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As I entered the Executive Search industry in 1984, all work was manual, and for many, the database was an excel spreadsheet. Nowadays, it feels like living in a recruiters Disneyland, where you can go shop for any “recruiting tool” you can wish for. So, has this changed how Executive Search professionals work? The answer is a big YES, but there are also things that have NOT changed that much. Let´s start with some YES examples.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
The Nowadays Recruiting Toolbox
All Executive Search Firms have benefitted from the new technology. The new tools in their working toolbox have enabled developing and improving the search process for the better, from A-to Z. The steps in the search process are the same, but every piece of work done during every step has benefitted. Talent sourcing and screening is more efficient. Knowledge Management, processing and analysing information is more efficient. We can faster produce better reports and business intelligence. By increasing all over efficiency, we can reduce time to hire, to mention some examples.
The Competition - The competition in Executive Search is much fiercer. There are more competitors in the market, and ever more new search companies see the light of day. Today, also, many Companies have in-house Talent Acquisition Experts that compete with the Search Industry. Today, some Search Firms also search for lower lever people, even entry-level and advertise; some even have Job Boards. There exist Search Firms whose primary Search strategy is called LinkedIn, which is a quite different approach compared to senior executive management level search. This is no value judgement for or against neither approach. Different kinds of “businesses” demand different measures. The threshold for entering the Search Industry is nowadays lower due to the technology available, and therefore there also exist Search Firms that are not in everyone’s best interest. All this has made what Executive Search “means” more diffuse in the public eye.
Outsourcing – Outsourcing is popular, also in the Executive Search industry. Some have outsourced their research, others their marketing, business development actions, reference checks. Some even more. Many have done all this simultaneously. The more you outsource, the greater the risk that you one day, by mistake, outsource the very thing that once made you good. If I were a Client, I would always check which parts of the search process a Search Firm has outsourced. Worst scenario, the very expertise the Client is looking for may have been outsourced, which might mean you are now talking to the wrong person. Talking face to face with the person doing the job always feels better in my mind. That said, outsourcing is not by definition a bad thing or wrong. Rightly done, outsourcing may be an excellent business decision. Many Executive Search Firms have outsourced some activity and explicitly, therefore, can offer excellent high-quality service.
WHAT HAS NOT CHANGED?
The Business Principles – The underlying business principles of the Executive Search Industry and the framework that guided our thinking and our actions in the past are still the same. The business focus is to always act in the best interests of both the Client and the Candidate. The starting point and the only acceptable outcome for any Search Assignment must be success. In everything we do, we do our best, we maintain high quality, high ethical standards, and high confidentiality. We are always in compliance with the data privacy regulations, laws, local habits in the country, and the market where we operate.
The Business Focus - There must exist strategic clarity. There must be a clear understanding of who the Search Firm’s Clients and Candidates are. Are we in the middle-, executive management, CEO, board director-level business or perhaps in lower-level business? Are we generalists or functional or industry experts? The answers directly affect the Search Firm’s very business fundamentals, what kind of professional expertise and experience the search consultant/researcher must have for the job, how the job is done. No one is a top expert in everything. You must choose the business you operate in. Technology has not changed this aspect.
The Human Factor – Those who expect technology to do all their work for them may be up for a surprise. Despite all technology out there, the human factor is still as crucial as ever. Top search professionals must still have an in-depth knowledge of the business world and be able to advise the Client on business issues. Any Search Firm worth its salt still needs top-talented and highly skilled people. It is still the person behind the steering wheel that drives the car. No Formula 1 competition has ever been won by the car, regardless of how advanced it is. It is the driver (and his/her support team) that makes the difference. In Executive Search, it is the search consultant/researcher that make the difference.
Furthermore, in my mind, you can only develop into a top search professional and become an expert in human nature and the business world by interacting eye to eye with top-level business leaders. Meeting them, talking to them, listening to them, learning from them. This will not happen by, e.g., only looking at candidate lists produced by AI. I also believe the Client prefers a “human” counterpart – someone with outstanding business acumen. The Client is looking for a Strategic Business Partner and a good and trustworthy person to person relationship. A person with whom he can confidentially spar both his/her business and private thoughts. The Search Consultant genuinely cares for the Client; technology seldom does.
Confidentiality - When I started my career, Executive Search was almost exclusively used to recruit middle or executive level management, CEO’s, and board directors, with emphasis on senior executive management. The Search process was always done in complete secrecy. For Top End Executive Search Firms specialising in senior executive management Executive Search, this is, also nowadays standard practice.
These were just some reflections that came into my mind. There is more, but it is only so much you can talk about in an short article. If you want to know more, just read my book, and you will learn everything there is to know about Executive Search :-)
I have lately seen people commenting on and questioning humour in various situations, so I thought I too reflect a little on this subject. I feel there are a place and time for everything. This also concerns humour. In most situations, humour is ok, but in some not - anyone who has got a good upbringing at home knows without saying when humour is improper. If someone sitting down at the coffee table at work tells that my dog died last night, my phone was stolen or I was fired yesterday, everyone knows that this is not a situation where you start telling jokes.
Definition and purpose of humour (my definition):
I feel good humour is warm, goodhearted, funny, and respectful. The goal is to generate a "feel good" mood for other people (and yourself), and without intentionally offending or hurting anyone.
