JB HOMER Retained Executive Search, specializing in executive search for technology and operations talent in a global market

In recent conversations with our relationships, many spoke about resuming their searches in September. Rowan Snyder, who has a renowned career in technology leadership, shared his insights and experiences on managing what he entitles "Your Great Search". His thoughts were so compelling that we thought it might be helpful to share them with you again.

President, JB Homer Associates

Your Great Search
by Rowan Snyder

The last time I went looking for a job it was more of an undertaking than I'd anticipated. Up until then, I'd pretty much walked easily from opportunity to opportunity. After all, in the beginning there were not many skilled professionals in computing and demand far exceeded supply. During the financial meltdown however, all extensions were cancelled and I was summarily out of work with virtually no notice. I landed what I think is a wonderful job but with the process of looking and consulting work, it took over a year.

The reason I mention this is at the conclusion of my search, an experienced recruiter said, more or less in passing, that "You ran a great search." I'd never thought of myself as doing "a search." I thought I was looking for a job. These are much the same thing, but I learned that a search is a disciplined way of looking for a job and doing it right makes a big difference in the outcome.

These are my notes on how to do a great search. For the more experienced reader to get something from this, I've had to write to the executive level. If you're less senior (more junior?) or just starting out, some of this will be overkill, but it may be helpful to know this material in advance of needing it.

Your personality, strengths and brand

Not only is "who you are" what you are selling, but (a) this is sometimes the root of why you lost your job and (b) something you need to know for your integrity and success in life.

  • What are you good at? What are you bad at? Do not underestimate what this means. Can you be thrown into situations requiring resolution of conflict? Can you write great software? Are you good with people and make them feel good about themselves? Will people follow your vision? Do you even have a vision or are you better at hearing an objective and getting it done? Are you a reliable performer? Do you get into negative spats with other people? And so on.
This will sound harsh, but in my experience what brings you to this job search has something subtle to do with what you are good at and not good at. In some subliminal way, your job may have called for more from your weak spots than you were able to give. You need to ask yourself, very honestly if this had anything to do with where you are now, and how should it influence what you would be successful doing next.
  • Play to your strengths No one is good at everything, but you are good at some things. Don't take a job that is about what you're not good at. Do stuff you are good at. This is the positive statement of the first point, which was sort of "Don't take a job that you're not going to fail at."
  • Self-evaluations. There are many sources of testing and self-evaluations that you can access online.

Your objective

  • What do you want to do & Why? Sometimes you want to do what you used to do, but not always. People you meet will ask you this, not because they're trying to expose you, but because they need to know. I was the head of IT. Maybe I still wanted to be the head of IT. Or maybe I wanted to advise clients on their issues and challenges, or maybe I wanted to be given a well - or ill - defined problem and generate a white paper answer. Or maybe I wanted to teach high school. Stop for a moment and see your life as a book. It will have several chapters. No matter what, you are about to write a new chapter. What will it be about?
  • Your elevator speech (es). When asked about what you want to do, you need a crisp answer. It's called the elevator speech. You have 30 seconds to convey your contribution and goals. I am not kidding when I say to practice this in private. Practice it and get it right. In today's world, you have 15 seconds to get anyone's attention.

