Insights

How to Lose Jobs and Alienate Interviewers:

All the Ways Not to Impress an Executive Recruiter

How NOT to Impress

We’ve written advice on how best to prepare for, maximize, and manage meetings in a search process—whether that is with a search committee, a board of directors, via videoconference, or conference call. Generally, most successful senior executives are adept and experienced at the executive search process, but not all. And the exceptions have stood out vividly. Here are a few real-life examples of executive behaviors that have left this recruiter less than impressed.

Match your talk to your walk

How you conduct yourself during the search process speaks volumes about how you engage as a professional and business leader—an opportunity to “walk the walk” not just “talk the talk.”

A Chief Operating Officer may say that he is “highly analytical, data-centric, and impeccably precise,” but if he repeatedly asks for schedules and agendas to be re-sent; does not remember the names of people he has met with, product lines, or key business metrics; and (despite multiple corrections) continues to bafflingly mispronounce the company’s two-syllable name—your actions are speaking louder than your words.

Likewise, if you’re a Chief Information Officer who has never used FaceTime, WebEx, or Skype; or a Chief Communications Officer, and your resume is one solid block of text, with mismatched fonts; or if you’re a Chief Accounting Officer and can’t work out the calculations on a travel reimbursement form, you aren’t projecting the level of functional expertise commensurate with your profession.

Little things make a big impression

Details matter, and making sure the fine points and “little things” are covered and done correctly are essential for success—as a Chief Executive Officer candidate recently learned. Having spent days and weeks flawlessly preparing, she then called in panic, two hours before her final meeting with the board, after realizing she had mistakenly flown to the wrong city. She was not selected for the role.

We recognize that many employers no longer require regular formal business wear in the office. However, it was a clear sign that a candidate was not ready for primetime when he arrived to interview in a suit out of use for so long that dusty coat hanger creases were permanently etched into the shoulder blades.

My colleague Jane Howze describes a search committee search she ran a few years ago: “The committee was deadlocked between two outstanding candidates. What broke the deadlock was that one of the candidates answered questions with ‘what WE need to do,’ while the other candidate responded with ‘what YOU all should do.’”

Small stuff? “Absolutely,” Jane agrees, “but one candidate had already aligned herself with the organization.” She was offered the position.

Where was I? Oh, yes…

While the best leaders in their fields have a clear and tangible passion for their work, savvy executives also know how to mete out that passion in proportion to the receptiveness of their audience, and the purpose of a discussion. Do not frantically whiteboard ideas like Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” to explain your vision. Instead, be nimble and calibrate your message to your audience.

Relatedly, it’s always important to remember to stay on point—especially if you have a tendency to go off on a tangent. If the visual representation of your response to a simple question looks like this…

“I arrived at the firm to lead a major turnaround, revenue was down 20 percent.

  • I joined on the same day as its new General Counsel.
    • She had come to the firm from IBM.
      • My brother once worked for IBM.
        • He lives in Wyoming now.
          • I’m headed to Wyoming in two weeks for a vacation.
            • Three years ago, my wife and I vacationed in Paris.
              • It was a nightmare getting there.
                • Our original flight out was canceled…”
                  • Etc., etc., etc.

…then your ratio of digressions to relevant points needs inverting.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Scheduling meetings between hyper-busy executives is never easy. Most of us have calendars and schedules bursting at the seams. However, offering a single 45-minute window of availability during the entire month of June does not demonstrate priority, flexibility, or even your willingness to participate in the process.

Along the same lines, constantly remonstrating to a company that you are “extremely happy where I am,” that it would “take something absolutely extraordinary for me to leave,” or that you “could not imagine a better situation than I currently have,” rather than demonstrating why the organization needs you, will not motivate a company to take those “extraordinary” steps.

As we have said before, it is always crucial to “stick the landing.” Sending thoughtful thank you notes to follow up after meetings can be a differentiating touch. Just be sure you have correct email addresses, and that the note to Phil Jones, Firm X, Managing Partner doesn’t accidentally go to Phil Jones, Firm X, Database Intern.

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