If you ask people what good humour is, the beauty is always in the eyes of the beholder. But if you follow my definition of humour above and understand what good behaviour means, I think you manage well in most situations. (Unfortunately, there exist also people practising bad, tasteless, and offending humour. Ignore them, and they will stop or walk away.)
Good humour, defined as above, is, in my mind, one of the most important "skills" we can have. Humour helps us through many difficult and challenging situations in our life, both at work and in our private life.
Personally, many of my best memories from work relate to situations where good humour has been strongly present. And when I recall the many good lifelong friends and buddies, I have got over the years from various workplaces, I can only say that here humour has had a tremendous impact. We would today hardly have much contact with each other if we at work only had sat with a wrinkled forehead and solemn mind only wandering about dead serious work issues from dawn to dust.
In my first job, I stayed for seven years, in the second 11 years, in the third 22 years. I am proud of my career and what I achieved. When I look back, what do you think I remember? Sure, I remember my job was both motivating and rewarding, how I conquered many challenges and made many victories. But what I count as my most significant memory is, I remember how darn fun I had working together with my all-fantastic work colleagues.
Of my last workplace, I can say: Not a day passed by without hearing laughter from some room. This was true for all the 22 years I worked there. We had good days, we had bad days, we had stormy days – but we never had a day without laughter. There is no law saying that demanding, challenging, sometimes very hard work is not allowed to be fun. If you take away the word "fun" from the equation, what remains left is rather boring, don't you think? Everything said, I feel good humour at work is an advantage and a benefit.
I would even argue that good humour in a company, is a strategic competitive advantage compared to workplaces that do not have humour.
Sometimes humour is born out of situations, that at the moment are anything but funny, but, which, besides giving you a good teaching, also, later, may give you many good laughs.
Three examples from my career:
As a young consultant, I was once with an older colleague of mine, on one of my very first sales visits to a customer. We were trying to sell a service product to the sales director of a small company. We decided to give a little lower price because we thought a small company could not afford us otherwise. However, when we arrived, we found out that a big multi-billion company had just bought the company we were visiting and that the board of the buyer company was on the premises, checking out what they had bought. The board wanted to meet us too. When they asked for our price, for some inconceivable reason, I started thinking that a big company has a lot of money, and I felt I needed to show that good quality costs more. So, I gave them a price that was double our standard price. There was a terrible silence in the room.
I felt, my forehead sweating, that everyone was looking at me with big eyes, including my colleague. Then the board chairman said, that is a relatively high price, how do you justify it. My problem was that there was no way I could do it. I had drawn the price from the hat, so to say. But I had to say something, so I started talking. The little processor that I also call my brain only had room for five words simultaneously. I did not have a clue, as to what to say when I had completed the last word. I thought I was going to faint. However, somehow, after a deep breath, five new words always appeared from somewhere into my processor. I knew that this was not going to be the best performance of my life for sure. I was certain no one understood anything (my colleague confirmed afterwards that he did not understand anything either). I think it was only the board members' excellent upbringing and the fact that they felt sorry for a young unexperienced consultant that stopped them from giving me the lesson of my life. As you can imagine, we did not get any sales that day, but we survived – and I got good teaching of how one should not do on a sales call.
And my colleague kept laughing in the car with tears in his eyes all the way back to work. And when my other colleagues at work heard of what I had done, they laughed. Finally, after I had recovered from the shock, I too laughed, and I have also laughed many times later, to what happened.
Another story. I was visiting a client with a colleague of mine. We were checking a group of potential candidates in a recruiting situation, among them a person we both knew well. Then the client said, “You both know this person. Could he suit this position?” I can still remember how we answered. We answered simultaneously. I said NO, and my colleague said YES. My colleague and I looked at each other. I believe both were thinking, do you perhaps want to continue from here? Then the client said, well, how is it, YES or NO? It turned out that my colleague had some information about this person that I did not know, which explained our difference of opinion, so it was not such a big disaster after all. But we learned that simultaneous NO and YES answers in a customer meeting are perhaps not to an advantage. I think we have had a few good laughs about this experience too.
Then the last example is about how you can come out of an awkward situation as a winner. I visited the daughter company of a big international multi-billion company to report what I had done. The Finnish CEO, the Director of Europe, and the company's global HR-director were present at the meeting. I started my presentation by walking to the whiteboard, took a marker pen in my hand and started writing text on the whiteboard. Suddenly I realised that I had an ordinary marker pen in my hand, not a whiteboard pen, which meant that the text I had written on the whiteboard was not going to be erased anytime soon, if ever. Everyone else noticed this too. I can tell you it was embarrassing. I stood right in front of the coffee thermos on the table, seeing that all the coffee cups were empty. To get out of the situation, I asked if I could fill them up. I started pouring, but the thermos was unfamiliar and a little unbalanced, so when I poured, the coffee came out with force, not going into the cup, but over the cup and straight on the white tablecloth. I could have died right there. But everyone started laughing. They knew what I was experiencing.
Finally, I got to give my report, and with that, they were all extraordinarily satisfied. I continued to work with this client for many years, and we later had many good laughs together about what happened to me that day. So did my colleagues when I told them about what had happened.
Even though all the situations I talked about here were embarrassing and should never have happened, they have also given many good laughs afterwards. These three short stories illustrate how humour can mend difficult and painful experiences and turn them into" funny" memories that make you laugh.
