You might think that senior-level IT leaders have a lock on the art of landing jobs. After all, that’s partly how they reached such lofty heights, right?
But you’d be wrong. CIOs, vice presidents, directors — all make similar mistakes when they are on a job prowl, executive recruiters say. The two most common, and most fatal, are talking too much during an interview and resumes that are either too braggadocious or that go on and on and on.
“Our record was a 55-page resume,” says Judy Kirby, CEO of Kirby Partners, an executive search firm. “Not even their mother is going to read that.”
Here is a look at a dozen common mistakes even seasoned IT leaders make when looking to land new jobs, according to experts who can help.
Charley Betzig, managing director of Heller Search Associates, has seen two candidates in the past year lose out on opportunities because of too-grandiose resumes. “These were great candidates, and we did our darndest to try to work with them to rewrite their resumes.” Both refused.
Betzig suggests instead sticking to the facts and keeping your resume “clean” by eschewing trendy design and offbeat type faces.
Finally, save your patents and published papers for the end of your resume and don’t lead with this information, Betzig says. “Employers don’t really care about that stuff,” he adds.
Failing to back up claims
In addition to holding your resume to a reasonable length, make sure it notes specific accomplishments. “I am a visionary innovator” doesn’t mean much to anyone wanting to learn about your credentials. (What did you innovate? In what way was that visionary?) Instead, talk about what your team produced and how, exactly, this helped your company create a new product, save money or time, generate revenue, or enter a new market.
Show, don’t just tell, how you’ve met specific challenges, whether strategic or operational.
Choosing ‘me’ over ‘we’
Similar to going grandiose, too many IT leaders forget that leadership is often more about team accomplishments than personal accolades.
Both on your resume and during interviews, recruiters emphasize focusing on ‘we,’ not ‘me.’ Nobody wants to hire someone who sucks all the oxygen out of the room or doesn’t play well with others. Make sure to share the credit with others on your team, and don’t talk trash about any company or person you’ve worked for.
Misunderstanding what makes a good interview
While you’re interviewing, answer the questions as succinctly as possible. Remember you’re not driving here; the interviewer is. “Be a listener first,” Betzig says. “Make sure it’s a conversation; listen and react.” He says that candidates are often so excited about landing an interview — or want to convey all their experience during the time allotted — that “they’re just bursting.”
Resist that impulse, and keep each of your answers to five minutes, maximum. Recently “we had a guy we thought was a great fit,” Betzig says. He had the qualifications and was a local candidate for the role. But the hiring company reported back that during the hour-plus interview, they were able to ask him only three questions because he talked so much.
“It was tough for them to imagine putting this person in front of their executives,” Betzig explains, and they wouldn’t consider doing another interview with him.
Overlooking the power of practice
If you’re working with an executive recruiter, that firm will likely do at least one mock interview with you and will video you in the process. “That can be a very sobering experience, to see yourself in action,” Kirby says. The recruiter will give you tips about how to improve your interviewing skills and resume because, after all, he or she gets paid if you do land the role, from the company that posted the job. It’s wise to take their advice.
And if you flame out after the first interview, you can often get feedback from the recruiter that you wouldn’t be able to get directly from the hiring manager because of perceived or real legal constraints.
If you’re looking for a job without the help of a recruiter, Kirby suggests you still enlist a trusted friend or peer to do a mock interview — and video it. Check to ensure you show enthusiasm for the job without being over the top, and make sure you answer the questions succinctly and without grandstanding.
Not seeing yourself clearly
Spending 20 years or longer at the same company isn’t necessarily viewed as favorably as it used to be, says Shawn Bannerji, managing partner for the data, digital, and technology leaders practice at Caldwell. Back in the day, it was considered a sign of loyalty to stick it out that long. But these days, staying at the same place for decades can be a negative.
The question is whether a person who’s been immersed in the same culture for so long “can be successful outside the norms of that specific organization,” Bannerji says. Many of the traditional leaders in their respective industries — such as GE, IBM, Morgan Stanley, and P&G — have multiple systems and processes set up to ensure their employees’ success, he explains.
After spending so long in one place, IT leaders can perhaps successfully transfer their expertise and skills to another organization or industry. But some hiring managers feel this category of candidate should “go somewhere else and prove it first, and then I’ll hire them,” Bannerji says.
