classy British accent of James Bond.  Bloody fortunate for me. But a search to replace a current employee who has not yet been advised of his imminent departure can call for all the stealth skills of a trained secret agent. 

All things considered, it is preferable for incoming candidates to fill a position that has already been vacated.  But, when dealing with some middle to upper level management positions, an extended vacancy due to a termination can be disruptive to productivity.  (Another way of putting it:  a group of workers without a manager is a department-wide six-hour work day waiting to happen.)  In such a case, a company may choose to begin a confidential search.

Once a confidential search has been deemed necessary, a company often seeks the services of an external search firm.  This is generally a matter of simple logistics. Recruiting for a position can involve making hundreds of phone calls, screening dozens of resumes, and interviewing multiple candidates several times.  In many companies, particularly small to mid-size companies, it may be difficult to keep such an unwieldy process from the notice of the staff.

When a company approaches me with a confidential assignment, I assure the client that I will make every effort humanly possible to maintain the private nature of the search. This means:

·         not identifying my client by name during my initial screening phone calls;

·         providing potential candidates only general information about the company’s size, industry and location (Instead of The company is a $60 million dollar automotive parts manufacturer located in Aurora, Illinois, I may say, The company is a growing plastics manufacturer in the western suburbs of Chicago);

·         not relaying the opportunity to any professional groups in which peers might recognize and identify the company.

At the same time, I advise my client that I cannot guarantee the confidentiality of the search beyond my own personal activity.  The recruiting process is based on networking, which is based on people talking; when professionals talk to one another within a given industry and a given geography, the confidentiality of a search will eventually be in jeopardy.  I often warn my clients that they have a window of a few weeks within which privacy can be assured.

Generally, candidates will agree to meet with me once without knowing the name of the company, but they will not invest any more time or thought after that until I share the company’s identity.  This makes all the sense in the world.  If you are a Green Peace advocate in 2010, you certainly are not going to consider a job with BP after the spill.  So even if the initial client-candidate interviews are conducted offsite, the confidentiality of the search may have been compromised at that point.

The crux of all this is: if you find yourself choosing to start a search to replace a current employee, you must be prepared to move quickly.  Arm yourself with a competent recruiting professional, a well-documented job description, a pre-planned screening process, an organized team of interviewers, and an established time line.  Once you start the process, there is no turning back, as word does travel as fast as I can order an extra dry martini, shaken, not stirred.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Rolling Stone and a Headhunter Walk Into a Bar…

When it comes to job offer negotiations, the erudite philosopher Mick Jagger may have said (sung) it best.  You can’t always get what you wa-ant!  Of course he was speaking about love, but the Headhunter Files doesn’t go there.

Over my years as an executive recruiter, I have noticed that very few (zero) job offers are considered 100% perfect by their recipients.  Strangely enough, I have noticed that the corollary to that is, very few (zero) candidates are considered 100% perfect to their potential employers.  Hence, job offer negotiations can come to resemble a jigsaw puzzle of wages, bonuses, title adjustments, vacation time, benefits, promotion tracks, etc. which must be pieced together in such a way as to make both the employer and the new employee feel that they have gotten a fair deal.

Today’s tough economic environment complicates matters even further.   Circumstances such as the following may make thorny wage/benefit issues even more problematic.

·       A brilliant CFO was making a substantial base salary in her last position.  But her last position ended 9 months ago.  She has been unemployed since that time.  What is she worth now?
·       A company would like to hire an upper level executive, but its revised compensation plan  makes it virtually impossible to pay the new executive commensurate with the salaries his or her legacy peers in the firm are being paid.  The hiring manager is aware that people talk – thus the new executive may be made aware of the salary disparity.  What to do?
·       A company needs to hire a visionary to turn itself around.  But visionaries are expensive.  Can the struggling company afford the visionary?  Can the company afford not to hire the visionary?
·       A recent college grad has not yet found a job.  Should he accept a salary which does not support a studio apartment and a few groceries in the hopes that his experience will make him more marketable next year?

