Advice for Executives During a Career Transition
A comprehensive guide to pursuing new opportunities
Perfect your story
It is important to be able to communicate why you are proactively pursuing new roles or open to new opportunities. If you recently left a position, can you concisely explain what led to your departure? If you are still at the company, can you identify the reasons why you are open to leave? It is important to be honest when providing this information because the truth tends to come out during the process, and it is best heard from you.
Tell your story in a clear and concise manner, sharing only the most important and relevant details. Let the interviewer probe if they want to hear more. What may seem like crucial information to you (“and then he said and then I said”) can be overwhelming to the person listening.
Tell your career history with a few thoughtful anecdotes that focus on hard skills (i.e. metrics/results) and soft skills (i.e. leadership/transformation). Speak with a full understanding of any of your current or past employers’ considerations regarding your roles and employment and demonstrate that you are a logical, linear, and unemotional candidate.
- Interviewers will always picture themselves as the hiring manager and badmouthing your former company could reflect poorly on your work attitude.
- Although you may disagree with decisions made by individuals, make every effort to represent both sides of any story.
- You can say that you don’t agree with the strategic direction of a company, but it is preferable if you can explain why the company is going in that direction vs. why you think another way is better. It’s OK to say, “We had differences of opinion, and I recognized that if I was not on board with the new direction, it made sense for me to leave.”
- Avoid denigrating another person to convey your point of view. Be careful not to describe other executives as “crazy” or “they don’t know what they are talking about.”
- If you are feeling highly emotional about the exit from your past role, wait before networking. Jumping into the process while overly emotional can damage your credibility.
- Be ready to answer the, “What would you have done differently?” question. Having an answer shows maturity and ownership. It also shows that you are a thoughtful executive who continues to learn and grow.
Understand your demonstrated ‘core capabilities’
This is a good moment to reflect and re-evaluate what you uniquely bring to the table. What are you best at, and what do you like to do? It is also worthwhile to identify what you are not good at, and what you do not like to do. Areas in which you excel and find enjoyment are your ‘core capabilities,’ and your ability to articulate them will be very beneficial.
- It is surprising how many executives struggle to identify their own best skills. Take a moment and think about gathering all of your past bosses, peers and subordinates in a room. How would they describe you? For what skills or projects were you the “go to” person in previous positions?
- You will be uniquely qualified and considered for opportunities that leverage both your core capabilities and your prior experience. If you want to explore roles outside of your direct experience that leverage your core capabilities while adding new expertise to your resume – such as transitioning from fashion to beauty – you’ll need to be able to articulate why your skill set is relevant. Be sure you can explain why it would make sense for a company or industry to consider you, that you understand the differences, and what you would bring to the role. This explanation needs to be more tangible than a personal passion or a desire.
- For example: did you work on a special project collaboration with another company that gave you exposure to the new industry? Did you hold an interim position in a different functional area? This type of information is much more effective in connecting the dots between what you’ve done and what you desire to do.
Perfect your resume, LinkedIn profile and digital footprint
Studies show that a recruiter will spend an average of six seconds reviewing a resume. During this period, they are skimming for key words that provide a quick impression of the scale and scope of business you’ve been responsible for as well as the impact you had on that business. They will then decide to interview you if they want to learn more.
This is important to keep in mind as you allocate your time. Networking and doing target research are higher-value activities than deliberating over a resume. Ensure your resume is well-edited to emphasize your core capabilities as well as easily accessible keywords such as global, omnichannel, P&L ownership, digital, comp increases/results, team size and volume managed. It should not be a laundry list of everything you’ve ever done.
The same is true for your LinkedIn profile and any additional digital touchpoints you may keep. They should be concise and consistent to ensure that a quick skim offers the right picture of who you are and why you’re an ideal candidate for an interview.
Determine your target company list
Once you have determined your demonstrated core capabilities, it is time to create a list of target companies that make sense for your background and interests.
- Your list should be at your fingertips during every conversation you have with recruiters, peers, mentors, and while networking. Some of your contacts will surely have connections with or knowledge of your target company list so these companies should organically flow into your everyday conversations.
- Having a target list will not only help recruiters understand your career goals but will help to maximize your networking meetings. It is also helpful to bucket the list (i.e. wholesale dominant, digitally led, and retail focused companies, or perhaps by private equity, private, and public companies).
- The list should indicate top competitors to your current company, clients of that company who know your work, and those companies who target a similar consumer or work in a similar distribution channel.
- Do not be afraid to include unexpected companies on your target list, particularly if it is tied to a passion that might not be clear from your resume. Just make sure to have a specific answer as to why a particular company makes sense for you.
- Be realistic with your target list. For example, if you have a career with a mass market brand, opportunities to work within the luxury space may be limited.
- It’s common for executives in transition to desire a different industry sector or role. However, this type of transition will most likely happen as a result of direct networking, and not through executive search, as retained recruiters are mostly paid to find people with relevant experience, not transferable or related experience.
Pursue every opportunity to the best of your ability
There is no better time to be ‘open to listen’ then during a career transition; i.e., to have a willingness to explore a broader range of opportunities than you would typically consider. This approach enables you to meet many new people and discover new companies. This is worthwhile as we hear time and time again about companies that candidates initially considered to be non-starters that they eventually decided to join.
Similarly, regardless of your level of interest, you should treat each interview as though you are serious about the job. It is important to be transparent about your level of engagement so there are no surprises along the way (i.e. ‘I have some concerns about relocation, but am open to a conversation.’) Keep in mind:
- Disinterested candidates tend to underperform during an interview fearful that acting fully engaged will overexaggerate their level of interest in the company/position. An interview is just that – two people assessing one another. There is NO downside to being desired by a company, and it doesn’t mean you’ll get an offer, nor do you have to take the job.
- Even if you aren’t interested in the job, presenting as engaged and desirable in an interview can have a positive impact on future opportunities. Executives often have peer relationships at other firms and often share thoughts on prospective candidates. Making a great impression at a less-desired company can have a positive impact on your reputation later on.
Effectively leverage executive search recruiters
When you are in a career transition, it’s especially important to utilize the full breadth of your network. Your relationships with executive search recruiters can be critical as they are often gate keepers to unpublished opportunities.
Make sure to share your target list and the latest version of your resume with your contacts. This will help to ensure that you’re top of mind when they have active searches for which your background is relevant. To expedite the process, ensure your emails are productive and include pertinent information – i.e.,why you’re in transition, your openness to relocation, compensation expectations, largest P+L/team size you have overseen, categories you have managed, and companies/roles in which you are interested. This helps us help you.
That said, it’s important to understand that retained search executives spend their time focused on their active searches and rarely have the bandwidth to manage opportunistic calls/interviews in anticipation of a future search you may be a good fit for. Don’t be offended if they’re not able to chat when you reach out; they will be thrilled to speak with you when they do have the right opportunity.
The uncertainty caused by a period of career transition can be stressful. Instead of focusing on the unknown, strive to focus on the many accomplishments, connections and skills you’ve built over the course of your career and leveraging them to uncover your next opportunity.
Dana Levine is an experienced Engagement Director specializing in c-level recruiting for fashion and retail brands. A self-described student of the industry, Dana joined Kirk Palmer Associates following a successful career as a merchant for luxury brands including Loro Piana and Ralph Lauren. This first-hand insight enables her to serve as a trusted advisor and confidant throughout every step of the candidate experience.