The Right Role

Looking for a new job? Here's what to expect.
Eila RanaDecember 10, 2007

It’s summer time and Caroline Stockmann — the former head of global business planning at Novartis, a $37 billion (€25.4 billion) Swiss pharmaceuticals company — is trying to relax in Italy during a family holiday with her husband, Michael, and two children, two-year-old Liam and eight-year-old Rebecca. Her mind, however, is on what the future holds for her career.

Stockmann, previously CFO of Unilever Thailand, resigned from Novartis in March. Since then, while still working through her notice period, the 45-year-old British expat has been shuttling between Basel and London for interviews with recruiters, sending out CVs and working the phones. “It’s an uncomfortable experience wondering whether you’ll find the right job, and if you hold out for it, whether a resulting gap in the CV would look bad,” she says. “But you just have to keep calm and keep going.”

Over in Belgium, 47-year-old Wim Van der Smissen — a former Unilever colleague of Stockmann’s — has a different attitude towards his job search. After a 23-year career in finance — all at Unilever, a €40 billion Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company — Van der Smissen left his role as CFO of its Belgian operations and has taken four months off to decide what to do next before getting into job-hunting mode.

Across the Channel in London’s Canary Wharf, Tamara Singh, 27, is also looking forward to taking time out. Though the trade control analyst at BP Oil International handed in her resignation in August, she decided to stay on until the end of the year to help complete an SAP implementation project because she didn’t want to leave her colleagues “high and dry.” She’s been an analyst at BP’s trading desk for just under two years but she wants to broaden her horizons and get experience in another industry. By the start of the new year, she’ll be cruising around South America for a couple of months on a second honeymoon with her husband, a banker in London, ending up in Rio de Janeiro at carnival time. Singh has deliberately kept her job search low-key until she gets back because she knows she won’t be available for work until then.

Then there’s 29-year-old Mark Laine-Toner. He spent seven-and-a-half years working his way through finance at J Sainsbury, a £17 billion (€24 billion) UK supermarket chain, becoming regional financial controller. Now he has set his sights on a finance director’s post. But there’s an important gap in his CV — he has no experience in group finance. If he wants to gain that experience at Sainsbury, he has to move from Leeds in the north of England, where he lives with his girlfriend, to its London headquarters. But his girlfriend doesn’t want to move. “We’ve talked about commuting or whether I could spend weekdays in London, but that would probably destroy my relationship and my job isn’t worth that,” says Laine-Toner. “So increasingly I’m seeing that I’m going to have to go externally.”

Though at various rungs of the career ladder, Stockmann, Van der Smissen, Singh and Laine-Toner all are entering the job market at a time when they’ll be in high demand. Globally, 56% of CFOs report having difficulty finding good job candidates, according to recruiter Robert Half International’s latest report on the finance job market. That figure is even higher in many parts of Europe, including Italy, Luxembourg and Spain. Why the difficulty? Ian Graves, Paris-based managing director of continental Europe and the Middle East at RHI, says Sarbanes-Oxley, IFRS and other changes in finance-related regulations have created unprecedented demand for finance professionals with experience of compliance — 64% of respondents to RHI’s research cited this as their most sought-after area of expertise — and candidates with that knowledge are in short supply. “We’re also seeing the baby-boom decline, which means there aren’t enough people coming through to fill the gap,” says Graves.

What will woo the candidates who are in such short supply? It’s certainly not just the pay. As CFO Europe learned after shadowing job-hunting finance professionals over the past few months, job satisfaction is just as, if not more, important than money. Industry research chimes with our finding. In a recent survey of finance executives by Deloitte, respondents cited poor career-development opportunities as the number-one reason why their staff are resigning.

Whether a CFO or a senior accountant, finance professionals who do hand in their resignations now have a golden opportunity not to take just any old job, but to go after their ideal. More than ever, job-seekers are interviewing their prospective employers as much as they are being interviewed, and holding out until they find the next job that ticks not just a few but all the boxes.

Q&A Session

Well before resigning, job-hunters should start thinking about what they like and dislike about their current jobs. Stockmann, for example, discovered that the traditional, top-down culture at Novartis didn’t fit well with how she liked to manage and be managed. At other companies, she gave her staff the freedom to use their initiative and encouraged teamwork, getting consensus on important decisions when possible. Another concern was that a promise at the interview stage that she would focus on the operational side of the role while her boss would focus on strategy didn’t happen, resulting in a lot of treading on toes.