I read somewhere that someone was asking if humour is ok in an interview situation. I feel it is perfectly ok. I have been present in thousands of interviews, and I cannot remember even one, where we did not have a few laughs or at least a few smiles. A smile does not cost anything. When you smile, others smile back. I believe a friendly smile always has the potential can create a good atmosphere, while a completely humourless dead solemn approach may do just the opposite.
At last, I like to repeat what I said earlier:
I would even argue that good humour in a company, is a strategic competitive advantage compared to workplaces that do not have humour.
It is challenging enough to land a "good" new job in normal circumstances, let alone when COVID-19 is messing things up. Luckily, we can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel. Most have applied for a job, taken part in interviews, and got a job, so landing a new job should be a piece of cake. But, when you are neck-deep in an active career change process, the world suddenly looks different, things are no more as clear as they seemed a moment ago. Few of us knows everything about recruiting and job search, and if years have passed since the last time we changed jobs, our job searching skills may have got rusty. Where can we find the means and advice to help us get where we want?
There is no shortage of information, advice, or advisors. The Internet and various media are full of them. Many also offer personal consultation help. All this is good. We are not all top-level job search or interview professionals, or CV writing masters, and it is always worthwhile sparring with and listening to others. Most of the "advisors", (of which I am one) genuinely strive to help and be useful, but that said, we should always exercise caution. You should not headlong follow every advice you hear or see. Even all the "good advice" does not suit everyone, and not all advice is good advice. You must not be a top recruiting expert to separate the wheat from the chaff. Check out "the advisor". Does the advisor look like knowing what he/she is talking about and does his/her motives feel sound? Already common sense takes you a long way here.
Most projects require an action plan before starting. This also applies to job search. A job search process contains numerous factors that can either enable or hinder a career move. Many may go unnoticed, simply because one is not aware of their importance or even existence. A job search action plan is a detailed written to-do list that contains all the dos and don'ts, including milestones and checkboxes, and helps to remember, pay attention to, and do things right. When you first make an action plan, it is also much easier to look for information and advice, because now you have a better understanding of where you might need help.
A job search can be very time consuming and challenging, with numerous interviews and "second places". During my career, I took part in over 1 000 executive search assignments. Very often there were four excellent finalist candidates on the home stretch. Whom all performed well in the finalist interview, so their interview performance did not impact the winning candidate's choice. In practice, only one candidate could be selected, though. Like in 100 meters running final, the difference between the winner and the second position was hair thin. In my mind, reaching the finalist interviews is a good performance and indicates your professional expertise is appreciated – reaching the second position is an outstanding performance, even though it might not feel like it at the moment. A well-made action plan can give you the comfort of knowing you did your best. Knowing this, you do not perhaps spend too much time grieving about your second position, because, deep inside, you know you performed well and can faster move on to the next competition. You cannot win all competitions, but you can one day be the winner if you get to the finals often enough. It might just be that it is your action plan that gets you to interviews and finals.
Many write good CVs and cover letters. People usually inform some headhunters that they are available and start following "open job" advertisements in newspapers, social media etc. And then, if nothing happens, they wait. I feel this is leaving what happens to chance. If no-one "comes knocking at your door" you must be active and go knocking on doors yourself. A well-made action plan forces you to look at things thoroughly, from many perspectives and gives information, ideas, opportunities, spin-offs you otherwise might miss. A good action plan also tells which doors to knock on and how.
If you never get to a final or even interview or always get to the final, but never win, an action plan helps to analyse why so? Is there perhaps something I do wrong, where can I improve? E.g.:
We all have question marks, and there can be many. A well-made action plan helps to find the right questions/answers, correct mistakes and remove obstacles in a challenging job search process.
Lastly, a piece of advice. Do not pay much attention to what other people think of your career moves or what kind of career moves others make. We all have our starting point and dreams, so everyone's motives are different.
There are as many motives as people, and they are all "equally good". No matter what you do, there is always someone who does not approve. Forget these people and focus on the very person whose career dreams are important for you – yourself. When you are happy with your life, you have a better chance of making those around you happy.
You do not have to be Albert Einstein to understand the interdependence between a good customer service and good customer experience. Good customer experiences are a must-have for a company aspiring for a good reputation and long-term profitability. Bad customer experiences tend to give you the opposite.
Creating good customer experiences is equally important in any industry, be it manufacturing, trade or service, for big companies and small companies alike.
Yet it is incredible how often companies fail to understand the importance of good customer experience and how bad customer service impact on the customer experience, and especially in the long term, on the reputation, image and eventually profitability.
There is a lot of marketing lip-service about how well we treat our customers and how we deliver as promised, but the reality sometimes looks very different.
Why I wrote this in the first place is that I have recently had several bad customer experiences. And unexpectedly, from companies, I had considered being "good companies". All companies I would most warmly have recommended to anyone before this. Now, I don't know anymore. All have agreed to provide a specific service to me. And then nothing! I have contacted them to remind them of this, and yet I am still waiting. With mixed feelings, (because I know these days COVID-19 has the potential to create problems for companies), I try to give these "good" companies the benefit of the doubt – so I am still giving them more time to deliver. However, if I have to wait much longer, they will eventually in my mind turn into "bad" companies. If that happens, I will not use them or recommend them to anyone anymore. Instead, I will caution people from interacting with them. Bad customer experiences always have consequences.