Your situation & story

There are a few general rules that should apply to everything you do in your search.
  • Do a great search not a haphazard one. That's why you are here. But this takes work and effort on your part. Make the effort.
  • Never embarrass your contact. Follow up as agreed. Your contacts are putting their personal credibility on the line to help you. Do your part to make them look good. Do not goof off and leave promises unfulfilled. If you promised to do something, do it.
  • Accurate and honest. Whatever you say or do has to be factually accurate, honest and check-ably so. Yes, you can do spin-doctoring, but do not overstep the line.
  • Control your info. Do not just hand out your resume or give people license to promote you without your approval. This is more about not diminishing your brand and avoiding information falling into the hands of people who may not have a motivation to help you.
  • Confidentiality & privacy. By the same token, you will hear confidential things in your search. (Some companies look for a replacement for an incumbent holding a job.) Do not violate the confidentiality of what you learn/hear.
  • Timeliness. I shouldn't have to say this, but be on-time for appointments. That means arrive at the exact spot where you are supposed to be 10 minutes before you're supposed to be there. Sometimes someone will have to come get you, so they need time to make the round trip and deposit you with the interviewer at the time she/he is expecting.
  • Closure. I shouldn't have to say this either, but if someone does something, give them closure. If you say you're going to do something, do it and tell them it's done. People are going to volunteer to help and if they venture something on your behalf, taking it for granted is a turn-off to them. Don't overdo it though. You don't need to say I called. They didn't answer. I called again. Just say "thank you, I've got it. I'll let you know how it turns out." Or "I got your notes, thank you very much."
  • Dress. Opinion be divided, but less so as one goes up. My advice is dress professional, suit, skirt, whatever. No one can be faulted for trying to look professional and sneakers with a black turtleneck are an unnecessary risk. It'd be nice if it didn't look like you were wearing a tie for the first time in your life, but maybe you are.
  • Follow up to the referrer. Whoever does anything for you - be it an email introduction, giving you a lead, or reviewing something for you - follow up to let them know you "have it." You can of course say thank you, but you want to convey closure to the person who sourced it. Most senior people like closure and handing something off to you, should always result in them knowing that at least you have it in hand.
And here are some general things you should know.

  • Stigma and what smells. There is not automatically a stigma attached to being out of work. But it's not a positive thing. If at all possible, be doing your search while you still have a job. Recruiters and employees will also look at your resume for telltale signs of an issue in your past employment. Make sure you have a very clean, simple explanation and that it's check-ably accurate. Some stories are better than others. A merger is better than a downsizing is better than a job elimination is better than being let go for cause. Figure out your story and practice it.
  • Leaving your job. Generally this is not fun. Resign yourself to feeling bad about yourself for a while, but work to compartmentalize it and we're here to overcome it.
  • Age, race and sex. The reality is that all of these are factors in getting hired. I don't think we need to dwell on the unfairness of it. But if they're factors, there's not much you can do about them. You can decide the risk/reward of raising them openly in the process, but generally, except for age, I'd recommend against it doing much good. Oh, some people don't do this, but I show the year of my education on my resume.
  • Start now. Do not delay. In my experience it may take a week to lick your wounds when you get laid off. So OK, take a week to get your head together. But not much longer than that. I see people who go on 4 month sabbaticals, and in my experience it makes the process harder and less effective.
  • Do not quit out of pride. Sometimes in the corporate metabolism, you will wind up getting shunted aside, layered, reporting to someone you don't like and/or doing work you don't like either. My view is "choke it down." Just take it - and take the pay check. It is far better to do a search when you have a job than when you don't. The net of the humiliation is worth it.
  • Your friends & emotions. I think you will be surprised who helps you and who doesn't. Most of the people who stay in touch and try to help may have been the recipient of help once themselves and they remember that it, well, helps. I don't know what to say about those who become uncomfortable and distant, but expect some of it.

Your job history

In some sense this is the DNA, the skeleton, and look of your career. It is the accreted trail of your passage through the work world. What it wants to show is:
  • Progressive responsibility. That is, each job, later in time was in some way bigger than the job before. This may show within a company or across companies.
  • Fewer, more important jobs. It's healthy to have worked in different companies/organizations. There's no magic number, but generally you want each company affiliation to have been no shorter than 5-7 years. (Hence the total number of jobs on your resume will be a function of your age.) During your time at any one company you may have held 2-3 positions and that's fine. But 3 two year jobs is a problem. Don't create one by changing jobs too soon.
  • Skills. You need to bring something to the party and have something obvious to contribute. And by nature, you should be a contributor, not a taker. The further you go in your career the more obvious it should be that you have broader, deeper knowledge and experience than others. It's not easy to keep up to date, but there's not much to be gained by not learning. I've often been happily amused by the advice "Knowledge comes at a price. Pay it."
  • Results. Your work is not about your responsibilities, it's about what you got done. We'll cover this more in the section on the Resume itself.