As you might guess, the answer to each of these questions is:  there is no standard answer.  Or rather, any one person’s answer may be different from another’s.  For instance, if the CFO in the above example has a substantial nest egg or a spouse who can pay the monthly bills, she may be willing to remain unemployed for a while rather than make a move which would be an irreversible step down the career ladder.  Another individual might make another choice.

But here are a few salary negotiating guidelines for both candidates and clients:

·       Both the employer and the candidate should be prepared with a realistic salary range to start the discussion.  This range should be discussed during the first conversation with the candidate to avoid advancing a lost cause.
·       The employer’s designated salary range should be broad enough to accommodate talent levels from the adequate through the excellent.  Research should be done to determine what will be required to win the best candidate.  (If a recruiter is being used, he or she can often be a source of that knowledge.) “You get what you pay for,” is a pretty accurate description of employee compensation.
·       A candidate being recruited to a position should understand that the range sets the absolute boundaries of the negotiations.  If the range is not acceptable, do not proceed to the interview stage, hoping to change the parameters.  If you disqualify yourself based on salary, be forthcoming about your reasons in case the recruitment process itself presents a new reality to the employer who could decide to take a second look at you.
·       A candidate should always think long-term rather than short-term.  A step backward in responsibility may not be advisable, even for an extravagant raise in salary.  On the other hand, a huge expansion of responsibility or a position with a prestigious company may compensate for a perceived come-down in salary.
·       I suggest that a company leave a little room for movement when making its initial offer.  As a headhunter, I know that job candidates are genetically predisposed to ask for more. If there is no room to increase the compensation, consider offering a one-time hiring bonus, a guaranteed end-of-year bonus, or a realistic expectation of upward mobility based on performance.
·       Do not complete a hire which does not feel “right” to both parties.  Starting out on the wrong foot increases the odds of problems as the race goes on.

If all goes well during offer negotiations, both the employer and the new employee can look forward to the employee’s first day with enthusiasm and a positive view of the future.  Realistic expectations, honest communication, and willingness to compromise will go a long way toward helping both parties achieve this outlook.

And, borrowing again from Mick:   But if you try sometimes, well you just might find, you get what you need.

Monday, October 24, 2011


I am NOT a Florida millionaire who was recently convicted of murdering his wife.  I am NOT the director of a youth choir.  I am NOT recently deceased (As Mark Twain once put it, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”) But a recent internet search of my name, Robert Ward, yielded some very interesting information about several other Roberts.

In the age of www.what.ever, it has become extremely difficult to both maintain your privacy and ensure the accuracy of information being spread about your name. This can be extremely important to someone looking for a job.

Fortunately, many aspects of your privacy are and have always been protected.  For instance, a criminal background check or credit check on you cannot be performed without your permission. Your divorce records are generally private. A potential employer cannot ask you any questions regarding your medical history or the health of your family.   Degree verifications, which I routinely perform, require that I provide a date-of-birth, which I must obtain from you.

But the scope of the internet makes other areas of privacy nearly impossible to control.  Public records include a wealth of information on such matters as property ownership, residence address, business ownership, age, trademark applications, etc. that may or may not show up in the course of an internet search of your name. And you cannot prevent any published newspaper article about you from being made available on the wordwide web.  If you have recently received a charitable award or a DUI and either matter was reported in your local newspaper, chances are an employer can discover that information.

Additionally, if you have a facebook page, a blog, or a website that is available for public consumption, your potential employer will be very interested in consuming.

Those of us with business-related websites and blogs thrive on the attention we can gain from these vehicles.  ( 

But if you control a blog that advocates anarchy in the streets or a facebook profile that depicts your life as anarchy in the streets, that blog or profile will probably not aid you in your job search.  When there are more people looking for jobs than there are jobs, the people with the semi-clothed revelers cavorting through their facebook profiles may not be the ones getting the jobs.

To protect yourself, I suggest increasing the privacy settings on all your social media profiles, at least for the duration of your job search. Remove most pictures from any public profile. If you have a personal blog, make it accessible only to a limited group of family and friends.  Even the most innocuous personal information regarding your thoughts, your dreams, your family and friends may be too much to reveal in the context of a job search.

