Insights for navigating the labor markets for your CEO and board search
The following material is insider information based on 25+ years in industry and more than a decade as an executive advisor and coach. While we are not a recruiting agency, I’ve led and assisted in executive-level searches in previous roles. I’ve spoken to and coached thousands of executives who’ve shared their experiences with me as a CEO advisor and executive coach.
I believe what’s missing in the executive’s career plan is a leadership approach to the job search process. Placing your future in the hands of others is a risk and creates an opportunity cost when candidates are seeking new employment roles but are receiving no response from internal recruiters, retained recruiters, and other hiring decision-makers.
The motivation for preparing this article is to address what I believe is the confusion and mystery surrounding the sourcing, recruiting, selecting, and hiring process for corporate candidates. I’ve encountered thousands of executive candidates who struggle to successfully navigate the search process despite impeccable credentials and industry-leading experience.
The experience often produces the imposter syndrome response that results in a profound lack of certainty and confidence.
While the following candidate experiences are not necessarily nefarious on behalf of recruiters and hiring authorities, they often create a sense of opacity that’s difficult to understand when the selection process suddenly goes quiet.
I’ve prepared this short dossier to address some of the unspoken reasons executive candidates become the victims of ghosting in the job search process. Ghosting refers to the sudden interruption in an advertised job search process in which the candidate is invited into a selection process and after several interviews is left waiting for a decision or status update on the role. Additionally, I address the advertised job opportunity that may not exist.
The advertised opportunity may not exist
I suspect, although I cannot independently verify this, that up to 40% to 50% of advertised jobs are not legitimate opportunities.
A legitimate advertised job opportunity is based on a job description prepared by an organization with a budgeted headcount allocation and a component of the organization’s business plan. Legitimate opportunities also have an org chart allocation with a reporting leader.
Some advertised job opportunities exist to collect candidate data for the organization’s candidate database (meaning they like to have resumes on file), to communicate perceived market demand to the competition (aka. testing the waters), to procure the image that the organization is competitive (taking advantage of the system to practice discrimination and unfair play – sadly), and to advertise brand awareness.
In addition, some nefarious operators use the job posting to collect personal data and resell it to marketers.
My recommendation is to protect your time investment by contacting the employer directly to determine if the opportunity is legitimate or still available. Reputable organizations and recruiters will provide this information.
Here are six common signs the opportunity isn’t real:
- Contact(s) cannot be found in a Google search.
- Company information (or contact person) isn’t provided.
- Grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.
- Compensation is involved immediately.
- It sounds too good to be true.
Only some opportunities, including the above list, are fake. However, one of these signs is nearly always right. Especially if there is no branding or contacts to be found, then 99% of the time, there is no legitimate opportunity.
Your competition for CEO, board, and executive opportunities
When competing for an opportunity, your primary competitors are internal candidates, especially when the process is a component of a succession plan. The purpose of the search process in this scenario is to validate the candidate pool and legitimize the pre-determined selected candidate—an internal resource who has been groomed for the role.
You will not be apprised of the succession plan.
It is flattering to be invited into a search process by a third-party recruiter. Understand that the invitation may not produce a job offer. If you are currently in the search mode, keep your pipeline of conversations full to produce the best results.
Free consulting and market research
Organizations often launch a search process to gain access to competitive information in their market verticals. While confidentiality
and non-disclosure agreements are intended to protect the intellectual property of the candidate’s organization, the candidate will be questioned relating to the area of focus, which provides insider information about the competition or the market in general. This amounts to offering free consulting to organizations and sharing your intellectual property.
You are informed that you’re not the successful candidate, or you don’t hear back.
The executive team is conflicted -- "bait and switch"
When leadership teams cannot decide on a focus of direction for the role, the posting takes a back seat until the team can decide on what they want and
need. Hopefully this is decided before you, as the candidate, joins the organization. This is called the “bait and switch” strategy. This strategy (whether planned or unplanned) leads organizations to uncertainty. Imagine a turnaround opportunity presented as a growth opportunity six months into the onboarding. A CEO believing they were tasked to grow the company soon discovers the financials are in trouble has a much different task ahead of her than a growth opportunity because they require different strategies.
The CEO is accountable to the board of directors—and if the board is not clear on what the true challenges are, both the organization and the new CEO are not positioned for success.
The company has lost a key customer and the financial forecast is grim
The loss of a key customer will impact the hiring process because of lost revenues. Recruiters and hiring managers may be reluctant to share this sensitive information with candidates. The posting is then placed on hold, and you don’t hear back.
The lead recruiter or hiring manager became ill or experiences a personal emergency
When the lead recruiter or hiring manager experiences an illness or personal loss, often the posting will be placed on hold, especially because the expertise is highly specialized and
it requires the hiring manager’s input to evaluate the skills of candidates’ skills completely.
