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Stand out from the crowd
by Peter Crush

From brushing up the traditional CV to a full embrace of online networking, especially LinkedIn, we look at how executives can boost their chances of landing a rewarding role in a steadily recovering jobs market

Last year was one of the worst years on record for directors seeking new jobs. The number of executive vacancies in the City of London alone fell by 66 per cent, says financial recruiter Morgan McKinley. And the average time needed to secure a position jumped sharply by nearly three weeks to 81 days. The year ahead looks more promising but the picture is still mixed.

Although commentators see the first signs of a recovery at the top end of the jobs market, there is a problem. While companies are increasingly looking inside for top talent—internal promotions made up more than half of all positions filled in 2009-10—when external searches are made, employed jobseekers are competing with jobless executives made redundant during the downturn.

"Vacancies are at a 12-month high at the exec end of the market but times are still uncertain," says Tim Vye, divisional director at recruiter Reed Finance. "But one thing is clear: in the current market, execs can't just hope they get headhunted. They have to get out there and be seen."

Most executive roles are not advertised, but are instead given exclusively to one search agency to handle. Much has changed in how directors seek jobs, and there is a growing debate about the need to embrace new media.

"The traditional CV still has its place, with the usual rules that go with it, such as execs not talking as much about past histories, but telling recruiters what they have achieved—with metrics—and what they can do in the future," says Jayne Mitchell, director, executive consulting, at consultancy Right Management. She is coaching directors on how to become more visible online, particularly by using LinkedIn. "While board-level directors don't necessarily need to be online to get past job gatekeepers they do at least need to be there. If a headhunter is searching for people by job spec, thousands will match on LinkedIn; it's all about making sure your name comes up first."

Mitchell says directors must ensure they are easily visible in listings. And contrary to the rules of hard-copy CV writing, where adding in job details from, say, 30 years earlier is frowned upon, the advice is to be as detailed as you can online. It raises the chances of recruiters' search phrases being matched.

Neal Schaffer, author of Windmill Networking: Understanding, Leveraging & Maximizing LinkedIn, says users need to "differentiate themselves in every aspect of their profile so they stand out". He adds: "They must populate their profile with keywords that will resonate with employers they want to attract. These words can be learnt by studying job adverts."

Then, he says, it's all about expanding your network. "This can be done by searching for past and current co-workers and friends, using LinkedIn's ability to browse your Webmail, Outlook and other address books for contacts already on LinkedIn, or viewing LinkedIn's list of your colleagues and classmates on the network."

To take things to the next level, Schaffer says executives can also connect with LinkedIn Open Networkers, or Lions—members who encourage connections from any member, whether or not they have had a previous business relationship with them. Other tips include joining as many discussion groups relevant to your line of business as possible (there are 500,000). Daily email alerts update other members' postings in the group, meaning users keep themselves in the spotlight. Allowing other members to rate or recommend you also helps and shows a level of trust people have in you.

The rise of LinkedIn has been meteoric. The business networking site took from 2003 to 2007 to reach its first million UK users, but by last June it had four million members. One billion people searches are made every year, and 25 per cent of the membership make a search at least once a week. Last November, LinkedIn launched its BrandYou Board, a panel of experts, including David Midgely, professor of marketing at Insead, and communications coach Katie Ledger, who will share advice that can be applied directly to personal BrandYou pages via LinkedIn's BrandYou Group.

Although the jury is still out on just how influential LinkedIn is in helping recruiters discover unknowns (LinkedIn claims 25 per cent of FTSE-100 companies hire from it, but recruiters say the figure is five to 10 per cent), experts agree that tending to your online brand is essential. "It's the minimum now to get a new job," says Mitchell, "but also the minimum to keep an existing job, too." It is unlikely, though not impossible, that being on LinkedIn will cause companies to cold-email directors with job offers. But if it does happen, Tony Goodwin, founder of recruiter Antal International, believes there is a key advantage. "Sending CVs to recruitment agencies explicitly says you're looking for a new job, and this immediately devalues your worth in what is a buyer's market. Being headhunted means you can command a 15 to 20 per cent salary premium, and online networks are a better way of saying you 'might' be available, but 'you call me' if you're interested."

Executive recruiters stress that online circles only take you so far. Once you've been identified as a candidate, you still need to perform at interviews or meet-and-greet sessions with recruiters. "A common mistake we still see is execs displaying a know-it-all complex," says Reed's Vye. "There is still complacency—that just because someone might have 30 years' experience, the job is in the bag. This is not the case, and good advice doesn't change: candidates must research the roles they are applying for, and show that they have some self-awareness, too."