Additionally, perform a search using your name.  If possible, try to clean up or correct any misinformation that is out there relating to you and/or be prepared to explain any news you have been part of that has made it to the web.  (If your name is Robert Ward, you might be able to hide behind the other evil Robert Ward.  But if your name is Iona Minestronia, it may be difficult to claim that you were not the Iona Minestronia photographed during illicit behavior in Times Square.)

Be aware of the internet and the information that is “out there.”  Be aware that a potential employer may know more than you think he/she knows about you.  Behave well, at least in public.  Tell the truth.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Scary Stuff

Here we are in mid-October, just two weeks before Halloween.  It is a time of year when many families gather together around the TV and watch such heartwarming holiday classics as Psycho or Silence of the Lambs or the enduring Children of the Corn.

It is also approximately five months since many confident young degree recipients walked to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance, blissfully unaware that they were walking the plank into the murky waters of a turbulent job market. And now, scarier than Edgar Allan Poe’s The Headless Horseman is…The Jobless Graduate. 

Right about now, many 2011 grads have begun to think, Will I ever get a job?

And their parents have begun to think, I went to four Parents’ Days and all I got was a lousy T-shirt and $100 grand of tuition payments… that are NOW due.

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a young woman who, in another day and time, would surely be well past the transition stage in her first “real” job.  After graduating from a private college, she was awarded an exclusive Fulbright scholarship. This allowed her to travel to Europe to earn her Master’s degree in economics from a prestigious London university, which she recently completed.  She also speaks three languages fluently – English, Polish, and Spanish.  She has not yet found a job.  And more telling, she is not really sure what kind of job she wants.

Her story, with a few additions and subtractions of degrees and languages, is shared by many 2011 graduates who have thus far been unsuccessful in unearthing that “first” job.

What did I do for her?  I talked her ear off for an hour, gave her a book, and wished her luck. Here are a few things I said or should have said that can be shared with every new grad:

·       Attack your job search with a vengeance. Use every available resource you have; every person you know; every online directory of companies/businesses; every name and phone number to which you have access.  Do not give up. Do not accept defeat.
·       Contact former professors.  Utilize your college’s career program.  Your college has a selfish interest in your job search.  Your success reflects on your school’s reputation.
·       Do not limit your job search to a specific type of company.  Go to the library and utilize its business directories.  Send your resume to firms that may or may not seem likely to hire you, using executives’ names when you have them.  Open your mind to situations in which you might not have pictured yourself. My daughter with a marketing degree got a marketing position with a law firm.  In addition, research all sizes of companies.  Some very well-known companies receive literally thousands of resumes.  A less well-known name may offer a greater chance of being noticed. 
·       Consider an(other) unpaid internship or a temporary position as an entry into a company.  In a better economy, I would never suggest this.  Times are tough.
·       Consider a lower-level position in a company you like.  Intelligence and hard work rarely go unnoticed.
·       Be open to a change of location for an opportunity in a worthwhile company.
·       Take mental and physical breaks from your search.  After a few hours, each successive hour staring at a computer screen tends to yield diminishing returns.  Breaks will benefit both you and your family.  After taking a walk or a drive or a weekend off, you can return to your efforts with renewed energy and focus.
·       Be nice to your parents.  They are the only ones who worry about your situation as much as you do.
·       Boo.

Monday, October 10, 2011

About Face!

A well-prepared candidate is a headhunter’s best friend (at least for the duration of said candidate's job interview).  This individual has planned and rehearsed a presentation that highlights his/her qualifications and  strengths to a potential employer.  So why do I sometimes want the candidate to ditch that presentation?

Let me pose the following scenario:  Amy is a senior financial analyst with an aptitude for and enjoyment of creating advanced financial forecasting tools.  She is now interviewing for a position as a finance manager, and has prepared a neatly organized portfolio displaying samples of her work.  As Amy prepares to delve into samples of her finely honed spreadsheets, the interviewer pushes them to one side and asks her fourth-in-a-row question about how Amy would deal with unruly staff members. 