Your resume

If you could stand inside your job history and shine a flashlight out through it to project its shadow on a wall, the shadow would be your resume. It is the text expression of who you are and what you've accomplished. The resume is important and has a purpose. But the resume can only present who you are and what you've done. The purpose of the resume is to get an interview. That's it. It's not to get a job. It's to get an interview. This is really self-evident, and it affects - in a good way - what to expect of it. But bear in mind, it's mostly optics and hence falls in the domain of communications and is subject to intense editing.

Regarding the resume, the principles are:

  • Start your CV with a punch. Below your name and contact information lies your branding title. Within 130 characters or so, you can capture the attention of the employer by stating what you do and in what capacity.
  • Quantifiable results are a must. Employers are not interested in a grocery list of duties; they're drawn to significant accomplishments that are quantified with numbers, dollars, and percentages.
  • Please no clichés or unsubstantiated adaptive skills. The new rule is to show rather than tell. Yes, you may be innovative; but what makes you innovative? Did you develop a program for inner-city youth that promoted a cooperative environment, reducing violent crime by 50%? If so, state it in your profile as such.
  • Tailor your resume to each job, when possible. Employers don't want a one-fits-all resume that doesn't address their needs or follow the job description. It's insulting. By the way, for all you job board junkies, a resume using the Target Job Deconstruction method is an adequate alternative to tailoring thousands of resumes.
  • Your resume needs to show relevance. Employers are interested in the past 10 or 15 years of your work history; in some cases less.
  • Keywords are essential for certain occupations that are technical in nature. They're the difference between being found at the top of the list or not at all.
  • Size matters. Some employers are reading hundreds of résumés for one job, so do them a favor and don't submit a resume that doesn't warrant its length. The general rule is two pages are appropriate providing you have the experience and accomplishments to back it up. More than two pages requires extensive experience. In some cases a one-page resume will do the job.
  • No employer cares what you want. That's right; employers care about what they want and need. If you happen to care what they want and can solve their problems and make them look good, they'll love you. So drop the meaningless objective statement that generally reads, "Seeking a position in a progressive company where I can utilize my journalism skills." Great if the employer cares about your desire to employ your journalism skills. Super great if they need a journalist.
  • Make it easy to read. Your resume should not only be visually appealing, it should be visually readable. Employers who read hundreds of resume s will glance at them for as few as 10 seconds before deciding to read them at length. Allow your resume to be scanned by writing shorter word blocks, three to four lines at most.
  • WOW them. Use WOW statements in your professional profile section in the form of accomplishments. Remember you are being seen by eyes that see thousands of resumes. You have only a few moments to get their attention with quantified statements.

Sourcing and Networking Channels

So now you know you need "leads." You have some already. You have all your friends and work associates. Everyone - and I mean everyone - is a potential source of either a job or a referral. Once, many years ago, I got a job because my wife met a friend of hers - not even mine - on a railway platform. I'd not met her or her husband, but her husband knew someone else, and eventually I got that job.

Random thoughts:

  • Meanwhile you need to sign up for the standard Online aggregators (like TheLadders, glass ceiling, monster, etc) at whatever level is right for you. You can utilize LinkedIn too.
  • Cold calling is tough, but it can work. I once got a job cold calling someone I'd never met. Think shameless. Do stuff you never thought you'd do.
  • Generally, I favor quantity over quality. Quality is great, but it is what it is. Quantity you can influence. And we're playing a game of odds, the more the better.
  • You need to have a very crisp statement of what you want out of the call. An "I'm calling because..." spiel. Practice it out loud to yourself. I think I gave an example of the structure of the conversation earlier.
  • The other thing you want to do is "get the word out" that you are looking. Some people do this through public speaking engagements, but me personally I tend to shy away from overly self-promotional activities. But still, engaging any professional organizations can't hurt. I'd not look to them for the answer. I'm just lukewarm on self-promotion. If you're a senior person, it'd be better that you be known in your industry.
  • One way of "getting in" is be referred by some senior or well-connected person in the organization. Your resume will at least get seen in a more serious light if someone higher up is recommending that the recruiter or hiring manager "take a look at this one". Use who you know. It may be a consultant that is doing work for the company you are targeting that has relationships higher up, or it may be an actual employee there. But check out who works there or is connected to people that work there to get a referral.