In Van der Smissen’s case, after spending three years as FD of Unilever in Belgium, he couldn’t see a way of progressing up the finance ladder without moving to another country, probably the UK or the Netherlands. Van der Smissen had already moved around enough with Unilever every three to four years to know that “any future role with the company would be an expatriation role without a possible return to Belgium,” he says. Packing his bags yet again just wasn’t appealing, especially having experienced the challenges of a “split family life,” when he worked abroad while his wife, Marijke, and two daughters, now 19 and 20, stayed behind in Belgium. He also wanted to live closer to his father, a 79-year-old widower.

Similarly, Singh had difficulty seeing how she could achieve her aim — to learn about new products — without leaving BP. “Because BP is an oil business, everything is driven by the fact that we get this stuff from the ground and sell it,” she says. “The oil industry is mature and I wanted to get exposure to other products, and BP can’t really do that for me.” While her personality suited the culture at BP, she says, her ambitions did not.

As for Laine-Toner — who sailed through Sainsbury’s three-year graduate scheme, leading to jobs in operational audit, commercial finance, credit management and management accounts — the only option for him, he believes, is to look for a job that offers the experience he needs but is closer to home. He’s no stranger to doing the unexpected though. He reached his current role via an unconventional route — skipping university in favour of a finance and business diploma and then starting his first job, as an accounts clerk with a UK health-club company, at just 18. He’s proud of the fact that he eventually became the only non-graduate ever to get on to Sainsbury’s graduate scheme. The next challenge is to leave Sainsbury for the right role. “It feels like an uncomfortable situation to be in, but if I don’t get that experience I would have a hole and then it would be an issue for me to get that director role,” he says.

Where to Start

Job-seekers today have a long list of criteria they would like their next jobs to meet. Having been placed in a business planning role, Stockmann wanted to return to being a CFO and she wanted to sit on a board again. She also wanted to work for a company with a strong ethical stance that was “doing good” in some way. That’s what she had liked about Novartis: “The work they’re doing to save, extend and improve lives appeals to me because it’s doing something valid that is helping others and is right for humanity.” Although being flexible about location — she and her partner wanted to stay abroad a few more years — meant that she spoke with potential employers in the US, Asia and Europe, it was the role itself, as well as a “lively” London location, that was the deciding factor.

While Van der Smissen wanted to stay in Belgium, he enjoyed the international aspect of his work with Unilever. “I liked working with people from different cultures, understanding why people do the things they do or why they don’t do the things I expect them to do. So I was looking for something that had an international dimension to it,” he says. He also wanted to work for a company that produces tangible products, rather than services, and is a recognised brand name in its market. And, crucially, he knew what he didn’t want: more than an hour’s commute at each end of the working day.

For Singh, apart from developing her knowledge about a wider range of products, she wants to continue working with “challenging people.” “You can’t work with people who don’t have anything to teach you,” says Singh, who had studied law before joining a graduate scheme at UK energy company Centrica, where she moved from junior accounting roles to internal audit and working in a strategic team. At BP, “I love working with traders even though they can be difficult because I like the challenge of negotiating with them. If you tell them one plus one is two, they want to know how you know that one is one — that’s what I mean by challenging people.” Other criteria? A global company with a competitive internal environment, a good reputation and a culture of “trust and openness.”

Laine-Toner has a list of “personal values” — including openness, honesty, integrity and respect — that he wants to see at any company where he works. But the two things that are most important to him are a commitment to career development and — like Stockmann — a belief in the company’s values. “The reason I have been with Sainsbury for so long is that I believe in what the company’s trying to do,” he says. “I believe in its sustainability agenda. We changed our bananas to 100% Fairtrade and that, for me, is inspired. I couldn’t work for a company that I didn’t believe was doing the right thing.”

The Job Hunt

Of course, finding the right company and the right job at the right time isn’t easy. When Singh resigned from BP, she posted her CV on and Within days, she received up to 20 phone calls from recruiters and although she accepted a handful of interviews, she quickly became jaundiced. “If I had my way, I would prefer not to use recruiters because they’re not there to help me. They are there for their clients,” she says. Despite telling recruiters she wanted to move from product control to pursue analytical or client-facing work, she found herself accepting several interviews in product control, with unsatisfying results. “The recruiters look incompetent, I look like I haven’t properly articulated what I want and the client wonders if they’ve done the same,” says Singh. Yet she can’t rule out turning to recruiters again, especially since access to many vacancies is only possible through them.

Van der Smissen also had mixed experiences with recruiters. That’s why he’s heeding advice that an outplacement service offered him — use every job search channel available. As well as sending his CV to headhunters, he methodically scoured the jobs pages in newspapers, magazines, specialist publications and online job sites. He also began networking with friends, former colleagues and other business associates. “I made sure I talked to people I knew and asked whether they could help me to find a job or whether they had any ideas or suggestions on how to go about finding the job I was looking for,” he says.

