12 Common Mistakes in an Executive Job Search

12 Common Mistakes in an Executive Job Search

By Julie Norwell

If you’re re-entering the job market after significant time away from it, you’ve outgrown the hiring process you once knew.

Let’s face it, the last time you were job hunting, you were probably at a lower level in your career. And job seeking is quite different at the executive level compared to the manager or director level. Also, the job market has evolved enormously in recent years, thanks to the advent of new technologies. The “objective statement” and “elevator pitch” are OUT; applicant tracking systems and personal branding are IN. 

Many executives are astonished to discover how much has changed since they last pounded the pavement. There is certainly no shame in that. Executives are smart people with expertise in running departments and companies and managing people and crises – not jobhunting. Some have spent the bulk of their careers with one employer. Others have changed jobs organically throughout their careers without ever dipping a toe into the employment market. Why would they know how to look for a job if they have little experience with it?

As a result, executives new to the employment market make mistakes. Heaps of them, actually. Some are counter-intuitive, while others are errors of omission – because people don’t know what they don’t know. Following is a list of 12 common mistakes people make as they embark on a job search. 

1. Undertaking an Aimless Job Search

The Cheshire Cat of Alice in Wonderland offered some famous advice to young Alice, lost in the woods and focused only on getting out of “here” instead of on where she wanted to go. His advice: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there…if you only walk long enough. 

Executives in the job market sometimes suffer from the same mindset as Alice. Perhaps they’ve been laid off or their work situation is intolerable, and they want out as quickly as possible. That sense of urgency is understandable, but it’s not helpful in a job search. Undertaking an aimless job search will result only in wasted time, frustration, and disappointment. 

Before making any professional move, take the time to figure out exactly where you want to go. Your values may have changed over time, and it’s worth reflecting on them to ensure you’re on the right path. Having clarity about your current goals will enable you to create a roadmap to achieve them more efficiently and productively. 

2. Thinking That Recruiters Will Help You Get a Job

Third-party recruiters won’t help you get a job. Period. That isn’t their role. Many jobseekers don’t realize that a third-party recruiter’s client is the employer, not the jobseeker. A third-party recruiter’s job is to fill a vacancy at a company, and the company pays them for this service. 

Sure, if you match their criteria for a particular role, you might be in luck. Otherwise, they’ll take little interest in you. Third-party recruiters owe no allegiance to jobseekers. It’s fine to work with recruiters. But if you do, remember that they don’t have your best interests at heart. 

3. Thinking That Posted Jobs Are Actually Open

Posted jobs aren’t always open. Companies often post job openings publicly to comply with regulations, but, frequently, the hiring manager already has a candidate in mind for the role. That leaves applicants sweating through an application process with, unbeknownst to them, no chance of getting the job. 

To know if a posted job is truly open you must find someone you know – or someone who knows someone you know – on the inside who can give you the scoop. 

4. Thinking That Open Jobs Are Usually Posted

Finding the right person to fill an executive-level role isn’t easy. Rather than risking a poor match, hiring managers rely heavily on their network of contacts for candidate referrals in their search for talent. This is the basis for the unpublished market. A whopping 75% of executives change careers thanks to the unpublished market. Published jobs are just the tip of the employment market iceberg. 

Savvy jobseekers will use their network not only to search for these unpublished jobs but also to uncover budding roles that are still just concepts in someone’s head. Every job develops from an unmet need within an organization, and they develop through conversations and brainstorming sessions. At this nascent stage, unmet needs are business opportunities that have yet to be advertised. 

This is how Joel Engle transitioned from a career in ministry to a role as chief growth officer for an advertising and marketing agency. 

“I did a pay-it-forward call to an old friend who is CEO of an advertising agency worth millions of dollars. He caters to the Christian business world,” said Joel. “As we caught up, he told me about a vision he had to grow a new vertical within his company that, as it turns out, requires someone with my exact skillset. I intuitively shared some ideas and my value proposition with him and then he asked, ‘Would you want to work with me?’ I wasn’t even thinking about a job!” 

5. Blanket Messaging People That You’re Looking for a Job

It looks desperate. Enough said.

6. Limiting Your Scope to Your Professional Niche 

Many executives can’t imagine how their experience is relevant outside of their industry. But there are usually more opportunities for transferability of their skills than they realize. 