It begins to seem as though the interviewer is far more interested in people management than in Amy’s technological skills. 

Amy has several choices at this point.   

1.     She can give cursory answers to the interviewer’s people management questions, and try to return the focus to her prepared presentation.

Headhunter’s Response:  Bad choice.  Ignoring an interviewer’s clear focus is never a winning strategy.  An employer engages in the hiring process for only one reason: to fill a need that isn’t currently being met.  In this case, the interviewer is making that need quite clear.  Amy’s technological skills are not the primary interest of this employer.  If Amy does not adapt to the interviewer’s line of questioning, her future will not be with this company.

2.     Amy can determine that a management role supervising a potentially out-of-control staff is not an opportunity she wants, and proceed to the end of the interview as quickly as possible, cutting her losses. 

Headhunter’s Response: This is a legitimate decision.  If Amy’s best days are the ones spent immersed in technology, she may not be inclined to be assume the disciplinary activity which seems to be implied in this position.  Paying attention to the interviewer’s questions has revealed to Amy the truth of a situation she may want to avoid.  Instead, she should look for a senior role in which the focus is on process rather than people.

3.     Amy can sigh, close her neatly organized portfolio of spreadsheets, and begin to focus on providing the information the interviewer is seeking.

Headhunter’s Response:  Listening closely to an interviewer’s questions is the single most important piece of advice I give to candidates.  The questions an interviewer asks not only reveal information about the substance of the position; they also provide clues to the candidate about areas of his/her expertise on which to focus. 

In the scenario above, if Amy decides that the job is worth pursuing but perceives herself to be somewhat lacking in people management experience, she need not disqualify herself.  Instead, she might list examples of management techniques she has encountered and what she has liked or disliked about those techniques; conflicts she has been a part of or helped solve; goals she would set for staff; dysfunctional staff situations she has witnessed, etc. By following the lead of the interviewer and adapting her presentation to the newly acquired information, Amy can position herself to be a realistic contender for this position.

I have heard it said that the best-laid battle plans are usually abandoned as soon as the first shot is fired.  Good armies must adapt to the evolving reality if they wish to survive.  The same could be said for job candidates. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

There's the good news, then there's the truth

When asked where the current job market stands, I might venture this description: Just a few miles south of Bad News, and a little way north of Cataclysmic.  But that may be sugarcoating it.

With an unemployment rate hanging near 9+% and many economists predicting a long, slow jobs recovery, it is easy to get discouraged.  My own personal universe of family, friends and colleagues includes stories of failed businesses, long-term unemployment, lost homes, entry level college grads who have been unable to get a foothold on their future, and advanced-level employees who have been forced to take significant slides down the career ladder. 

But seldom is heard a discouraging word from this headhunter, at least without some good news to offset it.  Yes, there is some good news out there too.

Reports detailing the revenues of publicly traded executive recruitment firms are showing a twenty-percent increase in these firms’ revenues over the last year.   These revenues provide an excellent indicator of the job market.  A rapid increase, though not reflected in today’s employment figures, indicates that companies are hiring for select positions.

And while it is certainly a small test sample of a much larger population, my own firm’s activity has seen a solid increase in the recent months.  Companies are beginning to position themselves for the much awaited turnaround.  Unfortunately, some of these searches have been to replace poorly performing incumbents, but any change represents an opportunity for someone to solve a problem.  One person’s performance issues may result in an opening for a more qualified, energetic individual.

Additionally, the enthusiastic response to my phone calls indicates that potential candidates seem more receptive to the idea of changing companies, replacing the attitude that safety lies in staying put.  Whenever there is a pent-up demand for change, it is good for the activity level in the employment market.

The key for all job seekers today is to keep your mental activity level up.  It may come to pass that you have to think outside the friendly confines of an industry in which you have worked for ten-plus years.  If that is the case, do it.  Open your mind.  Research other industries that parallel your former industry.  If you can manage people in a steel mill, you can probably manage people in a distribution center. 

