Job Hunting

You’re Out of a Job, Now What?

Yes, "networking" is an overused buzzword. But when you're between jobs, it's your best bet for snagging a new one.
Marie LeoneNovember 7, 2007

Five years ago, Peter Iannone watched his chief financial officer job at Envenergy, a small Santa Barbara-area technology company, disappear in a merger. Knowing that the top finance spot would be offered to the CFO of the other company, Colorado-based Encorp, he began to plan for a new future.

But rather than create a list of available CFO jobs and flood the market with résumés, Iannone, then 44, chose another approach. He spread the word among a score of friends and former colleagues that he was heading for a transition. And what came back to him was unexpected: His perspective on the job hunt was totally transformed.

“After I got past the emotional panic of not knowing what I was going to do on Monday morning,” Iannone says, “I realized that I had an opportunity.” At heart, he’d always been “an internal controls guy.” The epiphany — realizing that perhaps he should pursue such a position rather than grab the best current CFO slot — came from an old mentor: a CFO he had worked for 25 years earlier, and who had been the first to promote Iannone to department manager.

So he set up a sole proprietorship to take on accounting and finance consulting jobs, all the while tapping his network to test the career change idea. That steered him into the path of a 15-year-old contact who now worked for tax and accounting advisory firm CBiz Inc. By late 2003 Iannone “made a 180 turn back to public accounting,” signing on as a CBiz director and internal controls specialist.

What had opened him to the change, Iannone now says, was the exposure to people who knew his strengths and weaknesses, and could point out the obvious. And that mentor from 25 years ago in particular. His list of contacts reached back to his public accounting days with Arthur Young & Co., before he moved into corporate finance, and into 12 years as CFO for Spatz Laboratories, and then three as Envenergy finance chief. While the list of contacts wasn’t that long, “I’d take a solid network over a huge network any day,” contends Iannone.

Few executives keep as close as Iannone to key acquaintances from past years and past jobs. But they should.

Indeed, according to several career counseling experts, Iannone’s job search was picture perfect — maintaining a professional network while he had a job, soliciting advice when he knew change was imminent, and then tapping the network to find job opportunities that suited his personal goals. Easier said than done, note the experts. That’s why they are keen on offering advice about how to build a network, a personal brand, and a new career.

Job-Search Risk Management

Risk management is part of a CFO’s daily routine, of course. But even executives adept at hedging financial positions, calculating reserves, or scrutinizing insurance policies often fail to bring a risk frame of reference to their personal lives. “They need a similar, risk-based approach for their career,” asserts Chuck Eldridge, who heads the financial officers’ practice for executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. In other words, says Eldrige, don’t wait until you’ve lost your job to build a network.

“You’ve got to form a personal board of advisors,” adds Howard Seidel of Essex Partners, an outplacement firm. The board should comprise individuals that know your work, capabilities, and personal goals, and who will act as a champion or a mentor, he says.

The bulk of senior level jobs are won through networking, he suggests — something his outplacement firm facilitates via peer group meetings. By his lights, about 30 percent of senior-level positions at big and small companies are filled by recruiters, with about 10 percent captured through published ads. Using that calculation, networking fills the remaining openings. “It’s cliché [to talk about networking], but it is a huge element of a job search.”

Seidel is ardent about including a champion in one’s network. “In this day and age, when employers are skeptical of résumés, it means a lot to be recommended” by a former colleagues, bosses, or board members. A powerful, personal reference “changes the dynamic” of the hiring process, Seidel asserts.

Your Auditor Knows

So how do you build a network? Start with your business contacts. “Auditors, not headhunters know how good you are, and they are not compensated for their opinion,” says executive coach Maggie Craddock, president of Workplace Relationships Inc. Indeed, she adds, auditors and other service providers know the real score and usually are privy to the pipeline of job openings.

What’s more, CFOs have more opportunities to build strong professional networks than do other corporate managers, claims Jim Poe, a partner at executive search firm Polachi & Co. That’s because they are exposed to many more external constituencies, from bankers and auditors to lawyers and investors. And that’s not even counting formal networking groups like Financial Executives International and The Financial Executives Networking Group.

Bankers make especially great business contacts, according to Ron Proul, CEO of Century Group, a professional search and consultancy specializing in finance and accounting. Further, both investment bankers and commercial bankers have vested interests in placing a CFO at a client or portfolio company, says Proul. And so, too, do angel and venture capital investors. Such a placements could strengthen the leadership of the company, which in turn protects the company’s prospects. In addition, the placement usually creates a better personal relationship between the lender and the company’s CFO.

Proul recalls a recent interview with a finance chief who had made the jump to the president’s role. The former CFO said he and his prospective employer had used the same banker, and that connection had played a role in the president’s hiring. Financing had been a crucial part of the company’s expansion strategy, and both the employer and its lender wanted to hire someone for the president’s role they had confidence in. “The bank’s endorsement sealed the deal,” explained Proul.

A Good Opening Line

Networks never die, no matter how dormant they seem. “It’s okay to call up someone out of the blue, someone you haven’t talked to in four years,” suggests Seidel. “Remember, they haven’t called you either.”