Due to my long experience in the Executive Search industry, I also look at this from a recruiting service provider perspective. Taking part in a recruiting process as a candidate is the most personal and sensitive experience. You take part in perhaps many interviews, where you try your best to give a good impression – checked, monitored, tested by several people, who evaluate if you have got what it takes and if you fit their expectations. It is not at all irrelevant how you feel treated during this process.
Becoming the winning candidate in a recruiting process gives a positive customer experience to anyone. But, what about the other finalists, who also did their best, wanted the job but did not make it. What about the candidates who did not even make it to the final. Everyone understands that this is a "competition" and that there can only be one winning candidate. Still, it is natural to feel disappointed not getting something you maybe wanted much. Therefore, it is essential to pay attention to them too getting a good customer experience. It is not as difficult as it may sound. Three things. Firstly: I believe everyone appreciates to be notified soonest possible in the recruiting process when a decision regarding them has been made, one way or another. At best, by phoning them in person, giving them a chance to discuss the matter shortly. Secondly: You can always choose your words, but people expect you to tell the truth behind your decision. Thirdly: No one understands if all you get is a letter three months later, informing you that "Sorry, we chose a better candidate. Thanks and have a good day." Unfortunately, not a very uncommon practice.
We all make mistakes. I too, have made my share of mistakes in my time. If you make a mistake, simply put - if you mess things up, what you do is you call the other party concerned immediately and inform about this. Besides being the only right thing to do, this is how you build trust. This is also called good customer service. Never hold back or try to hide this kind of information. Your "customer" may not like what he/she hears, but I can promise your "customer" appreciates you contacting him/her and usually gives you a second chance without any hard feelings. And then, when you make everything right again, you build even more trust. It is in stormy waters that we are truly tested.
I advise everyone to pay attention to their customer experience when interacting with companies and people in general. Some are in it just for money and fame and could not care less about you. And never land a job in a company mistreating you in the recruiting process. Your customer experience is an indication of how they appreciate you – or do not. Of how they appreciate their employees – or do not.
Sometimes people wonder if having references is a must-have. Having no references may not always be a deal-breaker. It is possible to land a job on your own. But having references is always an asset. Fact is, nowadays asking the candidate for references in a recruiting process is standard practice. If your finalist competitor in the recruiting process has good references and you do not have any references at all, which candidate would you choose, if you were the hiring manager? A good reference can be a positive deal-breaker – in any job, on any level. So, from this point of view having some reference persons on your list is most recommendable.
I believe that anyone intuitively understands the purpose of a reference check, but people may still sometimes feel a little uneasy when asked for references, especially if this is the first time. When getting the question: “Do you have any references?" for the first time, all kinds of thoughts may spin around in our head simply because we do not perhaps fully understand what a reference check means. Why do they want to check me out? Don’t they believe what I tell them? Do they think I have hidden secrets? I did not get along with my previous boss. What if he badmouths me? Can I give him as a reference? I once made a mistake in my previous work. What if this comes up? I am not sure I know what my colleagues think of me. And so on.
I believe most have a pretty good understanding of what people think about them, so I would not worry too much about what people will say. I have done hundreds of reference checks, and I have never talked to anyone who deliberately badmouthed a candidate. I feel people try to answer the reference questions to the best of their ability, honestly and with no bad intentions. In the absolute majority of the reference checks I have made the reference statements tend to reflect and strengthen the understanding and opinion we already have of the candidate. So, if you did not get along with your previous boss, or if you once made a mistake, do not feel too strongly about this. If this is the case, put the issue on the table, say so to the hiring manager in the recruiting process. We have all met persons we do not get along with, and we all make mistakes, so this is not necessarily any deal-breaker.
Also, things are not black and white. We may honestly feel we have done well, while our boss may have a slightly different view, or we may feel we have just done our job, while our boss and all our colleagues think we are super-good.
Why a reference check in the first place?
In a reference check, the hiring manager asks questions about the candidate from the referee because he/she wants to get a more detailed understanding of the candidate. The hiring manager may have met the candidate only for, e.g. two or three 1,5-hour interviews. Hence, it is quite understandable that he/she, on top of this, also wants to discuss with a few reference persons who have known the candidate for a longer time. To get more acquainted with the candidate. If the hiring manager asks for your permission to call your reference persons, he/she already feels that you are a good candidate and a potential winning candidate. Remember this.
Even though the ways and habits may differ in different countries, the reason for and the purpose of doing a reference check is the same everywhere. Simply put. We want to check if this is the right person for the job. Can he/she do the job? Does he/she fit into our company, our people, our ways and habits, our customers? What is his/her professional expertise like? If a manager level job – what is his/her management style, leadership style like. Are there any risks?
Important note: It is essential to understand that the questions asked are not only about checking if we are the right person for the job. Equally important, it is about checking if this is the right job, the right company, the right team or e.g. the right company culture for us. It is not a very good idea to land a job in a company where we do not fit in. I have said in a previous article I wrote some time ago that we are like a piece of a puzzle. In some places, we fit perfectly, in some other places not at all. So, even if the reference check may lead to you not getting the job, this may be in your best interest, even if it might not feel that way at the moment.