If you have the resources, consider retooling your skills.  A friend from my daughter’s swim team era jumped from the hi-tech world of telecom and retrained himself for the medical field.  He now spends his days assisting a doctor with hip replacements.  A radical change for sure, but he is happy and he is employed. 

If you are “on the beach” as I sometimes describe a full-time job search that has lasted a while, it may be a great time to consider an entrepreneurial venture you have always wanted to try.   What’s to lose if you have already lost your regular paycheck?  Be ready to work and worry like never before, but if you get your venture going, there is no better feeling.

If you choose to stay the course, positions are available, but you must work every angle known to man or woman in the course of your search.  Be open to a change in locale, if necessary.  Make yourself available on every social network, have coffee with people you have known for years or days, be not shy about telling people you are seeking a new job and explaining your area of expertise.  As Zig Ziglar said, “Shy salesmen have skinny kids.”

Below are just a few success stories that I know.  I would love to hear some from you.

·         A friend of mine near 60 years old who had experienced severe job downgrading due to the acquisition of his company used personal networking to find a new position that was a perfect fit for his talents and his background. 
·         A 50-ish friend in the marketing field had experienced his second layoff in a period of a few years.  He aggressively attacked the job market and was able to find employment this summer.
·         A friend and stay-at-home mom was able to train herself in office skills and find an administrative position after an extended period out of the workforce.
·         In my own practice, companies that have been relatively dormant in hiring for the last few years seem to be showing some willingness to hire.

All is not doom and gloom.  Opportunities are there for the taking or the making.  So let’s kick off those pink slippers and march proudly into the challenging job market determined to beat the odds.

Monday, September 26, 2011

How Long is Too Long?

Category:  Tips for Hiring Managers

You dial the cell phone of Paige Turner, aka Candidate #4 in your company’s quest for a regional sales manager.  She picks up on the third ring.  You happily advise Paige that she has been chosen to participate in your next round of interviews!  Unfortunately, Paige has just celebrated her one-month anniversary with your largest competitor, a position she accepted after receiving no initial interview feedback from you.

QUESTION: If you are an employer, what is an appropriate length of time to spend making a decision regarding a candidate you’ve actually interviewed? 

First, let me modify the question.  It has been my experience that a vast majority of decisions regarding candidates, particularly negative decisions, are made during the interview when the candidate is seated across the desk.  Either you are satisfied with the candidate’s answers, or you are counting the minutes until the interview can come to a welcome end.  So, the question of timing is often related to communicating hiring decisions rather than making them.

In my book on interviewing, I advise candidates to wait at least a week following an interview before making contact with their interviewer.  Similarly, I would recommend that my client companies try to provide follow-up information to each candidate within a week of that candidate’s interview.

Based on my own personal observation and a wealth of anecdotal evidence, I can assure you that this does not always happen.  I know one young woman who waited well over a month before receiving a rejection letter from a company, only to be invited to interview again for the same position several weeks later.  In a separate case, a family friend interviewed with one company four times with several weeks between each interview before being ultimately rejected.  It seems an unfortunate sign of the times that some companies NEVER feel it necessary to provide negative feedback.

Several years back, I took an assignment from a company looking for a controller.  As is my practice, I established a relationship with the client, visited the company premises, recruited candidates based on a mutually established position description, and sent several to the company to interview.  At this point, I never heard from the company again.  My candidates called me repeatedly; I called the hiring manager repeatedly; no one returned my call; no one provided any feedback.  Finally, after over a month, I released my candidates, advising them to seek other opportunities. 

(An unlikely ending to this story:  several years later the president of this company contacted me to perform another search.  I was stunned.  And unavailable.)

Of course, there are many circumstances which may require a lengthy interview process or delayed decisions. These include scheduling conflicts with multiple candidates; out-of-town trips by hiring managers; or difficulty bringing a necessary participant in from out of the state or the country.  All of these are legitimate reasons for delaying decisions related to a successful hire.  In these cases, my advice is to:
·         release all candidates who have been eliminated as quickly as possible (but no earlier than the next day following the interview);
·         advise the selected candidates of their status and communicate the reasons for any holdup in the process. 

