8 Key Career Lessons to Be an Executive

Everyone knows the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” This maxim offers a great lesson to people who are trying to navigate the demands of the modern executive job market because it’s no longer prudent to leave the task only to recruiters.

By Julie Norwell

There is an endless supply of people who don’t know how to find an executive job. If you’re smart and capable, you can easily manage the succession plan of your career up to a point. But at a certain level you won’t go any higher if you haven’t learned 8 key lessons on what it takes to get tapped as an executive.

1. Understand that executive positions are filled predominantly by word of mouth – as many as 75% of them. Really!

When hiring managers need to fill an executive role, the first thing they do is blast out a note to everyone they know to ask if they know someone who might be a good candidate for the job. Professional contacts and networking are THE most used tools to source executive candidates.

Most people wrongly think that third-party recruiters account for the bulk of all placements. They used to have a much bigger share than they do today, but when LinkedIn came onto the scene in 2003, it democratized the recruiting process. Today, third-party recruiters are responsible for filling only 10% of executive job openings.

A tool used even less frequently than recruiters is job postings. If they’re used at all, job postings will simply fulfill a regulatory obligation after a candidate has been determined. Why? Because hiring managers want to hire someone they know and respect or someone who is recommended by someone they know and respect.

2. Always be looking for a job before you need one

Good career change skills aren’t limited to when you are actively looking for a job. It begins way before you are thinking about a transition and it extends well past it, too. In fact, a good career transition in the short-term hinges on good career management in the long-term.

You should never miss an opportunity to increase or enrich your network. The essence of this lesson is: Who do you know? and Will those people advocate on your behalf? If it seems like a chore or too time consuming, remember that networking is a core function of any executive job. It’s very important to build time to network into your work week. If you lack the time management skills to do this, put it on your calendar until it becomes a habit.

In addition to building relationships, networking helps you stay abreast of industry trends and know what the competition is doing. It is a way to keep your ear to the ground and keep yourself in people’s minds. You never know where your next opportunity will come from and networking keeps your options open. Executives who learn this early are most successful.

3. Pay it forward

Many job seekers get the importance of networking, but might miss the equally critical step of building up social capital first. The only time they think to reach out to people is when they need something. That is a huge political mistake. It’s a lot harder to take from the pot if you haven’t contributed to it.

People are far more inclined to help you if you’ve already put something into the relationship. People who pay it forward have learned this crucial lesson. Paying it forward has a way of paying us back.

If your career seems to have plateaued, it may be that you’re not doing enough to nurture relationships with people. You should be responsive to requests for favors from others – even better, you should proactively help people who aren’t asking for it. The more you do, the more likely it is that people will think of you when they learn about opportunities.

4. Learn how to verbalize your value proposition

Lots of people can be extroverts in their work and in everything they do that relates to their competencies, but when it comes to talking about themselves and marketing the value they bring to the table, they hide in the corner. They aren’t comfortable verbalizing their value proposition.

The best way to understand what value you offer is to talk to people – that is, to network. Solicit feedback from people about the work that you’ve done so you can understand how your efforts contributed to the success of your projects. Log your achievements regularly in a book so that you can refer to them when you need to.

5. Ask not what a company can do with your experience, tell them what you can do for the company

A lot of people lean on the traditional measuring stick of academic credentials, experience, and time served in a job to demonstrate their value during a job search. But thinking about recruiting in terms of function and credentials is old-fashioned. Much more important to hiring managers is: What specifically can you do for me?

Hiring managers want to hire an executive who can change the company for the better.

They look for someone who can minimize risk, drive revenue, improve efficiencies, innovate new practices, and so on. In the age of Covid, this is especially true. Some industries are in big trouble and need leaders who can lead in times of crisis. They may need to reinvent how they do business. In their mind, it’s far better to hire someone with a stellar reputation for demonstrable achievements than someone with an impressive pedigree or with the right number of years of experience.

To boost your appeal as a candidate, it is incumbent upon you to tout your abilities to meet a company’s known needs. Don’t know what they are? Ask! Ask hiring managers what keeps them awake at night or what opportunities they wish they had time to pursue. Explain clearly the value you will bring to the company if they hire you.

6. Recognize the opportunity to create an opportunity for yourself

In today’s world, it is common for savvy people to convince hiring managers to create a position for them that didn’t otherwise exist. If you’ve saved business partners millions over years and you are actively interacting in the job market, people will learn of your amazing qualifications and realize that they can’t afford NOT to hire you.

How does this work? It starts with a conversation with a hiring manager about the challenges her company faces and the opportunities in the business that need to be addressed within the year. If you articulate your value proposition well enough, they will find a place for you in the business.

7. Always be upping your game

Your value proposition rests on the results that you’ve produced. Therefore, it is important to do a really good job in your current position so that people are enthusiastic about supporting you. But that’s not enough.

Upping your game has become a must just to stay competitive. According to a Pew Research Center survey 87% of workers believe it will be essential for them to get training and develop new job skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace, and 54% see continuous training as essential to career success.

A great, non-traditional way of honing your executive chops is by doing board service for a nonprofit organization. Doing so gives you valuable experience, demonstrates your social responsibility, and builds your network – often with some pretty impressive people.

8. Hire a professional

Job search tactics change over time, and during the Covid crisis they have accelerated. How can you stay on top of market changes? When in doubt, consider hiring a pro. There are many benefits to professional assistance:

  • Because pros are constantly working with job seekers, they have the most up-to-date information on current hiring practices and hot button issues
  • Pros are best positioned to help you identify any blind spots or unknown needs that are holding you back
  • Pros can help you consider career options you encounter from an objective perspective
  • Pros can offer new tactics to try when you just can’t seem to reach the golden ring
  • Pros keep you motivated, on task, and are your best cheerleader

Growing professionally is an ongoing process, and your route will likely change over your career. To maximize your potential as an executive and optimize your options, use these lessons to manage your career, and you will see the payoff.

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