What if you don’t have a network? That’s a problem Laine-Toner is discovering. “For me there’s a hole in the finance profession taking people to the next stage of their careers,” he says. “I don’t think there is very good careers advice available. How fantastic it would be if I could get a list of FDs in Leeds who want to be mentors, but the ACCA [the accountancy body through which Laine-Toner qualified] doesn’t offer that information.” He has taken matters into his own hands, building a network from scratch by attending ACCA events in Leeds.

Go Forth and Network

Stockmann has taken a different route. She’s been working with Karen Armon of MarketOne Executive, a coach she found through One of their first projects was to revamp Stockmann’s CV. “It became more narrative, with points of evidence of what I’d done and a chronology of past companies at the back,” says Stockmann. “When I issued the CV it got a lot of interest as it made clear who I am — and the risk of the wrong job was significantly reduced.” Stockmann also began working with Armon to publish articles on various websites in order to build an electronic presence and get picked up on Google. “That’s the future, I think,” says Stockmann. “Even if you’re not looking for a job, it’s certainly good in terms of reputation — people can see who you are and what you do and what you think.”

Meanwhile, Stockmann set herself up for some online social networking on LinkedIn, building up nearly 300 contacts. In the process, she learned many dos and don’ts — for example, she advises job-seekers to avoid using networking sites to approach people for jobs; she believes that they’re more useful for reconnecting with contacts and letting them know about your job status and what you’re up to. She also recommends that job-seekers use the sites to approach someone who’s working at a company that they’re thinking about joining in order to find out how they treat their employees. She also advocates providing advice and feedback to other job-seekers whenever asked. “If you do those things, then someone’s going to help you at some point,” says Stockmann.

When Stockmann started getting responses to her CV, she built up a database of every conversation she had with a headhunter or other contact about a job and what her next steps would be, because she didn’t want to trip up during her job search, such as making the same call twice or talking to two different headhunters about the same job. She says, “You need to really work a lot of people — to rapidly find out which ones you can trust — but it’s important not to give that impression, otherwise they may think, ‘Why bother, as she’s going to get a job through someone else anyway?’” And while still based in Basel, she travelled to London often over the autumn months for face-to-face meetings with recruiters. As she notes, “If you’re abroad, people don’t feel you’re available so I invested my own money to make sure I was in London.”

Clinching the Deal

By autumn, how had the candidates fared? Stockmann had attended interviews at a number of blue-chip companies, including Carlsberg, Kerry Foods and AstraZeneca. By September, she had two offers on the table — one as head of operational planning with BT, and another as finance and commercial director at the Southbank Centre, the eight-hectare site along the Thames, which includes the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward art gallery and various restaurants and shops. She chose the Southbank Centre because of two important aspects — she would be going back to a CFO role and, as a keen flautist, the organisation involved something she was passionate about. She has lost some of the perks of working for a big company but feels like she’s adding “significant value.”

Van der Smissen also left the multinational world behind. In September, he joined Reynaers Aluminium, a €270m Belgian producer of aluminium systems, as director of finance and IT. The family-owned business operates in 27 countries and, as a bonus, is within 45-minutes commuting time of Van der Smissen’s home. “It’s different working for a smaller organisation, but that was the choice I made,” he says. The pace of business is faster and resources are scarce, adding a new dimension to investment decisions. But, like Stockmann, Van der Smissen can clearly see where he can add value, and that’s proving to be satisfying.

Singh, meanwhile, is winding down at BP and getting ready for her cruise. She has had first-stage interviews with a number of banks including HSBC, Morgan Stanley and Barclays Capital and, while they have asked her back for further talks, there is no firm offer on the table. She did come close to her dream job — as a financial and treasury analyst — with UBS. But the recruitment process came to a halt before a decision was made. Singh thinks she may be a victim of belt-tightening during the credit crunch but she’s not giving up. “I’m probably going to email the guy I interviewed with. If you find a job you really want, you have to fight for it, otherwise you would always kick yourself,” she says.

As for Laine-Toner, he has some tough decisions to make. “The problem I’m now faced with is that I’m approaching 30, I’m at quite a senior level in Sainsbury and being paid quite decent money but I don’t have an understanding of some technical areas that I would have if I was in a decent-sized SME, which is quite worrying,” he says. Will he try to persuade his girlfriend to move to London so he can stay with Sainsbury? Or will he leave the security and status of a blue chip to try his luck in Leeds? It all depends on how well those networking evenings go.

Eila Rana is a senior editor at CFO Europe.