When Bibi retired from a long-time position as an administrator in higher education, for example, she yearned to do something meaningful. She didn’t expect to be able to stray far from what she’d always done. But, after connecting with the CEO of an environmental non-profit that appealed to her and discussing his administrative growing pains, Bibi discovered that she had quite a lot to offer.

“I was eager to do something I really care about, which is working with trees. But I never, in a million years, thought I’d be able to do it,” said Bibi.  

7. Thinking That Networking Equals Asking for a Job

Tapping your network of contacts is the hardest aspect of job seeking for many people. No one wants to be that person asking friends or former colleagues for a job. It feels awkward and undignified. But networking doesn’t mean asking for a job. The point of the exercise is to generate conversations, gather new ideas, and gain referrals to people or groups with whom you can explore opportunities. 

The exercise is also not supposed to be one-sided. By offering to “pay it back” – that is, to help them with your expertise or your wealth of contacts – networking becomes a mutual give-and-take. To facilitate this mental shift, try speaking not of “networking,” but “building social capital.”

8. Letting Relationships Go Stagnant

Letting relationships go stagnant is problematic not only during a job search, but throughout your career. The unpublished market is fueled by personal relationships. So, letting relationships go stagnant is the professional equivalent of swimming laps with one hand tied behind your back. 

Yes, sometimes people neglect relationships because they are lazy. But sometimes they think former colleagues won’t want to talk to them, especially if they’re job seeking. This fear, however, belies reality. 

“I hear it over and over again from my clients,” said Julie Mathern, executive career consultant at The Barrett Group, “People think their old colleagues won’t be receptive if they reach out. But the truth is that people are going to be delighted to hear from you. Clients tell me, ‘It’s like we picked up right where we left off!’” 

In short, if you had a good relationship with someone before, you will continue to have a good relationship with that individual whenever you rekindle the relationship. 

To get the most out of relationships, though, they need to be nurtured – and not just during a job hunt. Regardless of whether you are job seeking, take time regularly to build your social capital by reaching out to friends, colleagues, and family. 

9. Assuming Your Friends Know What You Do

When building your social capital, don’t assume your close friends know what you do. And don’t assume they will come to you if they need your help. It’s a false assumption that friends know what you do. And, like you, they may not want to ask for help. 

Be proactive about spelling out to friends what your value proposition is and letting them know that you’re happy to help them if they can use your expertise. It’ll engender new conversations, which is, again, the real point of approaching friends. Fresh conversations will infuse your job hunt with new ideas, and, potentially, new leads. 

10. Underutilizing LinkedIn 

So many executive jobseekers grossly underutilize LinkedIn. The biggest oversight is using a LinkedIn page as a repository for a resume. LinkedIn is a professional network, and simply copying and pasting a resume is a wasted opportunity to maximize its potential. Your LinkedIn profile should highlight your personal brand and showcase accomplishments related to the roles you are seeking.

LinkedIn also offers a host of tools to make job searches more effective – more than most people are aware. Learning how to use it proficiently will enhance your candidacy among your competitors. 

11. Not Tailoring Your Candidacy to the Position

Executives have rich careers. They can be forgiven for wanting to tout all their accomplishments. But when it comes to a job search, they shouldn’t. More is not always better! 

If a job description calls for 15 years of experience, for example, don’t advertise that you have 20 years of experience. Indicate only the amount of experience required lest you be perceived as overqualified. Tailor all the details of your candidacy to the specific requirements of the position. This will cast you as the perfect candidate for the job.

12. Having a Generic Resume 

People often focus on the responsibilities and experiences that they had in previous roles rather than the results they produced. At the end of the day, employers want to know what you can do for them. Give them the beef. By how much did you improve sales? How much growth did you achieve? How much money did you save the company by employing efficiencies? 

By highlighting your professional results in measurable detail, you will leave a stronger impression than you will with a generic resume. (It goes without saying that every resume you send out should be tailored to the job description.) 

This list is a good starting point if you’re inexperienced in job seeking, but it is by no means exhaustive. It doesn’t even cover the interview process (which will be covered in a future newsletter article!). But, make no mistake about it, by avoiding these 12 common mistakes, you can increase your chances of success in an executive job search. 

Read next: Are Jobseekers Losing the Upper Hand?

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