Recruiters are also a "channel", and deserve a section of their own.

There are essentially two types, and then there is a subdivision of one of them. The big division is Internal vs. external. Internal ones work for the company in question and only that company. They have a double edged job. They have fulfill the needs of hiring managers and they also need to not pass along the wrong kind of people as then they look bad. Their job is assess people and say "no" to people who don't fit the culture of the job as they understand it.

Internal recruiters perform "screening" interviews. You need to pass them, but there's little point in wowing them. Be enthusiastic, know something about the company, and be engaging so the recruiter has a good time. Bear in mind he or she has seen 20 people just like you and they've had a nearly identical conversation. Try to make their day easier. Do NOT bring up anything negative and don't ask too many questions. Bear in mind their main job is to filter out people who don't fit, so try to fit. Internal recruiters are general salaried and not working on commission.

External recruiters live on the deals they close. They need to find candidates the hiring company will hire. In a large sense they have a job requisition for position X and they try to find an X. If you are not an X, they will have a great conversation with you, but you will go into a database. They just asked the database for an X and perhaps you show up. Or perhaps you coincidentally just sent them a resume that looks a lot some form of X. Anyway, they need to keep their network alive, so they will generally be nice to you. But as a practical matter, if you are a Z, they can only place you with people looking for a Z.

External recruiters come in two flavors, contingency and retained. Generally contingency get paid on closing a deal. Retained get paid no matter what the outcome. They tend to do a much more thorough job, have much greater industry knowledge, and do more checking and grooming of candidates. They tend to work on higher paying, more senior positions. For example, there are no contingency recruiters for CEO jobs.

Recruiters are all people you want to retain good relations with. They may or may not ever place you, but likely you will get at least on job in your life through a recruiter. They get a disparaging wrap amongst your peers, but don't fall for it. Most are pretty good - to extremely good -- at what they do and they can add 50% to the power of your search. Most are possessed of extraordinary, extrasensory perceptions about people and they can help you learn and grow.

An external recruiter may be working on 20-50 jobs at any one time. If you don't fit now, check back in 6 months - or better, ask when you should check back. Things come and go and being top of mind doesn't hurt.

Recruiters are excellent at smell detection. They can look at a resume and get a sense if there's any hidden problem. During their interview of you, they'll be looking for the "tell." What happened here? Why did you change roles? Did you start that job immediately after the prior one? Be prepared to have a good story. You can't lie but you can put the best spin on things that you can. If there's anything funky, practice your story in the mirror.

External recruiters also tend to come in two tiers. There are a handful of multi-industry, international firms and then there are smaller, usually regional companies. If you get your resume to a person at one of the companies, it goes into their worldwide database. Which is to say that submitting it to 10 recruiters at the same company is not only unnecessary, it sort of marks you as a novice. In the ideal case, you'd submit and meet with the leader of the practice in your area (e.g. IT, Finance, whatever) and have her or his backing in their file on you. But the practice leader may be geographically distant, so take whom you can get.

As long as you don't duplicate your submissions within one recruiting company, there's no reason not to submit to multiple agencies. As a practical matter you may want 10 top tier agencies and 20-30 smaller retained or contingency agencies to be aware of you. Bear in mind that these 30-50 people all need to be called every 6 months so now you have 600 phone calls to make a year. Remember the part about the database and the process model and being disciplined? That would apply here.

