Inside the head of a head-hunter: How to secure your next senior role

The job market for C-suite and senior finance roles has been stagnant in recent years, and those moving into the top jobs are being scrutinised more than ever, according to job placement experts.

Securing your next move has become tougher. To achieve it, you will need a strong profile and the ability to navigate a rigorous assessment process lasting months. The key to success may rest with how well you engage with a head-hunter.

While most senior finance professionals are well-versed in common interview tips, there is a lot more to obtaining a senior role through a head-hunter.

Edward Wild, the director of Wild Search, a global firm that specialises in leadership appointments, including CFOs and financial controllers, believes that managing the process, effective communication and building a strong public profile can help you stand out.

Here is Wild’s guide to succeeding in your next C-level move.

The long march to the shortlist

Head-hunters find candidates through online and print advertising, desk research and soft referencing, or canvassing the views of senior contacts and industry leaders to source potential candidates.

For senior hires, the recruitment process usually takes three months from engagement to completion. It is common for a head-hunter to see between ten and 15 candidates before a shortlist of about five is devised. For CFO positions, the assessment process will involve additional one-to-one meetings with the recruiting CEO and chairman.

Manage your personal profile. How senior executives are perceived in the media is increasingly important to employers. Head-hunters gather information from publicly available sources to build a dossier on potential candidates. This includes using social media, such as LinkedIn and Twitter. Wild Search, for instance, monitors a broad range of print and online media, constantly adding people of interest to its database. This includes potential candidates for future roles.

LinkedIn is a useful tool for summarising key achievements and appointments, but do not include information that is not relevant to your career. Wild recommends detailing key achievements and responsibilities, and direct and indirect line management experience as well as reporting lines for each role.

Another way to get noticed is by being quoted in – or writing for – national and international business publications. A well-respected blog that is followed by industry professionals can also help position you as an industry thought leader.

Once targeted, manage the process

Are you too busy? If you are in work, you need to manage the time you commit to the process. Head-hunters who have to chase you for your curriculum vitae (CV) and application letter may get the impression that you are unorganised and that you could delay a recruiter’s timescale.

Not busy enough? If you are between roles, avoid badgering. It doesn’t help, and the pace at which the recruitment process moves often depends upon the client. You also risk appearing desperate. “It’s about striking a balance between trying to impress us and choosing when you might better spend time doing some research rather than calling us,” Wild said.

Keep CVs to the point. Although you might think that senior executives have fully grasped the concept of a CV, some still list eccentric hobbies in an effort to appear more interesting. In reality, head-hunters and employers are rarely interested. Wild also warns against cluttering CVs with unnecessary personal detail. “I did have quite an amusing CV when somebody detailed their domestic commitments,” he recalled. “They said they had a family and that they were willing to work away from home during the week. I pointed out that, perhaps, if his wife had read the CV, she might have got the wrong impression.”

Use your CV to outline your career, both responsibilities and achievements, and the companies for which you have worked – especially if they have since merged or been sold, as that may mean their old names fail to show up in searches and checks. Try to limit CVs to two or three pages.

Build a relationship. The interview is the start of a relationship with your head-hunter, which should be viewed as a “marathon rather than a 100-metre race”. An individual may be head-hunted by the same recruitment firm more than once during his or her career. Nurturing a professional relationship is important.

How to nail the interview

Match your tone to the audience. Differentiate between an interview with your head-hunter and an interview with the recruiter. They require different preparation and etiquette. A common mistake is that candidates take the same informal manner from a head-hunter’s office into a formal panel interview.

Don’t assume knowledge. Just because you have talked about your career with a head-hunter, that does not mean the recruiter will know it. Be prepared to go over it again.

Control, but don’t dominate. How you present your case could help head-hunters and recruiters form an opinion of how well you communicate. Don’t ramble. Wild said that the CV is a test of your ability to express your achievements and career in a lucid way, and that the interview is your opportunity to do this verbally. He recalled: “A candidate I interviewed asked, after more than 20 minutes of monologue, ‘Would you like to ask me any questions?’ Why, I was tempted to reply, would I want to do that? It’s only an interview. I just felt that individual needed to focus a bit more on listening.”

Business performance matters. Head-hunters and hiring managers will know which companies are doing well in each sector, and the CFO’s narrative and contribution to that success will be taken into account. Good performance should be promoted and explained throughout the assessment process.

However, Wild said, this does not mean that poor business performance will rule you out: “Everyone can have a setback, and things happen that are not their responsibility. I think it’s how you deal with failure that’s important. Sometimes, people are unwilling to open up, and that can give a bit of insight into their ability to engage with others.”

And if you do not succeed…

Learn from rejection. If you are unsuccessful, try to find out why and take rejection gracefully. Emailing your head-hunter immediately afterwards to rant about why the client made the wrong choice does nobody any favours.

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Seven Ways to Make a Strong First Impression in Job Interviews”: A majority of interviewers form a positive or negative opinion of job candidates within ten minutes, according to a recent survey. Very few wait longer than 20 minutes to make up their minds. So, to ace your next interview, take steps early to make a strong first impression.