How can a CEO stand out from the crowd when looking for a new job? (Or any high-level executive with a profit and loss responsibility, for that matter.) For a recruiter, the typical way to address this is to look at the CEO’s CV and check the company’s bottom line where the CEO works/has worked with profit and loss responsibility. Red numbers indicate poor performance, and good numbers a good performance. Or do they? The bottom line alone seldom tells the whole truth. For all you know, despite the bottom-line numbers being on the red when you happen to look at them, the CEO in question may have done an excellent job and just saved the company. Again, good numbers may have been good because of an unusually favourable market situation or the management team, not because of anything the CEO did. Who knows, the bottom-line numbers might have been even better without this CEO.

In any recruiting process, the hiring manager needs to know the story behind the bottom-line numbers, to check the CEO and his/her role, actions, input, and impact on the numbers before making up his/her mind. (Hiring manager is here a “synonym” for all persons taking part in the recruiting process, e.g., the Board.) The hiring manager must dig deeper. Only the CV is not enough. He/she must meet the CEO.

This said, before that happens, the decision to meet the CEO is often based on the CV. In a recruiting process, hiring managers usually start evaluating the candidates they may want to meet by looking at their CVs and cover letters.

The CV is an evidence-, and fact-based description of one’s career in chronological order. Sounds easy to do, but this is often easier said than done, and how well you succeed may determine your success in a recruiting project. The candidate may have just 30 seconds to make a positive impact from the moment the hiring manager first time lays his/her eyes on the CV. No impact or the wrong impact, and the hiring manager may stop reading the CV halfway, and that’s it. You are out! So, no pressure here, right?

Anyone can write a standard CV. All media, particularly the Internet (even Microsoft Word), has advice and recommendations on writing a CV. How good you feel this may be, never copy things as such. It is always better to write a personalized CV, to have a “style” of your own, if you like. At best, this may be one of the things that helps a CEO stand out from the crowd. Genuineness is always better than just cloning.

Candidates usually assume the readers of their CV know their employer company just based on the name. Well, they often don’t, so never forget saying a few words about the company. If you force the hiring manager to check from the Internet, he/she may instead just put your CV away. The same applies to the CEO title. The CEO is by default responsible for everything in a company (we all know that), but what does this mean when you break this down into skills, input, and actions done by the CEO, not to speak of his/her achievements. Don’t let the hiring manager second guess. Tell something.

During my career in executive search, I noticed that people assumed that the CV speaks for them. Well, rightly made it does, poorly made, perhaps not so much. If a CEO level CV has typo errors, is unclear or very insufficient, this is likely a showstopper. The same if it is six pages long. The ability to focus is essential.

CEOs may be excellent at writing business offers and in giving convincing sales presentations of their company’s products and services in front of large demanding audiences, but this is about their work. This is what CEOs are supposed to be good at, and this is what they know how to do. It is quite another thing when the product they are selling is themselves. Furthermore, few of us are CV wizards, so to get the best out of our CV, we may need some help from a “sparring partner”. Not asking for advice when you feel you may need some may worsen the chances in a recruiting process.

For a CEO in the process of a career move, a well-made CV is of utmost importance when wanting to stand out, likewise the cover letter. In the cover letter, you can present the person behind the CV. How you are like, your values, ambitions, goals, what challenges you are interested in, particularly why you are interested in this job/company. If you don’t talk about this anywhere, how can the hiring manager know? He/she has not met you yet! (Same thing if you just send your CV to a Headhunter you have never met.)  

A well-made CV + cover letter is like a prestigious CEO calling card, at best a game-changing door-opener to a job interview (or a Headhunter interview).

It does not matter how good you are if you are not invited to a job interview. It is only by being invited to an interview that one can enter the game. Only here one can truly make an impact, stand out from the crowd, become one of the finalists and eventually the winning candidate. I am not here going to tell experienced CEOs who may lead companies with maybe hundreds, even thousands of employees, how to prepare for, behave or what to say in an interview. They already know. Some reflections, though.

In a hiring interview, we sometimes feel so nervous that smoke almost comes out of the ears when trying to present ourselves most positively. This is human. This applies just as well to CEO level people. No matter how tough the CEO is, how big a company he/she may lead, and even though it may not show, they too can feel uncertain and be equally nervous, particularly when the stakes are high enough. And for a CEO in the process of a career change, they often are just that. Especially if a previously successful CEO is now unemployed, the question he/she may keep asking him/herself before a job interview is, “Is this the continuation of a successful career, or is this the beginning of the end of a successful career”? I do not feel a little nervousness in a job interview is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it is a good thing. It shows the hiring manager that you have feelings, are interested, and feel this job opportunity is important. So, don’t let this stress you.

Showing up too self-assured and overconfident may come out as bragging, arrogance, or even presenting one as an ice-cold candidate with no feelings or emotions for the situation or the job at hand. Perhaps not the best way to stand out from the crowd, at least if one wants to make a positive impression.

When a top CEO advances into the final interviews in a recruiting process, he/she knows that all the other finalists likely are top performers too, that they have good business acumen and that the differences between all finalists may be minor. So how can one stand out? Good chemistry with the hiring manager may help to find some common ground. How convincing and successful you are in conveying your business skills, strategic business views, goals, and overall potential to the hiring manager, particularly in relation to the hiring company, certainly has a significant impact, especially so when this corresponds to what the hiring company is looking for. Candidate assessment by psychological and skill tests is a factor that may differentiate you from your competitors to your advantage. Even after all this, it may still be a close race. There may still exist one other finalist competitor on the home stretch.

Then comes the references. Everything else being is “equal” between the finalist candidates, the references can sometimes decide who becomes the winning candidate. In CEO level jobs, good reference persons and good references are a must-have. It is certainly worth spending a thought or two at this when you start planning a career change. If one has no reference persons or do not want to give previous superiors and subordinates as reference persons, this is usually considered a loud warning signal. So, if you did not get along with your previous boss, or closest subordinate, this is the place to come clean, talk about it and tell why. It does not have to be a showstopper if there is a good reason for this.

Both from the hiring managers and candidates’ points of view, it is essential that the reference check is rightly done. One must know who to ask, what to ask and how to ask. Just asking, is this a good guy is not enough. Who asks is also important. The person doing the reference check must have a good understanding of everything relating to this recruiting.

It is seldom only one thing that decides who is to become the winning candidate. However, any of the factors above can become a game-changer, so it is worth paying attention to all aspects mentioned.

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