Help the headhunters – Leadership with Joseph Blass, founder and CEO of Not Actively Looking

3 December 2015

Joseph Blass, founder and CEO of Not Actively Looking, outlines the pragmatic steps chief executives can take to be prepared for their next high-profile position should an opportunity arise – even if they think they’re not really in the job market.

CEOs are typically diligent people who go the 'extra mile' to excel at what they do. They will fly around the world to attend important meetings, work long hours forfeiting weekends and holidays, and they'll be constantly thinking about their work, trying to achieve the best results for their shareholders. Senior executives would also probably list their career as the second-most important aspect of their lives after their family.

Combining these two factors - the general diligence of senior employees and the importance of their career to their lives - would lead one to expect that CEOs and executives in general should not leave any stone unturned in promoting their career, including preparing for their next career move.

However, preparing for one's next career move is not always so simple when one is in a job, especially when that job is the high-profile position of CEO.

Always be prepared

  • Before even discussing the difficulties that chief executive officers face in preparing their next career move, there are the two natural questions that one should ask:
  • Why should a CEO prepare for their next role if they are not actually looking to move?
  • Is it not enough for a CEO to be successful at their job in order to be offered the next job?

There are two reasons why a chief executive must be prepared for their next move even when they are not actively looking.

Firstly, no one stays in their current job forever and the next role is out there somewhere, but the CEO won't find it - it has to find the CEO. Assuming most executives are employed for much longer periods than they are unemployed, the chance that they'll find the perfect next job exactly when they are looking are slim. Search firms in particular are driven by client assignments and not by when candidates are looking for a job. Moreover, senior roles are rarely advertised, making a search by the candidate for a CEO role an almost impossible task. A company seeking a CEO needs to find the candidate - not the reverse.

Secondly, rarely does anyone have job security; certainly not the CEO. Any CEO appreciates that business risks, as well as different scenarios of a merger or acquisition, or even a personal fallout with the board, can put the chief executive position in jeopardy. A serious CEO needs to be prepared for this outcome.

But is being a good chief executive not enough for getting noticed by headhunters and being offered your next position? The answer is that while being good at your job is important, it is rarely enough for securing the next fantastic job offer. For that, before the potential candidate is even informed about the job's existence, someone will be putting together a longlist and then a shortlist of candidates. At this stage, it is not about succeeding at an interview; it is about getting on the longlist, and the more longlists the CEO is on, the higher the chance of the next career move being the progression they hoped for. Being good at one's current job is a very important component of getting on more of those lists, but the world is a big place, and there are many CEOs and other talented people out there. They need to make themselves, their achievements and aspirations known to the relevant people.

Now that we have established that a CEO needs to be prepared for the next career move even when not actively looking for the next job, let us review some of the opportunities and challenges they may face. Chief executives and all senior executives should spend time on professional networking. The likelihood is that their next job will come through their own personal or professional network. If done correctly, professional networking is a great opportunity to merge the interests of a current job with preparing for the next.

By sharing experiences of challenges faced and the approach in solving them, or by telling people about products or services introduced through their business, a CEO is promoting their company's interest with potential customers and vendors, but they are also promoting their own interests with those who may be potential future employers.

But there are challenges as well. CEOs do not want to make too many waves that can rightly or wrongly be seen as promoting themselves more than they are promoting their current company because that may be viewed as an indication of dissatisfaction in the current job - or worse, a lack of loyalty towards the current employer. CEOs, especially if happy in their current position, would not want to risk turning those views into a self-fulfilling prophecy that sours their relationship with the board and causes their potential dismissal.

Missing inaction

Here are some of the areas where a CEO needs to be careful in preparing for their next career move.

  • The CEO's activity on social media is followed closely by the board, peers and employees. Everyone can see when a CEO updates their profile with information that might wrongly be construed as trying to appeal to headhunters. Changes as small as that of a photo might draw unwanted scrutiny. What would one think if a chief executive changed their photo from an amateur one to a professionally taken picture? Or from a photo in sports gear while doing something like rock climbing to one in a suit sitting behind a desk? What might one think if a they seemed to be adding a few executive search consultants to their network? Might this raise suspicion? For this reason, some senior executive shy away completely from social media, while others use it solely as a marketing tool for their current business. Unlike a one-on-one meeting with a trusted friend or executive search consultant, on a publicly accessible professional network, you cannot disclose your true aspirations, which might differ from your current role. You cannot say you'd be open to relocate to another continent, prefer to work for a private-equity-backed business, unless their current company is one, or disclose current or desired remuneration.
  • There is a difference between discreetly making it known to a few trusted search firms that you would like to hear what is out there in the relevant job market and actually publicising to the world that you are looking for a job. Discreetly being open to listen to offers is diligent, open-minded and a worthwhile exercise, if only for the purpose of benchmarking one's current position with the alternatives, and this approach should be adopted by every senior executive. On the other hand, using an open public network to hint at openness to offers might compromise the CEO or even their current employer. In other words, CEOs need to find the balance between the need to discreetly promote themselves and the risk of this being seen negatively and misconstrued.
  • Meeting or corresponding with headhunters is time-consuming, which in itself is a problem for busy CEOs, especially those not actively looking for their next role. Moreover, the problem with corresponding with search consultants is that if they are not looking for someone with your skills right now, then they have an understandable problem in storing and/or retrieving your data at a later stage when a relevant opportunity might emerge. Since executives do not have access to the data stored in the database of each and every search firm, the data ages and quickly becomes irrelevant. Busy CEOs can't be expected to keep sending their CV around to five or ten search firms every few months just to keep the data fresh.

Acting CE-go

So, while doing a good job in their current role and networking in their sector in a way that cannot be viewed as overly self-promoting, can CEOs make sure that their achievements and aspiration are well known to a wider community of potential headhunters? In other words, how can CEOs make sure they are being considered for as many relevant longlists as possible without wasting their valuable time and, more importantly, without raising alarm bells with their current employer that they are perhaps not focused on their current job or are in any way disloyal?

One solution is a new platform that enables executives to stay in touch with and be found by a select group of search firms of their choice. Called, it enables executives to create a confidential profile and decide which firms can view it.

Executives can fill in their profile with the knowledge that their data can only be viewed by the search firms specifically of their choice. Executives will naturally pick those search firms specialising in their sector. Moreover, the site's search tool enables search firms to find executives based on their interests, experience and key achievements, as well as on their sector, roles or aspired remuneration. CEOs can update a CV as many times as necessary and will be found by multiple search firms based on the most recently updated profile.

The way to make it onto that longlist on assignments placed with search firms is to have a true and discreet profile, including one's aspirations and key achievements, in front of all relevant search firms even, perhaps especially, when you are not actively looking. Chances are that if you wait until you need to move, you may be forced to accept a less-than-ideal position.

Help the headhunters find you and you will be helping yourself.

Joseph Blass is founder and CEO of Not Actively Looking.