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, 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.