Tara Ricks, managing director at recruiter Joslin Rowe Associates (soon to be Randstad Financial & Professional), says more competition for jobs should focus minds. "In 2007, 96 per cent of candidates registering with us had a job already. By 2009, 80 per cent of registrants were what we describe as not securely employed—they had either been made redundant or were soon to be made redundant."

Both Vye and Ricks agree preparation effort needs doubling because many roles are new, created from mergers, acquisitions and consolidations. "Another new area execs may not be used to is being asked competency-based questions, something which has only appeared in the last 10 years," says Vye. "We no longer get briefs asking us to find all-rounders. Clients are far more specific and directors will almost certainly be asked to undertake psychometric testing. Again, this is new. Candidates might want to think of going to various providers privately [such as SHL] and having their own psychometric profile made to bring with them along with their CV."

One traditionally safe option for directors has been to consider the interim (or freelance) manager/director route, especially as deployments often lead to permanent roles. But organisations such as the Institute of Interim Managers and the Interim Management Association have hit out against those who they see as opportunist. They believe being an interim is a lifestyle choice that should stay the preserve of those who prefer the arrangement, free from others ambushing the market because they've been made unemployed, or they see it as a route to permanent jobs.

Meg Guiseppi, a job coach for high-ranking executives, says the worst thing a senior director can do is acquire a bad reputation. "Your brand is your unique set of qualifications, strengths, key personal attributes, values, and passions that represent your promise of value to a target audience or, in the case of jobseekers, your target employers," she says. "At the top level, personal reputation is important; you break this at your peril."

It's clear that 2011 is not yet business as usual, but with an improving outlook, now is the time to brush up your CV and strengthen your online presence. As Andrew Timlin, associate director at consultancy Hays Executive, says: "It's a recovering market, so now is the time not to get left behind. Take your CV, make sure it's achievement-focused, remove the flowery language, and make it specific to the job you're applying for. Choose a maximum of three or four agencies to go with. Then see what happens. You could be surprised."

Have you got the write stuff?

Neil Taylor offers five tips on making a good first impression with an employer

1 Forget the kitchen sink
Your CV doesn't have to get you the job-but it must win you an interview. Only leave in things that are interesting enough to tempt potential employers.

2 Have an opinion
By the time you become senior, it's no longer about CV points. Employers are interested in your character and views, not just what you've done.

3 Be honest
Few people reach the top without making mistakes. Be honest about them. Say what you've learnt. A few business bruises show you've been there, done that.

4 Cut out the buzzwords
They make your CV sound like everyone else's, and this is a competition. Adopt the language you'd really use in an interview.

5 No gimmicks please
Forget the pink paper or paper aeroplanes; they're for children. At this level, you stand or fall on the strength of your ideas, personality and experience.

Neil Taylor is creative director of business language consultancy The Writer and author of Brilliant Business Writing

Log in, link up and recruit

Two years ago, Jouko Ahvenainen, chairman of venture capitalist incubator Grow VC, needed a lawyer to expand the company's increasingly international business.

"We were global, so felt our next employee could come from anywhere in the world, too," he says. "We've failed hiring people before, and we knew getting the right person is hard, but we decided we would begin using LinkedIn to ask questions to different groups, just to see what sort of response we would get.

"We were amazed by the response, and found about five good people who we interviewed using Skype. Discussion forums really worked for us, because they contain the communities we are interested in. Sometimes it's more useful to tell the world you are looking for someone, than just to advertise in one or two locations. This person has been with us ever since. In fact, we started to work together before we met physically. He is from Israel but lives in Canada and has a great experience in the VC area globally."

Don't forget the suit and tie

Presentation skills expert Khalid Aziz has coached thousands of executives on how to improve their personal presentation and image skills.

Aziz, author of Presenting To Win, believes this is still an ignored area for many directors, often because they have not had someone brave enough to tell them that they are using bad habits.

Aziz says too often he comes across people who think it is clever to use management-speak rather than plain English. He says: "You should always use short, simple words and constructions. Use 'show' rather than 'demonstrate'; instead of 'enable' use 'help', and in place of 'prior' try 'before'.

Two years ago Aziz Corporation research found the traditional suit and tie was on the way out in British offices, but it should never be so for interviews: "Like it or not, people will always be judged on their appearance as well as their abilities. As a rule, conservative clothing will always be the wiser option."