The most important thing
A reference check is only done with the prior explicit permission of the candidate in question, never without permission. Doing a reference check is a confidential discussion and is always made with the best interest of both parties in mind. A reference should support both parties when making an employment agreement. A reference statement is always confidential and is only given to the hiring manager. Sometimes there can be a recruiting service provider doing the reference check.
When thinking about whom to give as a referee, keep in mind, that a reference provided by the direct superior, a colleague or subordinate, has perhaps more weight than a reference given by someone interacting with the reference person only occasionally or from a distance. The further away from your job, the referee is, the less input this person can give of your job performance. The nature of the reference discussion is determined by what kind of relation the reference person and the referee have. Is the referee a present or previous employer/ superior/colleague/friend or a customer or a business acquaintance? So, one obviously must customise the line and tone of questioning according to the relationship in question.
The reference questions
It is only natural that a reference discussion includes talking about what we are like, about our strengths and weaknesses, what we are good at in our job, what perhaps not, about our achievements and maybe our “failures” too (if there are any). If I would give a list of referees, previous superiors, colleagues, customers, candidates I have worked with over the years, I am positive they would tell a lot of good things about me. However, knowing myself, I am also sure they would comment on some of my weaknesses or bad habits too. I do not expect my referees just to praise how good I am at everything I do; neither would I want them to do so. I expect them to describe me as they see me. It is in my best interest that they do so. When the hiring company knows me “in and out”, my pros and cons, and if I become the winning candidate, they can better plan my onboarding and maybe even customise the job description to fit me more accurately.
Anyone who wants to explore what kind of questions are typically asked in a reference check can have a look on the Internet. You can find numerous articles, and suggestions of reference check questions. What to ask in a reference check. The 50 most asked questions in a reference check. What not to ask in a reference check. It is always good to get perspective, but do not take everything you find for granted. It can be anybody’s opinion.
When needed, we check the facts about the candidate. Fact-checking is such a diverse subject that it would require a long article of its own if we want to go into the details, so I here only shortly comment on this aspect.
The need for fact-checking varies much between countries. Finland, where I have lived and worked all my life, is a very transparent country. It is of no avail to any Candidate to give inaccurate facts about his/her education, career history or income because most of this information is publicly available and is rather easy to check by almost anyone.
In many other countries this kind of information may not be publicly available and therefore it is essential here to pay more attention to check these facts. In some countries, this may be very challenging and time-consuming indeed. Comparing countries like, e.g. Finland, Sweden, USA, Russia, China, Japan, Saudi-Arabia, India, everyone understands that the need for and how to do the fact-checking varies.
This is a good place to remind everyone about a critical point. Always stick to the facts. You can always choose your words and how you tell your story in a recruiting process, but never alter the facts. If you lie about something, no matter how “little” and get caught, it has the potential of destroying your career.
Regardless of country or culture, there also exist jobs, where fact-checking always is a must-have, e.g. for national security reasons. So, fact-checking can also be an integral part of the reference check discussions.
There are different countries, diverse cultures, and consequently also diverse ways. How the reference check is made and by whom varies because the ways, values and habits are different in different countries. The legislation is different. What is allowed in one country may not be allowed in another country, and vice versa. What is proper to ask in one country may not be appropriate in another country. How references are checked and how they are used in recruiting processes vary from company to company in the same country, and even down to the very persons doing the reference check. So there exist no “one only way” to do a reference check. That said, a reference check is always a very sensitive task and who asks, what to ask and how to ask is important, and to know how to do this “right” is equally important everywhere.
The Candidate’s point of view
I also advise all candidates to make their reference check of their potential future employer company. Internet is a good place to start, but there are also usually business magazines you can study. If the company has web shop activities, check the customer experiences and ratings. Check the company values. Do they coincide with your values? Check the finances. Try to check the company’s “future”. Will it still be there after three years. Some companies have excellent marketing and excellent employer branding. They might even be on “the most popular employer of the year-lists”, but the reality can be very different, revealing, in fact, a company that is mistreating its employees. As the saying goes, “Not all that glitters is gold”.
Try to find as detailed information as you can. If possible, also of the department, the function, the team, especially the superior, you are interested in. If your potential future boss has been in this position for, e.g. seven years already, is there any risk, he/she moves on shortly after you start? If you like this person, and he/she is one of the very reasons you are interested in the job, you need to try to check this out somehow. This is not a theoretical scenario. I have met persons, whose boss changed employer shortly after they came aboard, and then the new boss was not anymore to their liking and vice versa.
You can, e.g. on LinkedIn, try to find previous employees you can confidentially talk to and ask what kind of working place the company is. But remember, when doing your check, just as there are no perfect persons, there are no ideal companies either, so use your common sense when evaluating what you find. However, if you find too many “warning lights” in a company, maybe it is worth thinking twice about going there.
You can easily write ten pages about reference checking if you want to go into details. I know because I have done it elsewhere, but here, in this blog article, my purpose was only to highlight some basic facts relating to reference checks in recruiting. I hope this gives the reader some insight into the subject.
At least in an executive-level job hire checking the references should be part of any company’s best practice, a must-have. (Why not in any job, for that matter.) If I would apply for an executive-level job and no one would be interested in checking my references I would start to wonder if there was anything wrong with this company - because checking my references is also in my best interest. Do they hire all their people without checking any references, would be my next thought. And this would for me be a big red warning light.