Targeting a company

One of the most effective ways of getting a job is to target a company or, if you are to interview at one, get your head completely around the company in question. Now in truth this is something I've only seen done and have never done well myself. But watching it done made it clear that it was hugely effective. I'm too lazy to do all this, but what they did was learn the dynamics of the industry in the specific geography. This happened to be retail in Canada. Then they studied the company values and culture. There's material on the culture of most big companies. How does Volkswagen differ from Tesla? How does Target differ from Bust Buy? And then they researched all the managers (the job being high enough that the structure was guessable. They studied their backgrounds and profiles. This person went to the interview VERY prepared. They had solid questions, good suggestions and managed the balance between being an outsider and being able to add value.


You'll have worked meticulously and hard to get to an interview. This is a go/no-go moment - or rather set of moments.

It is not unusual to have 6 or so interviews. This is partially because groups often make better decisions than individuals, but also because (a) you will likely have to get along and work with the people you meet, so they have to be vested in you too. (c) Cynically, it's a risk mitigation strategy to get other people's finger prints on the hiring decision.

It's also not unusual to have the process take 2 months or so. Beyond that the employer is maybe not making enough of an effort to keep you warm.

Some thoughts:
  • Go on them all. Any, if the point of the resume was to get an interview. The purpose of the interview is to get an offer. An offer is not binding on you. You can turn it down. In fact you may have no interest in the situation at hand (having ruled it out for travel, comp, work, and whatever). But go on the interview. In fact go on every single interview you can. You need the practice. On the theory that you will make some mistakes and that you will mess up some percent of your interviews, you might as well mess up on some you don't care about. You will learn from the companies, you will learn from the questions and you should learn about your own thoughts, composure, performance, and people skills in the process. Go on them all.
  • Internal screening interviews. We talked about this before. You want to be hugely positive and not particularly realistic. You want to be excited about the exploration of outer space, not worrying about the dangers of liquid oxygen. As you get deeper into the nested shell of interview you want to be asking more questions, but never negative ones. You want to show a desire to understand the issues and contribute to their solution.
  • The 80/20 rule. In general the interviewer should talk 80% of the time. Or at least it's not unreasonable if they do. You may ask one question and he/she needs to give you a 5-10 minute answer that will connect to other things in his/her head. I used to have a world class manager who had the rule that as he sat down with a candidate, he would let the candidate talk as long as he held the floor. Maybe they were making chit chat, maybe the manager had asked "did you find the place OK?" but he'd let the candidate speak. It was not uncommon for him to report that candidates had spoken 20-50 minutes uninterrupted before starting a dialogue. They were done before they were done. Your job is to listen and learn and the interviewer will be reading the signature of your knowledge, judgment, intelligence, composure and personal likeability,
  • The airport test. They may not say it, but the interviewer is thinking "if I got stuck in an airport with this person for 24 hrs would it be fun or awful?" Try to be personal and to give the impression that you'd "wear well."
  • Both sides buying and selling at the same time. In principle this is amusing. But it's true and it adds complexity. You want to be selling yourself, or at least appearing as the most attractive option. Find out what's important to them and say - or show examples - that you're great at that. The funny thing is that people believe what you tell them. If you say "I'm great at that" they will actually tend to believe that you are great at it. Sell firmly but not aggressively. Make them want you. Meanwhile you can make your own buying decision later. Keep the digging for negative aspects to yourself. Yes, you can ask how much travel is involved. 90%? Oh that's fine. Deal with it later.
I've said this before, but it applies here: Do not create problems or barriers. Do your selling on the outside and your buying on the inside.
  • Make it seem like you work there. You will do some of this through your knowledge of the industry and the company and by showing your relevant experience ("oh, I don't know if would apply here, but here, we had a similar problem and here's how we solved it)..." Similarly, know the industry lingo. Is it "Revenue" or "Turnover?" is it "annual" or "per annum". And you have to know the industry and your functional specialty too. Likely a recruiter would not take a Finance person from a retail environment and put her forward to a health care provider. But if you were an IT person, you might make a connection with a Telco to do some consulting work. You already know your functional specialty. So learn as much as you can about the industry.
  • Meals. Lunch meetings are possible later in the process. Dinner meetings are possible later in the process for more senior positions.
  • Ask memorable questions. Asking questions serves several purposes. It avoids the fatal mistake of droning on (as described above). It engages the interviewer and makes him/her think. It generates dialogue which is a chance for you to interact and weave yourself into their mind as "I thought he had a good head on his shoulders and enjoyed talking about tariffs with him." It also adds value to the interviews life now as it gives perspective and feels fresh, plus of course good questions linger and reinforce your brand in their minds later.
  • Say you want the job. I mean this literally. Mouth the actual words "I like this job and I'll take it if you offer it to me." Or something to that effect. Remember in the concurrent dance of both sides buying and selling, you taking a stance helps simplify the situation for the hiring manager. It will also differentiate you in their mind. Not everyone will be so forthright as to ask for the job. Plus, cunningly, it's harder for them to say no to someone who asks directly. And while it might seem that it tips your hand and weakens your negotiating stance, it doesn't. Remember we're in an interview and the purpose of the interview is to get an offer. We'll deal with the offer when you get it. Right now you want the offer (assuming you do).
  • Samples of your work. I've always liked people who brought samples of their work. It's sort of a hardcopy thing, but it shows confidence and pride. It can be a "we did this" sort of inclusive thing. Plus it's hopefully reinforces your brand and give the two of you something more concrete to talk about.

