I’ve read your Fearless Job Hunting books and I think you make a lot of good points that I believe will help the majority of people — but I’m not so sure about top execs. I’m not convinced that the same tactics would work for someone like me who is looking for a position on a board of directors. In this particular case, a direct approach would presuppose that you knew the company was missing the particular board position that you wanted to fill. This is rarely going to be the case.

Such a company would almost always use a headhunter and/or the personal networks of the other board members in order to fill the vacancy, but in your book you acknowledge that marketing oneself to headhunters is a very “hit and miss” approach. Do you have any specific ideas for people hunting such “one per company” positions?

Nick’s Reply

top execsCommon sense tells us that very few subscribers to this newsletter sit on boards of directors, simply because there are relatively few board-level executives in the world. So why am I writing a column about this rarefied level of management jobs? Because I think it’s an object lesson for everyone.

Time and again, I take a poke at top execs to make the point that everyone — everyone — has terribly misconceived notions about job hunting and hiring. Even the most successful top-level executives are clueless about how to land the right job.

Top execs make the same mistakes

It’s not an exaggeration, and this executive’s question proves it. It’s very difficult for anyone — even at the highest levels — to think clearly about job hunting simply because it’s stressful and even painful. The prospect worries people, so they don’t think straight. At the higher levels, job hunting is even more challenging, not only because there are fewer jobs, but because top execs incorrectly assume there’s something fundamentally  different about the executive-level job search process. No matter what level you work on, the process is basically the same.

It’s interesting how you describe the job you want. To me, every job is a “one per company” position. In other words, there are precious few “right jobs” for an individual, and precious few “right people” for any job. The shotgun approach, which promises to cover as much territory as possible so as to increase the chances of success, is just a fallacy. Matching a person and a job is just not a numbers game (even if you do get lucky). The best way to find a good match is through good relationships with people who work in the industry you want to work in, whether it’s for a technician’s job or a board seat.

The inside track is personal

I’m not missing what you’re saying: If the job isn’t there, why make contacts at the company? The reason is that the people you talk with (board members and other executives) have knowledge, insight, and contacts no one else has — including headhunters. You’re absolutely right: Companies will use their personal contacts to fill such vacancies. It’s important for you to focus on contacts because getting on the inside track is personal. Consider them a growing resource that you develop throughout your career. You never know how or when you’ll benefit from them. However, you will benefit.

When a board member taps an old friend for a board seat, that executive is not likely waiting around for a tap. The offer stems from a relationship that has developed over a period of years. So you see, you’re right about one thing. Employers do indeed use their network of personal contacts to make hires. What you’re wrong about is that “the direct approach” won’t work at your level. It will. (As an exec, you might be surprised to hear that garden-variety workers tell me you have to be a manager or executive for this to work!) But the direct approach is a long-term investment. It may not yield an instant payoff. It’s just one step toward your goal, and without taking that step, you will forever lose to people who introduced themselves long before any position came open.

Top execs (and you!) can do it

As you note, headhunters do fill such positions. But they do the very thing you are suggesting won’t work. They contact board-level executives who are not themselves currently looking to fill or find jobs. These top execs are conduits to others who are looking. So, pick up the phone. Make the calls now — and make them regularly throughout your career. If you don’t, you will always be floundering in the wakes of people who have strong, long-term connections to one another.

You see, top execs don’t have it easier or harder than anyone else. Everyone has the same challenge: to make new friends in your field (or target field) all the time. When you’re actively looking for a job, don’t just look where the jobs are. Go to the right people, and they will lead you where you need to go. (For more on this, please read I don’t know anybody.)

For more information about board-level management, I suggest you check my friend Larry Stybel’s web site. It’s a resource for board-level executives, but it’s also an illuminating experience for everyone else who wonders what the atmosphere is like way up there.

Thanks for your kind words about Fearless Job Hunting I think you’ll find it useful when you get into the interview. For the next two weeks, all Ask The Headhunter PDF books are 50% off for the holidays. Just use discount code=WINTER50 at checkout. ORDER NOW!

Just how important is it to make your job search personal? If you have an experience that shows how crucial this can be, please share it to motivate others. Naysayers are welcome to post their stories, too.

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  1. Thanks Nick,

    The letter you posted validates my points and suspicions.

    This job thing is not just lower levels but even in upper management where no one seems to have a clue about how to proceed.

    I do have to say, if you are a member of a BOD and you have not made connections, you were either a sympathy hire or your daddy got you the job.

    Every time I go to a quality restaurant there is always a group of managers, lawyers, executives, politicians…….
    At a table talking (usually out there a**es). If you are the only member who is not attending these “all expenses paid” business lunches/dinners you are not in the circle to gain the connections to find other jobs.

    Look within and how you were hired. The answer is there.

    This is the kind of networking us “disposable” workers
    don’t even consider. I mean, how many of us non manager types actually WANT to spend more time with the rest of the crew? Jim from recycling can’t help Todd from hazmat, at least in terms of getting to the top.

    It is just nice to know that even the top are having the same issues, too bad none of them are “open” enough to fix it.

  2. Hiring at the executive levels is all politics. From what I’ve seen the whole hiring process is based on who is friends with the BOD or someone else at the executive level. Most companies don’t like outsiders coming into the executive ranks, especially someone who might be a threat or who pulls down their charade, so to speak. Anyone who says otherwise either has never been in the workforce long enough or is lying.

    I’ve only worked jobs at the front line level and it’s so obvious to me. It was like this 30-40 years ago and it’s the same today.