Top 10 Executive Job Hunting Traps

At MDL Partners, we have worked with thousands of executives in their career transition and job search.  What we have learned is that candidates who have tried to navigate a senior-level career transition on their own before becoming clients are often guilty of having fallen into one or more executive job-hunting traps.  This applies to the most experienced Chief Executive Officers, COOs, and CFOs.  As a result, they have been delayed or sidetracked for a period of weeks, months, or in some cases, years before learning how to avoid them.  Below are some of the more common traps that we have seen based on decades of experience working with senior executives:


1) Lack of a Focus in Executive Career Search

This is probably the most damaging trap.  Since most executive jobs are found through professional networking, you should use your existing contacts to find useful new contacts.  If you cannot explain where you want to go, it is very difficult for your contact to explore their network to make appropriate introductions.  The “I can do anything for anybody, anytime, anywhere; what have you got?” approach does NOT work.

2) No Plan/Wrong Plan

Management By Wandering Around (MBWA) has been accepted as part of management theory.  Job Search By Wandering Around (JSBWA) is not a proven search strategy.  Finding a new position is very much like marketing a new product.  Once you have identified the product’s features and benefits, as well as its unique value position, and you have completed research to identify the product’s potential markets, then you understand that a structured approach using multiple sales channels is what will work best to bring that product to market and ensure its success.  Similarly, when in career transition, these same premises apply to you as a candidate.

3) The 200 lb. Telephone

Searching via postings, letters, and the internet is frustrating, but it doesn’t put you at any risk emotionally.  Making a phone call, however, creates an opportunity for rejection.  Because of this, it is easy to defer phone calls.  It is also easy to talk yourself out of following up with contacts because you’ve convinced yourself that they are a long shot and won’t lead anywhere anyway.  However, some of these long-shot phone calls may lead to the golden opportunity.  The best strategy is to tenaciously follow every lead.

4) The Executive Ego

Highly successful executives often find it hard to believe that they have to initiate effort in their job search.  For some, it is hard to ask others for help and difficult to make calls and not receive callbacks.  Some executives, however, are more than happy to talk at length about their past successes and presume the listener will identify their strengths.  With the executive ego in their way, they miss the opportunity to listen carefully and use what they learn to target areas in which to sell themselves.

5) The Never Ending To-Do List

This trap is similar to the 200 lb. telephone.  Concern about rejection makes it easy to substitute other things in place of taking action, preempting the job search.  One of our clients remodeled his house from top to bottom before starting a search.  The good news is that he was able to sell it at a premium and took a position in the construction industry, but this is not a recommended strategy.

6) The Entrepreneurial or Startup Venture

Many clients believe the best way to a new position is through starting or buying a company.  While this is certainly an option for some, the reality is that both of these options require significant time and resources, almost to the exclusion of other search efforts.  An easy trap is to devote 100% of your time to finding a company or finding financing for a startup when you aren’t truly in a place to do so.  Six months or a year later, when the deal falls through, your startup doesn’t find market fit, and your resources are further depleted, you wonder why at least some time wasn’t devoted to a traditional search.

7) Lack of Discipline

Everybody says a job search can be a full-time job.  In many ways this is true, but there is one big difference, and that is, that many job seekers have no structure to their role.  In a job, you have a boss or a board, relatively regular hours, a specific place to go, and a relatively organized support structure.  Without these, you are 100% responsible for the discipline of the search and the quality of your output.  This could be worse, however.  You could be employed with that whole support structure working to keep you from devoting time to your search.  It takes discipline to do your most important search-related activities first, taking those few minutes for yourself at the beginning of the day, and then managing work beyond that.  There are plenty of online tools that can help you get organized and set your search up for success.  There are AI tools that help you with resume writing, finding target companies with your search and even applying for jobs with just a few clicks.

8) Executive Consulting or Fractional CXO

A reasonably effective search strategy is to use consulting or coming on as a Fractional CFO, COO, etc. as a door opener.  It can serve as a trial marriage with less risk for either party and often provides the opportunity to understand a company’s real problems, create a business proposition, and create a position where one may not have previously been.  If, on the other hand, it requires a full-time commitment, takes you out of the search effort, or doesn’t lead to new skills or new contacts, it should be evaluated very carefully.

9) Finishing the Search

Probably the worst mistake that you can make is stopping your networking and other career management initiatives when you find a new position.  Career management, particularly when you are faced with the challenges of a new position, is difficult to do.  Unless your employer has offered you a lifetime contract, you will probably be in the market again at some point in the future.  Make life easier for yourself the next time by remembering the lessons of this search.  Maintain your networking connections, stay marketable, keep in touch with search firms, and stay active in industry/professional associations.

10) Doing It Alone

The executive job search is complex and can easily become an emotional roller coaster.  It is surprising how few people have established a support network or grounding board when there are so many resources available.  Many industry/professional associations have career-related services, and colleges and universities offer the same.  And excellent career consulting and outplacement firms are available in every area of the country.  “No man is an island.”

If you’re strategizing your next executive or leadership job search, Contact Us to learn how our team of career consultants and professional coaches can support your journey.