It’s easier than you might thing to call an old associate, says the outplacement expert. He suggests starting with a line like: “I wish I was making this call under better circumstances, but I’m looking for a new job and was wondering if we could get together so I could pick your brain about the market.”

Some out-of-work executives see a stigma attached to job transitioning, and keep their situation a secret. Bad idea. It’s counterproductive and limits the network, says Seidel. Instead, talk about your job search with friends and neighbors, who may be inclined to pass along a résumé or keep their eyes peeled for opportunities.

Networking isn’t about getting a job. “It’s about seeking advice,” he maintains. The goal: learn something new every time you network. Add to your knowledge of the market, a company, a potential new boss, contacts you have in common. Inviting someone for a cup of coffee just to discuss job openings leads to a quick yes or no answer — and disappointment. The job seeker feels the conversation was a waste of time, and the colleague feels like he or she was useless.

End all conversations on a positive note, suggests Seidel: “Is there anyone else in our industry that you think I should talk to?” or “Do you know anyone at that company that I could call?”

He cautions against relying on formal networking groups. While they should be a component of a networking plan, they require traveling from meeting to meeting, taking time from the building of a personal network. The same is true for virtual networking via online sites. Make virtual networking a component of your plan, but don’t use it to replace “old fashioned” personal networking.

Have Spreadsheet, Will Travel

“Don’t take yourself out of the market,” counsels Korn/Ferry’s Eldridge, who sees a job transition as the wrong time to take a vacation or sabbatical. Delays between an executive’s departure from one company and arrival at the next creates questions for potential employers.

Even taking on consulting assignments is “tricky to balance,” he claims. Every hour job hunters spend on freelance work is an hour subtracted from the search. He admits that there are practical considerations — most important may be needing income — that take precedent over full-time networking. But he warns against the dangers of not doing enough.

Some finance chiefs in transition accept assignments with interim CFO firms or finance and accounting consultancies, figuring they will provide sustenance while helping identify jobs among client companies. Clients sometimes do buy out the contract of an acting CFO or consultant. But be careful. It doesn’t happen often enough to make interim work a job hunting strategy.

While being a temporary CFO can be a terrific career, says Eldridge, “I wouldn’t go to an interim firm with the idea of becoming permanent.” Pro tem CFOs have specific skills. They’re “relationship kings and gurus,” he says, adept at forming solid relationships quickly and developing intensity about a project over a short period of time. It’s similar to the model used at Big Four accounting firms, or at interim CFO firms, notes Eldridge.

At least one interim CFO firm, Tatum LLC, has a slightly different take on the subject. Tatum chief executive Richard D’Amaro explains that while Tatum is a career destination for many temporary CFOs — with CFO assignments ranging from 13 years to a few months — it also generates about one-third of its revenue as an executive search firm, placing interim CFOs at client companies for a fee. One reason for the high instance of placements may be that finance chiefs joining Tatum as guns for hire typically have the credentials to remain at a company as a permanent member of the management team, rather than being a more narrowly focused project specialist.


Coke is the real thing, while with Allstate you’re in good hands, and Nike just does it. What’s your brand? How do potential employers, former colleagues, and service providers perceive your brand of management and business savvy? Part of the answer is in your personal style, says Craddock, who has worked with many CFOs who run tight ships, but remain detached and even abrasive. Applying such an approach to job hunging won’t work, says the executive coach. Rather, work to become more involved with people, not just the work, during a transition and beyond.

Proul claims that “career goals may change, but a branded individual will have the ability to make transitions easier and at their discretion.” And the building blocks of a personal brand are probably already listed on a job seeker’s résumé, including the types and size of the industries, markets, and companies a candidate has worked in, as well as career path, work/life balance, skills, strengths, and expertise, says Proul.

Also, candidates should co-brand themselves through association with employers or departments, writes Proul in a report he authored for Century Group. He explains that many candidates are called in for interviews because of the strong reputation of the company, industry, or products with which they are associated. Writes Proul: “Your employer already spends time and money on marketing; you can capitalize on it. In no other business relationship can you more freely use the branding and name of a company without consent.”

Since a résumé is the primary billboard for a personal brand, keep it updated, Iannone recommends. “Updating a résumé is like taking down the Christmas lights after the holiday. You may not like it, but it’s something you have to do every year.” By performing an annual cleanup, the document better portrays a candidate’s most pertinent skill set and accomplishments, and sometimes helps to reposition career goals.

Seidel, though, cautions candidates to first test the brand with their personal board of advisors, only then releasing it to the market. For instance, find out what the market wants and how your brand can be positioned to fill current voids. Some candidates may want to play up their experience in different industries and ability to effectively manage corporate finance issues across multiple sectors. Other may want to tout deep industry knowledge, for instance.

The key is to balance the brand, he says. “The brand and résumé should tell the candidate’s story.” But if a candidate brands too narrowly, there will not be enough opportunity in the marketplace. If the brand is too generic, it may lack value. “Once a brand is out in the marketplace, it is hard to pull back,” warns Seidel. After all, Ford is still trying to live down the Edsel.