If you do find yourself wanting to move on after a long stint in one company — anything over seven years — spend time thinking through exactly how your skills are transferrable. And make sure that is reflected on both your resume and in interviews.
Failing to have foresight
IT leaders seeking to build their careers further need to take the approach of successful pool players and think at least two moves ahead. Where are you in your career, and where do you want to be? How do your pay and benefits compare to those of your peers? That’s another strike against staying at one place too long; company lifers tend to miss out on the same pay jumps that more nimble IT leaders generally receive.
Career paths used to be more straight-line; “you’d work hard, get good reviews, and assume that path would lead to recognition, rewards, and promotions,” Bannerji explains. “But we’ve seen a departure of this path,” he says. People who want to rise in their careers need to acquire new skills and competencies, and “develop a portfolio that’s a professional calling card” or else “opportunities can pass them by.”
He advises you to find a mentor who can act as a career sherpa to “advise you how to invest your professional capital” and to help you determine which skills you should be focusing on at any point in time. If, say, you’ve spent a decade in infrastructure, try to develop more direct business acumen and broader management or strategy expertise.
Getting rusty on tech
Conversely, a business degree and strategy proficiency alone won’t cut it as a CIO in today’s world. “The role is evolving to have more substantive technical dimensions,” Bannerji explains. “Cybersecurity, AI, machine learning, the journey to the cloud” are all important on a resume today. Digital supply chains and other areas also require technical chops.
It’s also important to understand product development because IT is expected to help or sometimes even lead in that regard.
Not honoring the job description
It can be tempting, and sometimes okay, to ignore some things on a job description’s checklist that don’t fit. But if you apply for a position that specifies an advanced college degree as a minimum requirement, and you have a bachelor’s, don’t expect to land the interview no matter how much experience you may have.
Also make sure the job is something you really can handle. If the organization wants an implementer, and you’ve been mostly a strategist, “that’s not the same thing,” Kirby says. Even if you force-fit things and you’re lucky enough to be hired, chances are good that the position won’t be sustainable for very long and you’ll be job-hunting again before you know it.
And, if you don’t calculate all the key elements correctly — position, company, pay, and location — you can “throw off the entire equation,” Bannerji adds.
Losing sight of the social-media details
Particularly at the senior or executive level, you and your entire family are on view. Hiring managers routinely check social-media accounts for inappropriate photos or posts, especially regarding you and your spouse, for a clue about how you both might conduct yourselves at corporate events and how you represent yourselves in the broader world.
If you don’t want people snooping, adjust your social accounts’ privacy settings while you’re job hunting — and suggest that all the members of your immediate family do the same. Something that’s ‘cool’ or ‘cute’ or ‘funny’ might not translate the same to anyone who doesn’t already know you.
You might survive an Instagram photo of yourself barbequing in your Speedo, if you insist on keeping that visible online, but make sure your LinkedIn account and other more professional venues don’t show you in sweatpants or risqué clothing, or looking (or acting) inebriated. Vet your videos and invest in some professional photos.
Kirby recalls a situation when one company’s internal candidate was determined to sabotage his closest rival, an external candidate. The internal person found photos of the external guy at a party with drinks in both hands and acting goofy, all while standing next to an X-rated cardboard cutout. Internal Guy emailed the photos to hiring managers, and in the process both candidates were thrown out of contention.
You can still be you, of course; just don’t leave any potentially damaging documentation of your wildest moments in places where recruiters or hiring managers can find it.
Failing to read the room
To survive executive-level interviews, you must hone your emotional quotient (EQ) skills, Kirby advises.
“One of our candidates was showing off his deep knowledge of baseball and failed to notice that one of the other people in the room had her eyes glazed over.” It cost him the job.
Forgoing leveraging your network
Job hunters “often don’t want to be a bother to their contacts,” Heller’s Betzig says. “But that’s a big mistake. Your contacts want to be there for you, to be the person to help you find your next job.” Make time to network; he advises reaching out to five to 10 contacts each day.
Get in touch with everyone you know from your former jobs and those you’ve met in various professional organizations, explain what you’re looking to do and ask if they’ve heard of anything related to that and to let you know if they do. “Chances are that IT leaders’ next jobs will come from their network,” Betzig adds.