The application

It's hardly worth the mention, but the physical (online or paper) application is just a possible pitfall, so get it right. Filling out the app won't get you a job, but a mistake there can be a problem. Make sure every date is accurate. Make sure all compensation numbers are correct. Sometimes base and bonus don't exactly equal your total compensation (say differing by commission), so you can use your total W2 but if possible put a note to that effect. Dates of employment, titles, and compensation will be checked and an error basically indicates lying, which is a red-flag disqualification. Don't do it. If there's some odd circumstance, it's better to leave the question blank and do the explanation orally or in a side note.

Sometimes there is a question about the minimum compensation you will accept. If yours is reasonable, fine, fill it out. If there's an issue (say part time or contract work), leave it blank or put "Let's discuss" or something to that effect. This question is mostly there to weed out people with requirements in excess of what the company is willing to pay.

Remember that list we made of every job you ever had? You will need that info now. You may have needed it earlier with a recruiter.

Personal references

A "reference" is a person who is supposed to vouch for your ability to do what you have represented you have done and can do. References are more the norm for higher level, retained search background checks. It is best to figure out at the beginning of your search who you might want as your reference. You can pick 5-10 people and then ask them if they'd be willing to serve as a reference when the time comes (and it comes at the end of the process). This asking-in-advance is a lot more professional and respectful than calling out of the blue with some deadline need. Let the reference know it may be some months, but you wanted to check in advance.

When you are finally asked for a reference and you supply one, let the reference know that you've done so. Let them know what the job is, etc. Let them know who you think may be contacting you on your behalf. Then, once it's settled, let them know the outcome of your application regardless of the outcome. Maybe they didn't off you the job. Maybe you turned it down. Maybe it was perfect fit and there was a happy ending. But someone vouching for you deserves to know and deserves to know how you handled it.

The end

When it's all over - and it will end - drop a note of thanks to everyone who helped you. I mean an individual note, not a Facebook post or a giant cc. Say something to the effect of "You were of great help to me in my search so I just wanted to let you know that I wound up at xxx. My new contact info is xxx".

This serves three purposes. First it recognizes and shows appreciation for the help you received. Second, for recruiters, it allows them to update their database so that if they come looking for you later, they know where to find you. And lastly of course, it humanizes you and sustains your network - which is likely what got you to the end.

We hope you enjoy these suggestions.
Feel free to email your thoughts to: Jhomer@jbhomer.com

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