In the May 3, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to get noticed among all the competition when competing for a C-level job, especially when he doesn’t have 100% of the “requirements” on his resume.

I believe I have a good, detailed resume. I am trying to make the jump from SVP/Division President to COO or CEO. How can I get noticed? I am also finding out that, in times like these, no one will talk with you unless you meet 100% of the requirements. Most of the times I meet 85%-95%, but I still get rejected. Any tips?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Think about this. Why would you apply for a C-level job by sending your resume to an X-level personnel jockey who’s working deep in the bowels of the company, far away from the C-suite? Honest, I’m just astonished at the degree to which smart, skilled managers get sucked into the bureaucratic herd mentality of corporate “recruiting” practices.

…Thanks to the prevalence of job-board databases, HR-department “resume scanners,” and the idiotic reliance on “keywords,” that’s where the problem of meeting 100% of the requirements comes in.

It used to be that someone with a brain would review a resume, read between the lines, and make an informed assessment about a candidate. That was before employers started soliciting thousands of applicants for one job. The most egregious example of executive job-hunting roulette is TheLadders, which claims to provide “exclusive” access to its “4.5 million subscribers”… for 50,000 “$100k+” jobs in its database! (Come look at the math.)

…We all know that you don’t need to be a perfect match to the job description to be the perfect candidate. So, how do you avoid being judged and rejected by your resume?

It’s simple: Avoid applying via resume!

Withhold your resume as long as possible. Navigate your way to a member of the board of directors or to the president of the company, without applying for the job. (Even a VP can help you get in the door.)

When you want to date a girl to get to know her, the last thing you say is, “You’re the perfect wife for me! Let’s get together to talk about getting married!”

Gimme a break. Show some finesse. Just because HR tells you to act stupid is no reason to do it.

Don’t walk blind on the job hunt. Establish a personal connection first. Rather than cry about your competitors, who seem to have the inside track, get on the inside track.

With this approach, you’re impressing a key decision maker or influencer with your acumen and your character — qualities that are not captured by keywords, but that are key decision factors for making a hire. Qualities that put you on the inside track.

How should you approach such top-level officers? By asking them for insight about the position that’s open.

How to Say It(Sorry, but you must subscribe to the newsletter to get all the answers in the newsletter… Don’t wait til next week… Sign up now… it’s free!)

You will be judged not by “100% of the requirements,” but by how you approach the challenges the company is facing. If the discussion goes well, suggest that you’d like to meet to discuss those challenges further. (Note that I said “discuss those challenges,” not “the job.” Top execs can smell a job hunter a mile away. They don’t want to talk about the job. They’ll let HR do that, with all those applicants who crowd the pipe. Top execs want to talk shop with a peer. Be that peer.)

That’s how you avoid an interview and have a friendly, peer-to-peer meeting instead. That’s how you get noticed for a C-level job: by behaving like a C-level exec.

If you’re a CEO, and you want to talk about acquiring another company, you don’t call that company’s HR department. You call the company’s CEO, or someone on the board of directors. So, why do you send a resume to HR when you want to talk about a CEO job?

I’d like to hear your stories about how you got in the door by going around HR to the decision maker — whether you were looking for a C-level job, or a staff position. It works the same way. The finesse comes in knowing how to get in the door without crawling through that sewer pipe full of resumes.

How do you get in the door?


  1. My 1st reaction was, trying to get noticed by who? And Nick’s covered “the who” well and focused on how to go about it.
    My 2nd thought was that the person does seem to be in the reactive mode…that is, scouting for advertised C-Level openings & then going through the application drills. Once an opening reaches an advertised point, the clock is running, and even when you follow Nick’s advise, you’re chasing a clock. Even worse, these days the search get get very public.
    One does also sense the person’s impatience, but sometimes the fastest way is the slowest. Being in a white heat hurry is not in your favor. And one very often reads scenarios where someone discovers networking as the path to the holy grail, has no network to speak of and wants to build one in a hurry etc etc. Hurried networking when your targeting an advertised target is still job hunting and you will find it hard to hide it.
    If you slow down and do some homework, and start thinking about targeting companies/industries 1st, get ahead of the curve and build a relevant C-Level network (in which I would include people clearly close to C-Level if not C-Level themselves..and don’t be title drunk, that can be influential exec assistants)and apply Nick’s advice proactively within the network you get there. If there’s no advertised job on the table you stand a good chance of not being tagged as a job hunter but rather someone wisely managaging their career.
    Go looking for unadvertised jobs or better yet create one. For example, Fertile ground could be COO. If you research well and know your targets, you may see an opportunity in a company that doesn’t have a COO and in your view would certainly benefit from having one. Once you find that scenario where you truely can see the value, you then can work on being the value add..the COO…. and work your network accordingly. There’s a load of difference in being a job applicant and job creator, and no CEO worth his/her salt will fault you for selling an idea and yourself.