It sounds like a well-worn cliché, but communication actually IS the all-important factor.  A candidate who has been advised to expect a long wait generally will appreciate the update and demonstrate patience in waiting for further feedback.

Timely communication to both selected and rejected candidates indicates respect for the individuals who have given their time and effort to interview with your company. A little common courtesy to those who seek employment with your company will ensure your company’s reputation for professionalism in hiring, as well as the satisfaction of the person who is ultimately hired.

And of course, early feedback to a candidate of interest will increase the odds that you do not lose that individual to a competing company.

Monday, September 19, 2011

And The Real Kicker Is...

My candidate has now spoken for eight-minutes-and-counting about a portion of his career that is unrelated to the job at hand and of little interest to his interviewers. My pre-interview instructions have been ignored or forgotten.  My current scowl has failed to deter him.  I will soon resort to the SKUD (Soft Kick Under the Desk) method of deterrence.

It is hard to sit helplessly as a candidate steers his interview toward an inevitable crash-and-burn disaster.  Especially when my coaching has been unambiguous in leading him in a different direction.   Nevertheless, it happens.

In the case described above, the candidate had followed two separate career tracks over the course of his eight-year career.  One path had provided him with the background that made him highly qualified to interview for the managerial role he was now seeking.  The other portion of his career, while spent in a prestigious company, had taught him no skills that would be directly applicable to the current role.

During his interview, my candidate came across as eager to go into great detail about the unrelated aspects of his career; less enthusiastic about describing his relevant experience.  This was the exact opposite of what should have happened.

I advise my candidates to focus on the skills and experience that are specifically related to the job at hand and “fly over” the rest of their careers at the 20,000-foot level, providing few specifics.  If an employer is interested in the “flown-over” information, she has the option of asking questions. 

A good thing for candidates to remember: Each minute spent dwelling on unrelated experience is a minute not spent describing important skills that are actually relevant to your interviewer. 

Another good thing to remember:  If you see my foot twitching menacingly, GET BACK ON TRACK.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sell, Baby, Sell

Category: Tips for Hiring Managers

In today’s job marketplace, some employers tend to think of the hiring process as the equivalent of picking their favorite donut from the box on Sunday morning.  (Do I want the chocolate with sprinkles, or the iced cinnamon roll?)  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  The donuts have choices too.

In today’s challenging employment market, there are many job-seekers available.  But when it comes to jobs requiring specific skills and experience, particularly higher level jobs, qualified candidates are not a dime a baker’s dozen.  Believe me, as one who finds the donuts for a living, it often takes weeks of research, recruiting, screening, and the accompanying hand-wringing to come up with five or six top-tier candidates to present to my clients.

So when a qualified candidate enters the interview setting, it is absolutely essential that a hiring manager understands the necessity of selling the position he/she represents.  Although I often focus on the candidate’s pitch, selling is not solely an obligation of the candidate.  All candidates have options.  Employed candidates have the option of remaining where they are; unemployed candidates may be willing to take their chances on attaining something better if a hiring manager has not managed to sell a position effectively.

A few recommendations on selling your position to a candidate:

·       Choose the most presentable space available as the interview setting.
·       Be sure all interviewers dress professionally.  Business casual is okay; jeans and sports jerseys do not indicate respect for the candidate who has taken the time to come to an interview.
·       Allow enough time for the interview.  Watch-checking or cutting off a candidate before adequate time has been spent is bad form.
·       Act as a host or hostess would act to an honored guest.  Offer coffee or water.  Offer a break if the interview is long.
·       Prepare an informative presentation on your company and the position being filled.  Allow time for questions.  Answer those questions as honestly and thoroughly as possible.
·       Do NOT act as a trained interrogator.  Remember that you and the candidate are exchanging information.
·       Allow the candidate a tour of the working environment, if possible. 
·       Throughout the interview, be friendly, polite, and receptive to questions. 

