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Advice on surviving, and advancing, in a tough job market

published on July 15, 2003
on CNET /

When an IT executive lost his or her job three years ago, the exec could pick up the phone, work his or her network, and have a new job lined up within days, according to Russ Tessman, an IT recruiter with The Vermillion Group in Des Moines.

Today's employment scenario is clearly much different—the economy is sluggish and companies are hiring with caution. Unemployed CIOs are facing job search rejection like never before.

For advice about how IT leaders can stay afloat during these difficult seas, I talked with technology executives, a recruiter, and career consultants. What follows is the first of a two-part series providing career advice, recommendations, and insight on how to survive rejection during a job search. In this first article, experts offer tips that will help CIOs survive, and move ahead, in this difficult climate. The second part will focus on best practices for retaining emotional and life balance during a difficult and extended job search.

A realistic view of the job market

"In my whole career, I've always been able to get the jobs I've wanted," said CTO Niamh Darcy, who makes her home in both Newton, MA, and Raleigh, NC. "I've never worked through a recruiter, I've always just interviewed for a job and got it."

Darcy, who is unemployed, returned to the United States in January after taking a year off following a corporate downsizing to do some volunteer work in Ghana. But this winter, early in her job hunt, Darcy received an unexpected disappointment. She was just days away from landing a technology management position when the company declared a hiring freeze.

"I was obviously disappointed because it was a very good fit and it was exactly what I was looking for," said Darcy, who was excited at the prospect of working for a non-governmental organization involved in bringing technology to non-industrialized nations. "But it's a sign of the economy and the times, and that's the way you have to look at it."

Many tech executives, however, don't view the employment market the way Darcy does. Instead they increase their own suffering by beating up on themselves, said Ruth Luban, a Santa Monica, CA- based psychotherapist and author of Are You a Corporate Refugee? A Survival Guide for Downsized, Disillusioned, and Displaced Workers (Penguin 2001).

CIOs need to get the wide-screen view of the present job market, and in doing so, shift their focus from their disappointment to the circumstances and how they can successfully operate within them, said St. Louis -based career consultant Rose Jonas, author of Can I Lie on My Resume?: Strategies that Win the Career Game (Morrison Publishing, 2002).

"CIOs are finding what garden-variety executives are also experiencing—the risk-averse, molasses economy, and the heartbreak of just missing getting the offer, of coming in second," said Jonas.

The reality is that regardless of talent, unemployed IT executives can simply expect to be out of a job for a longer period of time—from three months to more than a year, depending on the industry and the geographic area in which they work, according Tessman.

There simply are fewer CIO positions and, when companies are ready to hire, they expect job candidates to possess the entire list of attributes they want from a new hire. If a CIO has only 12 of the 14 requirements, for instance, that person isn't going to get the job.

Competition is tougher than ever

For the CIO, this exactitude contributes to what can seem like an endless stream of resumes and meetings in order to land a job offer.

"I don't think I'm exaggerating when I'd say they have to send out 100 times the number of resumes [as they did during the technology employment heyday]," said Tessman, who added that tech executives should expect to go on 10 times as many job interviews as they did previously.

The applicant-to-job ratio for top IT posts is incredibly out of whack, explained Tessman. "It can be very depressing [for the CIOs]. Right now I have a CIO search going on and I have 200 candidates for one CIO job," he said.

With the competition so high for job openings, glum senior IT executives may be tempted to ask themselves a battery of damaging questions, such as What's wrong with me? and What's the other guy got that I don't have?

But in doing so, CIOs fail to take the extra step of putting their houses in order. They would do better to answer five specific questions, said Deborah Brown-Volkman, president and founder of the Long Island, NY, career and mentor coaching company Surpass Your Dreams:

  • Which companies are on your target list?
  • What do these companies really need?
  • What skills do you have that can apply?
  • How can you sell yourself?
  • What success stories can you tell about yourself that will showcase your skills, abilities, and leadership?

"First of all, a senior IT level executive should be themselves, confident, and prepared," said Brown-Volkman. "The goal is not to worry about the competition, but rather focus on what you bring to the table. Talk about what you have done, the problems you have solved, the process you took to solve the problems, and the results you produced. Although there is competition, there is only one you. Capitalize on that."

"IT executives are in sales right now and what they're selling is themselves, and they don't have that skill," said Brown-Volkman.

Marketing is now a necessary skill

Brown-Volkman recommends that CIOs grab some sales and marketing books and learn how to market themselves.

"You need an elevator pitch, so that when you speak to people you're very clear that this is who I am and this is what I'm looking for, so if you have something like this or you know who has something like this, please let me know." A recent TechRepublic article offers more insight on how to create and perfect the quick elevator pitch.

Along with being able to sell themselves effectively, CIOs need to adjust the way they approach job interviews, according to the experts. Every contact with a potential employer is as an opportunity to build a relationship, regardless of whether or not a job offer follows, said Darcy.

For example, when Darcy's dream job was pulled out of her reach she didn't view it as a complete defeat—she kept the door open on the relationship she nurtured during the interview process. Others might have simply licked their wounds and walked away.

"I built a very good relationship with the people at this organization over the interview process," said Darcy. "So they feel a certain level of responsibility for having pulled the job. I'm going to continue talking to them, I'm going to keep trying to push for that position."

The company said it would also be willing to refer Darcy to affiliated organizations, further paving the way for more opportunities.

Darcy said that this openness is a two-way street that exists because the hiring organization is small enough to take a personal interest in her. At a very large organization, personal attention is rare unless the situation is unique. If someone of significant enough stature recommended the CIO candidate personally and the company felt some responsibility to the candidate, the applicant might get additional referrals.

"In that case, they may be willing to do introductions, or you could ask for introductions," said Darcy. Regardless, executive candidates need to assess the contact at the company wisely and perceive with a certain degree of sensitivity whether the request for referrals may be viewed as somewhat irregular.

"It's basically using the interview process as a network," said Darcy.

New career paths can open as well

Another valuable element during the interview process is keeping an eye open to potential jobs and potential consulting projects, said Luban.

"I know one guy who turned a $25,000 project here and there into a business. He's now self-employed."

For example, after an interview, if a job offer isn't forthcoming, a CIO should write up a proposal that could address the company's needs at the present time and send it to the executive who conducted the interview.

"It does take time, but it's still good practice and you never know—the proposal could make it to a different department and lead to something that you didn't even know about," said Luban.

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david southgate
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