Overqualified…and Out of Work

Here is why and how some finance execs take the delicate step of applying for smaller roles than they previously held.
Alix StuartAugust 6, 2010

Several years ago, Vernon LoForti made the leap so many CFOs dream of: after 13 years as finance chief for Overland Storage, then a $150 million-plus publicly traded data-management company with more than 300 employees, he became the San Diego-based company’s CEO. When he and the board split last year over the best way for the company to survive the downturn and industry changes, though, LoForti found himself out in the choppy waters of the job market for the first time in about 15 years.

“Being unemployed is tough — it’s mentally difficult, yet you always have to be up, since you’re out there networking all the time,” says LoForti, who initially thought his job search would wrap up within six months, or by last April. While he went to an office each day to conduct his job search, diligently worked his network, and took some consulting positions on the side, he was eager for another full-time job.

To keep all options open, LoForti worded his résumé very carefully, he says, because “I didn’t want to be painted into a corner of requiring a CEO position.” To that end, he billed his promotion as a transitional role, aimed specifically at trying to help the company turn around financially, rather than something he expected to hold long term. “I made a conscious effort to position my résumé to show that [the CFO seat] is where I want to be, and that I wouldn’t be looking to take the CEO’s job when I got there,” he says.

The strategy worked: last month LoForti started work as the CFO of InfoSonics, a publicly traded distributor of mobile phones that is smaller than his former employer in some ways, but in what he hopes is a good position to grow.

Looking to go lateral — or even slightly backward — in terms of titles and roles is hardly uncommon these days, experts say. Given the enduring grind of the recession, “a good portion of the senior executives I work with are looking at a wide range of roles, and taking a half-step down is one of them,” says Stephen Ford, managing partner of OI Partners. “If you’re deciding between, say, a $20,000 pay cut or no paycheck, it can be an easy decision.”

The biggest question, in fact, is how to convincingly apply for such a job without bending the truth too much. Most companies these days are wary of hiring someone who appears obviously overqualified for fear they’ll flee to a greener pasture as soon as one becomes available. One tactic: eliminate numbers from your résumé. “If you’re going to a department where you would manage 5 people and you came from a place where you managed 30, you need to say only that you were responsible for the department, without elaborating on how many people there were,” says Ford. Potential employers “may intuitively know it’s a larger number, but they won’t know how much larger.”

Ford doesn’t recommend leaving jobs of any significance, or even irrelevant degrees, off the résumé, since “those things tend to turn up” when an employer does further background research and can then cast doubt on an applicant’s honesty. He does, however, advocate putting past titles in context to indicate how big or small a job truly was. “You may have had a big title at a small company, and if you want to show that, you can list what functions you covered,” he says, with omissions speaking for themselves. (On the flip side, when a job was larger than a title indicates, some of his clients have gotten permission from past employers to adjust their former titles slightly.)

Job seekers can also take the approach of figuring out what general experiences they might have in common with a target company. “Make some educated guesses about the specific pressures facing a business, such as whether [it’s] facing high growth, or if [its] industry is going through a lot of change, and talk a lot about your experiences in those areas,” says Ford.

Most promising, of course, are the half-steps back that offer plenty of room to grow. Ford tells of one finance executive who accepted a position as a bookkeeper for a small company in the early 1980s and soon convinced the firm to make him a partner.

More recently, this past spring Steve McElhinney, former CFO of Warren, Michigan-based Warrior Sports, accepted a job as controller of Karmaloop, a Boston-based retailer with similar revenues to Warrior, with the promise that he would transition to the CFO role within 12 to 18 months. For McElhinney, the driving force for the job change was geographical; the desire to move his family back to his wife’s home state. With that box checked, he was happy to work through the transition period, something he says has so far yielded “no frustration” since the current CFO often prefers to work from home, making it easier for him to take on more responsibilities at the office.

Such arrangements are rare, occurring in only about 10% of all job offers, estimates Colin Moor, senior vice president with Keystone Associates, the firm that helped McElhinney in his search, and rarely carry a guarantee or any sort of contractual obligation. However, it may be worth asking about future opportunities at the firm. “Some companies are very forthcoming, and will explain that you would be the planned successor when the current CFO retires, generally indicating a time frame,” he says.

Still, some finance executives remain unmoved by such an approach. “The only time I would consider that is for a short-term project,” says Gary Starr, who was CFO of a midmarket consulting firm in the New York area before helping to sell it late last year. In fact, he’s currently mulling such a project, one that would involve “a meaty role” and some income but would mean reporting to someone whose job he feels he could easily handle. Taking a lesser title on a permanent basis, however, is out of the question for him at the moment. Says Starr: “It seems like settling.”