Due to my background, people keep asking me about what I feel a cover letter and a CV should be like, so here some words on the subject. In my mind, there exists no one and only right way to write a cover letter or a CV. There likely are as many opinions about this as there are persons on this planet. Also, there are sometimes differences between different cultures, even between companies. Here the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
People like to customise their cover letters and CVs according to what they feel is in their best interest. And why not! A cover letter and CV should reflect the person they tell about. So also, here, keep in mind that this is only my opinion. Do pay attention to what others are saying, you might learn something, but always make up your own mind about what you feel is right.
First a general comment
Some people advise putting your focus on the CV and feel the cover letter is not needed at all. I beg to disagree strongly. In my mind, the cover letter and the CV are two very different things, both are important, and both are a must-have, almost like the two sides of a coin. Without both sides, you have no coin.
The Cover Letter
When you are young and do not yet have a “career”, no problem, put your best effort in the cover letter. A well-made cover letter can tell a lot about your potential.
In the cover letter, you should try to add a personal touch. Here the focus is on you as a person and tells about the person behind the CV. At best, you can create a “personal brand” that makes you stand out. E.g.:
A CV is a pretty clear-cut document. A CV is a summary of your professional career - hard facts presented clearly and logically.
Don’t make this too complicated. Ask yourself, what would you like to know about a Candidate if you were the Head Hunter or a hiring manager? There is nothing wrong with presenting yourself and your career in a favourable light but don’t write a CV describing a superman, just an accurate summary of yourself. Superman is seldom the best choice for any job. As far as the layout is concerned, there are hundreds of examples on the Internet. Study them for perspective, then choose a layout you feel fits you best.
The header list of a CV is simple:
Career history, (list your work history in chronological order.)
Salary & benefits & notice period
Memberships, positions of trust
Don’t just copy your employer’s standard job description. Personalise and customise. Describe your area of responsibility in a way that gives the reader an adequate and diverse understanding of what you do. Include volumes and numbers, also the number of subordinates (if you have any) who report to you. Also, e.g. your achievements, value-added product or technology knowledge, market knowledge, special expertise, use of time. Important: Never only say you always reach your budgets and goals and that you are darn good in your job. Always give evidence-based examples, hard facts and figures, of what you have done.
You could also consider commenting on your career moves very shortly, i.e. why you left the previous company and why you landed the next job. Any interviewer will ask you about this for sure. Having this information in your CV informs the interviewer of this already in advance and eliminates any prior wrong assumptions. Not a must-have, though.
Always remember to say a few words about your employers. Don’t assume everyone knows who they are. Even if people may know a famous brand does not mean they know the metrics of the company.
Important - Don’t leave any gaps. Also, if you are unemployed, say so now in the CV. This is no deal-breaker. If you “hide this” and only reveal it in the interview, it might be. “What else did you not tell about” someone might think.
Include your hobbies and positions of trust. Sometimes they may have a positive impact. A CV should preferably be two, max three pages long. Focus. Photo or not? No deal-breaker neither way. If you do include a photo, please not one with you in a pub or on the beach.
Some general advice:
Finally, if this is the first time you are writing a cover letter and CV and you do not quite know how to do it, or if you just are not good at expressing yourself in writing, no problem. Ask someone to help you. There is nothing wrong asking for advice and second opinions. During my time as Head Hunter I must have asked thousands of people for all kinds of advice over the years. When there was something I did not quite understand or know how to do, I found someone who did know, then contacted this person and asked him/her for advice.
Important: The above said, do not let other people write your cover letter and CV. Ask all the advice you want but do the writing yourself. Otherwise chances are that the person in the cover letter and CV is not you.
If you are interested in Executive Search, I can from experience and the bottom of my heart say: There is no more interesting, educational, fascinating, challenging and rewarding work on this planet. Five years in the Search Industry is like five years in a top-notch business school. And from here onwards, it only gets better. When you get more experience, also the challenge will grow, slowly but surely. At best, a career as a Head Hunter can carry you all through life. My career lasted over 30 years, and I have not regretted a single day.
For a Head Hunter, the professional development curve is only upwards. From every new search assignment, you learn something new, from every person you meet or call, you learn something new. You learn to know different industries, companies, products, services, technologies, markets, people. You learn to understand what it means to be, e.g., a marketing director, CFO, production director, human resources director, finance director, division director or a CEO of a big company. Also what kind of person is suitable for these positions. You meet the most interesting top business leaders, from all walks of life, who share their knowledge with you. When you have learned enough, the business leaders will start asking your opinion about matters. And you know that your work is important.
Finally, one day, you stand in front of a billion-dollar company CEO, and when you say, “this is the way things are”, he/she will listen. To get this far, you must have a strong interest in the business world, and you must work hard. Nothing comes easy. It may take ten years, even more. There are no two identical search assignments, no two identical clients, no two identical candidates, no two identical years. When the business world, companies, technologies, products, services, markets etc. develop, you as a Head Hunter are right smack in the middle of everything, with the best seat in the audience, and you develop too and stay tuned with everything that is happening. But only if you give it your best try. Any less is too little.