Internal and external recruiters will be reluctant to share this information with candidates.
In the end, you don’t hear back.
The hiring organization has ghosted the recruiter
The recruiter stops hearing back from their client company and despite following up with the organization repeatedly, the recruiter hears nothing. The recruiter will not disclose this lack of response from their client to the candidate.
You don’t hear back.
The recruiting firm has terminated the recruiter
When the retained recruiter leaves the organization, the recruiting firm should reassign the work to another recruiter. Surprisingly, sometimes this happens and sometimes not.
You don’t hear back.
Your current organization (or their customer) is a key client of the recruiting firm
You found the ideal job posting that fits your experience to a “T” and you’re convinced you are the best choice for the opportunity, but you are a high performing executive, and the recruiting firm does not want to be implicated in your departure because of their relationship (direct or indirect) with your employer.
Business ecosystems are intricately connected and news travels quickly. Organizations and their key operators and decision-makers are sensitive to relationships and perceived conflicts. They are also fearful of losing business from a revenue point of view.
If a recruiting firm and their principals could be perceived as luring a star performer away from one client for the benefit of another client to secure a commission (whether this is true or not), the firm will be reluctant to award an interview to the star performer. There are many relationships at stake, and no one wants fingers pointed toward them in this instance—even if the candidate (you) are the ideal candidate for the role.
You are not awarded an interview and you don’t hear back.
What do you do when you don't hear back after several interviews?
For many of the reasons listed above, it’s possible the recruiter is simply not in a position to contact you or to update you on the process. It is not intentional toward you as the candidate; it relates to a sensitive situation that the organization may be unable to disclose even to the recruiter. The recruiter is sensitive to this reality and is reluctant to breach any real or perceived confidentiality by inappropriately disclosing the hiatus to the client. Silence is safer than potentially breaching confidentiality.
You don’t hear back.
What constitutes an appropriate cadence of follow up with a recruiter?
Most job seekers and salespeople don’t take the time and effort to follow up with a prospective client after a process has gone quiet. In the days when I was recruiting, I was astonished at the number of candidates who did not follow up to learn the status of the process.
Opinions will vary on following up. It seems that North Americans are more active at following up than Europeans, at least in my own experience. Establishing a 7-10 business day cadence is appropriate for following up. We recommend following up with recruiters and hiring decision-makers until you get a go/no go response. Be polite but persistent and use various methods of following up, including email, phone. I don’t recommend following up by text because texting is more difficult to track (in my opinion).
In 2012 at an industry meeting, I met the divisional leader for an organization who needed career-related training for her group of career counselors. After hearing about Westgate, she asked if I would create customized content to help her employees deliver career management services to their clients who were new to Canada. They were teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who were seeking their first Canadian jobs.
I gave her my card and then did not hear back from her.
For more than eight weeks, I followed up almost every week to get the project started.
I continued to follow up with her and then I got an answer. This was her answer:
“Maureen thank you for your patience and for continuing to contact me about the assignment. I couldn’t answer your inquiries because we were in the middle of a major crisis here at the agency. Our entire board and staff were working to address a major issue that compromised our business. It is now addressed, and I’m looking forward to working with your firm.”
Be persistent, polite, and tenacious. In many instances, the lack of response has nothing to do with you personally. The lack of response is likely due to an issue that is out of your control. Continuing to follow up demonstrates your leadership and business acumen.
Don't rely exclusively on recruiters ...
While recruiters have their fingers on the pulse of the business community, they are not always able to offer you a position with a company you are targeting. Recruiters are also not able to be completely candid with you when an offer is not awarded despite an excellent interview process with the client company. These situations are out of your control, and it is best practice to move forward and keep your ideal company pipeline full of conversations with organizational leaders.
The number of candidates that recruiters are working with and managing at a single point is sometimes daunting and it is not possible for the recruiter to follow up with each candidate regularly.
Take a leadership approach with board or CEO search ...
Bypass job boards and recruiters and communicate directly with organizations that match your criteria. Referred to as the hidden job market, this approach offers a sense of control because you are leading the strategy. You, as the CEO candidate, are analogous to a product seeking a distribution channel to the marketplace and while recruiters are one distribution channel, there are other channels.
Certainly, recruiters are a valuable resource for sourcing candidates for the organization. Third-party recruiters can serve as a legitimate resource for the CEO candidate seeking a new opportunity, but the recruiter will place the client’ company’s needs before those of the candidate.
The following infographic illustrates the time allocation based on the efficacy of each strategy (in my opinion and experience). Avoiding the middleman in the search process can be a highly effective strategy when you understand your targeted market, industry, and organizations’ needs.
Westgate Executive Branding & Career Consulting Inc. offers bespoke leadership advisory services for individual clients and organizations.