Common courtesy, an attitude of respect, and preparation will go a long way to acquiring the donut of your dreams.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Getting Past the Gatekeeper – Me

When a company hires me to identify, recruit and screen individuals for a position, that company is confident that my assessment filters will produce the best talent available.  With all due humility, I can say that my clients’ confidence is not misplaced.  So you may wonder “What is it that you look for when you are recruiting candidates?” I answer, again with humility, Mirror, mirror, on the wall…
But seriously.
The short and very unsatisfying answer is, it depends – on the client, the level of the position, and other specific factors relating to each assignment.  By the time I begin recruiting for a client, I have established a personal relationship with that client, a substantial knowledge base about the company and the position, and a “feel” for the type of candidate that will fill the requirements of the role, and be a good fit for the company’s unique character.
But setting aside specifics, I can share with you four general issues that tend to carry some significant weight in my screenings of candidates.
1.       Appearance/Demeanor
Whether I meet someone in the office, an airport, or a restaurant, appearance is always the first hurdle to cross.  Appearance for me goes beyond being well groomed and neatly dressed.  It includes posture (I hear Mother Ward in her Irish brogue “head up, shoulders back!”), eye contact, firm hand shake, a smile, saying one’s name confidently, a good opening line (Hi!  I am Jim Boyle.  I am very much looking forward to our conversation.), and a good energy level.
2.      Engagement
I usually start the meeting with a brief overview of the client and the opportunity we plan to discuss.  As I make my presentation, does the candidate listen attentively?  Does she/he ask reasonable questions?  Is there some sign of comprehension? Of engagement?  Of life?
On the flip side, when the candidate presents his/her credentials, are they delivered with confidence?  Does the candidate provide evidence of his/her ability to excel at the job?  Does the candidate have exciting or innovative ideas relating to the role?  Is the information delivered in a fashion that is interesting?  Is the candidate answering questions succinctly and staying on track? 
NOTE:  Some of my best candidates were selected because of the questions they asked.  I live on questions.   Voltaire said “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”  When a candidate asks good questions, I can tell they are beginning to visualize the opportunity and compare the requirements with their experience.  This is always a sign of a good interview.  A person’s questions paint a good picture of his/her capabilities.
3.      Examples
When I first started recruiting, I met primarily with individuals in the early years of their careers.  Their accomplishments included graduating from college, going to work regularly, and breathing.  In other words, they were 90% potential and 10% actual achievement.   
(By the way, the world is a little different now.  Even recent college grads are expected to have a track record of good internships, community involvement, etc., but that’s a post for a different day.)
In higher level positions, clients are looking for individuals who have a record of getting it done: problem solving, innovation, collaboration, leadership, team building, profit generation.  When I sit with an individual, I want to hear examples of situations the candidate has seen and what specific roles he/she has played over the course of his/her career.  Examples should demonstrate individual achievement, not the achievements of a team. 
I am also interested in a person’s failures.  If you have been in business for a while, I am sure you will agree that you learn much more from a lost venture than five easy wins.  I give a candidate extra credit for providing examples of how he/she corrected a mistake, and what was learned from the bad situation. 
4.      Relational skills
As I sit with an individual, I try to envision this person working with my client’s personnel.  Is this individual someone who will bring positive energy to the group or be a swirling drain of negativity?
I listen very carefully when a person describes his/her interactions with co-workers, vendors, clients, etc.  Does the candidate speak with respect for others?  Will the candidate co-exist successfully with people of different perspectives and skills?  Does the person exhibit respect for me, my time, my questions during the interview?
Personally, I like a sense of humor in a person, as I like to laugh.  You don’t have to be a comedian, but an easy smile or laugh (at my attempts at humor) will always win me over.  I could be on a deserted island for a year with a person with a low sense of humor if he laughed at my jokes.  In fact, we’d get along fine.

A final note: There is no guarantee of interview success.  If you don’t know how to count to 1000 in order, you probably will not get a CFO role regardless of how much I love your sense of humor.  But when I meet a candidate with a professional appearance and demeanor, an attitude of engagement, plentiful examples of his/her successes and failures, and excellent personal/relational skills, I will be very tempted to open wide the gates and send that candidate forward to Round 2.