The most challenging search assignments and situations are the best ones. Here you ”really” learn what the work is all about. Albeit it does not feel this way when you are up to your neck in trouble. However, you never give in, you never abandon or fail your client, not your candidates either. As the day finally arrives when you have successfully completed this assignment, it feels fantastic. I did it! If you want an international experience, you can best get it from international Executive Search Firms. That said, also small, locally operating Search Firms can offer excellent high-quality service. Size is not necessarily the defining factor.
At the beginning of my career, I wished I could have found a book from where to learn about Executive Search. I never did find such a book, so I decided to write the book myself. I put everything I had learned and experienced about Executive Search during my 30 years career in this book.
Simply put, EQ means the ability to understand and manage your own emotions. People with a high degree of EQ know what they are feeling, what their feelings mean, and how these emotions can affect other people and vice versa. We all already know this, everyone thinks. Do you? Easy to check. Just ask yourself five simple questions and be honest with your answers.
Do you have a good understanding of:
If your answers to all the questions above is an unconditional YES - CONGRATULATIONS! You are superhuman, a perfect human being. You obviously always manage your emotions and behaviour optimally.
For all the less perfect readers, I kindly ask you to check your behaviour. In hindsight, can you recognise any situations, where you feel you could have done better? I did my behaviour analysis and found many situations, where, both at work and home, my behaviour was far from optimal. I realised that if I had had a better understanding of how my EQ can affect my behaviour, I certainly, many times could how done better, should have done better. Below just some examples. See if you can find anything familiar to you?
Nowadays, new EQ coaches pop up like mushrooms in the rain, offering their services, so obviously, there is a need. But this is not nuclear science; everyone can self-study the concept of EQ. Start by writing EQ in Google. After reading a few hours about emotional intelligence, you will have a basic understanding of what EQ is. You already know a little better, how your emotions can affect your actions and other people and how to consciously pay more attention to managing your emotions and behaviour “more optimally”. Do not stop here. The more you study this topic, the better your understanding of your EQ will become, and the more likely you will learn to manage your feelings and behaviour in a way that is in your best interest.
I am again going on my yearly hiking trip with my friend, and want to share this experience with you. Experienced hikers already know everything I am about to say, but this is meant for all the first-timers, so they know what to expect. We are going three weeks from now, but I already know from experience what to expect. It will be good! As an example, I will tell you how our hiking trip was last year when we visited the very same place where we are going this year too.
We start from Helsinki railway station with the night car train to Kolari (1 000 km north from Helsinki). Then we drive to Kilpisjärvi (järvi = lake), which is in the most north-western corner of Finland, bordering to Sweden and Norway (1 300 km from Helsinki). The target of our hiking trip is a Norwegian mountain area 30 km to the west of Kilpisjärvi, a large and stunning area with snow-topped mountains. And how do we get there? Well, we walk there through the wilderness. There are no roads, houses, or people. After you step over the main road (the only road) in Kilpisjärvi and take a few steps further, the wilderness starts. The only way to move around is by walking. We are now at our starting point.
I put on my hiking shoes. Gosh, I did not remember they were so heavy and clumsy. And the backpack then. After 50 hiking trips into the wilderness of Lapland, we certainly know how to stuff and load our backpack. Max. 20 kg it is. Yet, for some reason, our backpacks always seem to weigh 25-27 kg. So also this time. Well, you always have to include a six-pack of beer and a little whisky. But it does not feel so bad when I lift the backpack on my back. It feels good to be on a hiking trip again.
After 300 meters, I notice that I am already all sweaty. Well, If you carry an almost 30 kg backpack straight upwards along a mountain, you sweat, don't you? After 5 km, I start paying attention to how sore my shoulders are from carrying the backpack. I am not used to this yet. My shoulders are already aching. I wonder if I will be able to sleep at all next night. It feels that bad. We still have 8 km to go today. Back at the train in the restaurant, when we had some beers, in our minds we flew like birds over the mountains. Now, we can barely walk 1,5-2 km per hour in this rough terrain. We do keep pauses, but we have to walk on; otherwise, we will not reach our destiny tonight. Many are the moments when I think "who was the darn idiot that got the idea to come here in the first place".
Finally, late in the evening, we get to our destiny, tired and exhausted. Every single muscle is aching. We put up our tent and start the fire. Then we wash in a mountain stream. Please put on the cold water, let it run for five minutes, and you get some impression of how ice-cold the water in the stream is. And you have to go in pretty deep. How can you otherwise wash? God, what an ordeal. I would not wish this for my worst enemy.
But I do know from experience that washing in the ice-cold stream is worth all the hardship.
Because, after the washing, when you are clean and fresh comes the first "really good feeling". No tiredness or pain anymore. The scenery around us and how good we feel are like made in heaven. Now we sit by the fire and roast our sausages. We have a beer and some whisky drinks. Our minds are as relaxed as the surface of a completely calm lake. Not one single negative thought enters our minds anymore. This is just the very reason why we came here. And from here on, it only gets better, day by day.
Every hiking trip includes some exciting experiences. The next day we are upon a one km high mountain. Snow-topped mountain peaks everywhere, as long as you can see. How can the world be so beautiful, we think. We enjoy the moment and take a short nap up on the mountainside. When we wake up, there is a thick fog. You can barely see two meters ahead, and there are steep mountainsides around us where you can fall hundreds of meters if you take a wrong step. Does anyone remember the way we climbed up here?
