Ten Typical Mistakes Of Executive Job Seekers

Even senior-level executives with decades of experience and six-figure salary histories still make mistakes when it comes time to look for new positions. Over the years, as a recruiter and more recently as head of an executive-career-services firm, I keep seeing executive job seekers — especially those age 50 and older — commit the same blunders. Here are 10 of the most common:

1. Leaving the degree date off your resume.

About a third of resumes that I see don’t list degree dates. However, if you leave off the date of your degrees, along with skipping over the first 10 to 15 years of your career, an employer may assume you’re in your late 40s. If you’re invited to meet with the senior staff and they find out you’re 55 or 56, they are likely to think, “If this person deceived us on this, what else is he trying to hide?” Still others may assume you’re older than you really are — that you’re really 55 instead of 46.

Keep in mind, too, that executive recruiters are looking for reasons to throw out your resume, and this gives them one. In most cases, you should address the age issue up front. Yes, it will kick you out some of the time, but you would be eliminated anyway at those companies, so why even waste your time?

The exception to this rule applies if you are 54 and older. You can either provide or mask your age. If you are going to show your entire work history, there’s no reason not to state your degree date. However, if you are going to skip over the first 10 years of your career, don’t include the degree dates because a recruiter will ask what you did between graduation and your first job.

2. Not explaining your experience adequately.

Executive candidates cite employers on resumes without explaining what the companies do or how big they are. Job seekers also don’t describe their accomplishments specifically enough. For example, they fail to say that they increased sales by X% or cut expenses by X%.

3. Relying on recruiters to get you a job.

Recruiters fill only 15% of all white-collar jobs. This is an especially ineffective method of job hunting for executives 55 and older because there are fewer positions at this level and companies often are looking for younger individuals to fill them.

4. Seeking a full-time position if you’re in your 50s.

The reality is that job seekers in their 50s are unlikely to find full-time positions. A more effective strategy is to seek out contract or project opportunities. Plus, since there’s no job security these days, a contract opportunity is a better choice. Here’s why:

  • By taking a project job, you can go anywhere, and you aren’t restricted to looking for work in your geographic vicinity. You can negotiate your trips home. And it may turn out that you like a community and want to move there.
  • As a contractor, you don’t need to be on the permanent payroll or receive benefits, so you’re more attractive to employers.
  • You’re on an equal footing with your employer. You are both sizing each other up. If a contract doesn’t work after six months, your ego isn’t bruised. It isn’t as though you got fired; the contract ended. And if it isn’t a fit, you haven’t uprooted your family.
  • If the job is a great fit, a position may be created for you.

If I were job hunting today and in my 50s, I would spend only 15% of my time looking for a full-time position and 85% of my time searching for project opportunities.

5. Not conducting a targeted search.

Don’t blanket the world with your resume. Know your strengths and what you want to do. Then do research to identify a select number of companies that appear to have a need for your experience and expertise. Write each of them a tailored letter outlining what you can do for them and why they are among the few companies you want to work for.

Too many executives don’t want to do the research to find these firms, but it’s important. You also have to talk to people, or network, after doing the initial research. This may simply be a matter of putting out queries on discussion lists used by executives currently in transition.

6. Not recording a pleasant and professional voice-mail or answering-machine message.

You have only one opportunity to make a first impression, and everyone thinks that’s eyeball to eyeball, but it’s more likely to be on the phone. Be sure the tone and message on your answering machine is upbeat and professional. And make sure to have either a dedicated phone line for your search or train your kids and spouse to take messages professionally.

7. Saying you won’t relocate.

If a recruiter calls with an opportunity in another city, and you say up-front you can’t move there, that recruiter will make a note that you won’t relocate, and you won’t get other calls. Also, you never know: If you and the company like each other enough, they might find a position for you in a place where you do want to live.

For example, I know a human-resources director in Orinda, Calif., who interviewed and received an offer for a job in Chicago and then procrastinated about giving an answer. Finally, the employer told her, “We think you don’t want to move to Chicago,” and she agreed. So they offered her the same job in a town close to her home.

8. Forgetting the interview is never over.

When a recruiter says, “We’re wrapping up, but I have time for lunch,” you may feel you can let down your guard. Don’t. Over lunch or drinks, the recruiter might see or hear something that eliminates you from consideration.

9. Stopping the search before you receive a written offer.

Many candidates do this, and they lose their momentum. It may be that the interview goes well, and they feel confident they’ll receive an offer. They stop looking and networking, but never hear from the recruiter again. Keep applying for positions until you have an offer on paper.

10. Accepting a job that’s a poor match.

Don’t take a job where the chemistry, culture and philosophical fit aren’t right, because it won’t work. People often rationalize that even though they don’t like the chief financial officer, for example, everything will work out, but it’s the person who has been there longer who will win, not you.


By David B. Theobald

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