  2. @Don: Nice discussion of the career “succession plan!” If you can’t get a CEO job, try COO first. And target, target, target! No one’s going to be impressed if you apply for the same job everyone else is… for no better reason than “because it’s there.” Motivation comes through to the interviewer when you pick the company and the job carefully and thoughtfully… Thanks for pointing out some of the subtleties, Don!

  3. Thanks. Here’s an example of some job creativity. Not mine. A friend’s. She was looking for a way out of the company she was with. And up. Out because working there was a death march & there was no up.
    Nothing dramatic in how she connected to what became the new company. She was recruited by a recruiter with a boutique shop, for a CIO position. She could do the CIO thing but it wasn’t really her passion. It was product development. But the company had a lot of other things going for it, so she gave it a go. She hit the real mark…rapport and respect from the hiring manager, Division CEO/President. Everything tracked but that one thing, and it was real…she wanted Product Development. Some noodling time went by and more discussions. To make a long story short, everyone got creative, & they re-worked the position to be CIO/VP of Product Dev.
    To my earlier point, people think companies are rational & orderly. The person who found COO appealing could assume if the company in their wisdom wanted a COO they’d have one. They may not simply because no one thought of it. It’s that simple sometimes. Also many managers feel as I do, that an organization reflects the talent within it, it’s not a org chart of boxes you fill in. If one adds an executive with a passion and talent for Ops, and the person is perceived as a staffing opportunity, then you adjust the org and make a place.
    As to being subtle, reading between the lines or falling out of the box doesn’t hurt when making a move at the exec level. As you mentioned just about everyone will be beating down the CEO door. But there’s another very useful piece of information about CEO openings…they aren’t just advertising for a CEO, they’re advertising a reorg. You can bet as sure as I’m writing this, appoint a new CEO and about 6 months later at the outside there’s going to be a reorg, whether the CEO comes from within or without. Reorgs spell chaos, and chaos can also spell opportunity. So yeah, let everyone chase the golden ring, which has a high probability of being filled from within anyway. Look past that to the other and possibly man unadvertise opportunities, at the C-Level, down to Director level. This is why God invented networks.
    Sorry for the length. But subtle rev 2. Like this person, they have learned how that game was being played. 85% close won’t get it, especially if it’s a very public search. If you had that network working, you can consider helping find the CEO that will be hired…remember that other aspect of networking? you give as well as you get? You just want that CEO to come out of your network..& unless you befriend cretins, if you succeed, this CEO will answer your calls & have an appreciation for your value

  4. Nick and Don:

    I just read an interesting article that discussed new research on effective networking at all levels for finding work:

    “Turns out, the dormant colleagues provided more novel insight more efficiently than the contemporaries. Even the long-lost contacts that participants were never close with proved more valuable than many people the subjects talked to often.”

    “I thought the dormant relationships would be helpful, but I didn’t think they would be this helpful,” said Daniel Levin, the researcher from Rutgers. “Basically, you get a lot of bang for the buck by reconnecting.”


  5. I think this is very true and hits familiar notes. Years ago when I 1st went to Outplacement a counselor with some years on him told us: “Don’t make assumptions about help. You may be surprised to find that those people you expect will help you the most (family, friends) will be the least helpful, and those you expect won’t help (casual colleagues, or even people you didn’t like and vs versa) will help you the most.”
    I found many instances where this was right on the money.
    I also read somewhere (but can’t exactly recall) that you’ll find that networking link that helped land you a job 2-3 steps away from you…from someone you don’t even know. In my case I got my 1st recruiting job via a referral from a total stranger 2 steps away.
    After I lost my 1st job, I realized like most people I’ve met had sinned. I’d not kept in touch with people. So I started rebuilding. I reached way back and found to my pleasure that people (dormant in the terms of the research paper) were very receptive, glad you reconnected and offered help.
    Remembering that counselor’s advise I reached out to a former boss’s boss who I thought didn’t like me & vs versa, for some leads, and he was really really helpful.
    As to why dormant people are very helpful or produce results. I think the people you are in touch with a lot, your active contacts, think they know you, or have perceptions about you that are reinforced frequently, and you also think they know you. As such you don’t prepare them to help you by prepping them..say on your game plan, how you want to be positioned, what your targets are etc. When you reach back to a dormant bring them up to speed, you have to do all of that. And they walk away with a much clearer idea of who you now are, and what you’re aiming for.

  6. @Steve Amoia: Good one, Steve! And the link to the actual MIT Sloan article is even better than the FINS article!

  7. Nick- Great article. We couldn’t agree more with what you are saying and wish more people had the courage to say that resumes are dead as a marketing tool for a jobseeker. Resumes are a list of past experiences, and in todays job market companies aren’t hiring the past they are hiring for the the future, they are hiring ideas and innovation.
    Our team at The One-Page Company ( has just recently launched The 1-Page Job Proposal App. giving job-seekers the power to market themselves once again by connecting the job-seekers abilities with the potential employers needs in a 1-Page document explaining why a company should hire them, as well as guides them in getting all the research they need to know about the target company. We would love to talk to you more Nick! Thank you for creating such wonderful posts!