No! Well, no problem. We stay put where we are, so no-one falls down the mountain by accident. We put up the tent by a small mountain stream, light a fire, and relax. After all, why not. We drink a whisky, or maybe two. This is an excellent place to be, I mean, a perfect location: no houses, no roads, no people, no nothing for tens of kilometers. We are entirely on our own. We finally feel one-to-one with nature. We can almost hear the wilderness talking to us. This too is why we came hiking, to experience this feeling. I do not know how you could feel better than this.
The next morning when we wake up, the fog is gone, and we can find our way down from the mountain, and then continue up the next mountainside. The next day I slip and fall into a creek and get soaked. No problem, my clothes will dry up as I walk. And so our hiking trip goes on. Every day a little better. But after five days we are out of food, out of whisky, all our clothes dirty and shabby, so it is time to go home. When we hike back to Kilpisjärvi, all I can think of is how nice it will be to get into a hot shower. However, when we get to Kilpisjärvi, we first go to a café to have a coffee and doughnut. When we enter the café, I pay attention to how clean and orderly everything is. I can feel the pleasant smell of the perfume from the lady at the cashier's stand. She is looking at me with her eyes wide open. Well, why not. I am an experienced hiker who just has returned from the wilderness; I probably must be looking a little like Indiana Jones, I think.
Then I pay attention to another strong smell, like a dead rat, and I notice that this smell is coming from me. Even though we have washed every day and changed clean underwear, my hiking jacket and trousers smell of five days of sweat, dirt, and smoke. I look into the mirror in front of me, and my skin which I thought would have a tremendous suntan after five days in the sun, had, in fact, a greasy yellow look. On top of this, I had a five-day stubble, because I had not shaved. So I looked like a genuine drunkard who had slept the whole last week in a ditch.
No wonder the cashier lady was looking at me with her eyes wide open. I probably don't look like Indiana Jones after all. Well, you must just overcome these kinds of hardships, I think. After a coffee and doughnut, we head for the showers, where I stay for over 30 minutes. Then we have a pizza and a cold beer. Then another cold beer and then suddenly, as if by magic, all the hardships of our hike are forgotten. Only the memories of the beautiful sceneries and wonderful moments and experiences we had are left. What a fantastic hike we had, we think. Once more, it surpassed all our expectations. And so, in our car on our way back home, we already start planning our next hike to Lapland.
It will be a good hike. This hike will take place three weeks from now.
We have for long known that technology, robotics, automation, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will change the world big time. Now we have one more parameter in this equation – COVID-19. This and "the COVID-19s of the future", will force the world to develop new ways and methods to minimise the impact of these viruses.
Our behaviour and values will change as a result of COVID-19, creating a demand for all kinds of new services and products, most yet unknown to us. This again creates opportunities for new business ideas. The business world all over, also the recruiting industry, is thinking about what these new services and products could be.
The job market, how you search for a new job and how people are recruited in the future, will change. It may not be enough to pay attention to only your "next job". Maybe you need to look further into the future already now before you land a job. Because that "next job" may not be there anymore after five years.
The Executive Search Industry is not immune to changes. Virtual meetings and interviewing candidates virtually will likely increase, also in the Search Industry. It is not always easy for a person to take a 3-4-hour break from work to visit a Head Hunter, so to start the process with a one hour "get to know" virtual interview with the Head Hunter might not be such a bad idea. Of course, person to person interview is, in my mind, a must-have, if we continue in the recruiting process.
AI (Artificial Intelligence) is also likely to enter more strongly now. The benefits are indisputable. By 1) doing talent sourcing 2) locating, processing, and analysing information faster 3) providing better business intelligence 4) screening and assessing candidates, AI increases efficiency and reduces time to hire.
Already today, CV:s are screened by robots, and you can be dropped from the recruiting process without a human ever seeing your job application. Already today you might get to an interview, only to realise that you are interviewed by a robot and also dropped by the robot, without ever talking to a human being. This is increasing. I find this scary. I feel we should draw a line somewhere, both for ethical and professional reasons.
Our ethical, moral concepts, motivation, behaviour, feelings, ambitions are based on, e.g., our characteristics, culture, political views, religion, race, gender, life values, desires, education type/level, sexual orientation. Can AI truly understand this dimension of the human mindset?
Then the professional dimension. I like to think that the hiring Client wants a Business Partner with outstanding business acumen. A real-world live Search Consultant, who interacts with Top Executives, learns who they are, learns to know them, learns from them and continuously so - instead of a robot, an algorithm.
I also believe any hiring Client or Candidate prefer having a top-level Search Consultant deciding who is to become a finalist Candidate in a search process, rather than a robot doing it. While databases, Internet, LinkedIn, and AI can take you a long way, they will, in my mind, never replace an experienced professional Search Consultant in Senior Executive Management Executive Search. I like to end by quoting myself.
"Who would you choose? An experienced Search Consultant with excellent business acumen - with whom you have developed a good, trustworthy personal relationship over the years - with whom you can talk about anything, also personal matters, discuss business world gossip - with whom you can go golfing, or even share a pint of beer? Or, would you choose a robot, that you know may know a lot of things, but really could not care less about you - and can't even golf."