Want a job in the C-suite? Make sure you are (or aren't) doing these 4 things

A meeting of the U.S. Department of Education governing board. Aspiring executives need more than just years of work experience to land a C-suite position. Photo by: Department of Education /  CC BY

Working up to a C-suite, or leadership-level, position is the ultimate career goal

for many accomplished global development professionals. Increasingly, selection committees are looking for candidates with soft skills, trisector fluency and the ability to be an integrator for their teams. In pursuit of these skills, aspiring executives should obtain graduate degrees, gain a diversity of experiences both at home and abroad, and become well-versed in various functions, sectors and areas of expertise.

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So if you have the experience, qualities and desire to become an international development executive, how do you go about finding and landing the job? Proceed carefully, since the same job search tactics you employed in the past may not help — and could potentially hurt — your chances of landing a C-suite position.

If you aspire to work in the C-suite, make sure you are doing — or not doing — the following four things.

1. Don’t apply directly to job postings.

This may sound like odd advice coming from someone who works for a job posting service, and this is not a tactic I would advise for any position other than one in the C-suite. However, the reality is there is a stigma around high-level executives who apply directly to a job advertisement. The thinking at this level of hiring is: If this person is any good, they wouldn’t be looking for a job. Boards, executive search firms and selection agencies seek out leaders in their field who are excelling in their current positions. They want the kind of candidate who doesn’t have to actively search for a new job because they are so in demand, the jobs come looking for them. If you apply to a CEO job posting, the perception could be that you are not one of these high achievers.

However, do read the job boards to know what executive-level openings are out there. If you  find a position you want to pursue, make your interest known via other channels. For example, reach out to your network to find someone who works at the organization or knows someone on their board. Find out if an executive search firm is conducting the search and reach out to their recruiters, ideally through someone who was also placed by the firm.

Additionally, not all organizations advertise their executive suite positions. Pay attention to retirement and resignation announcements, coverage provided to executive members of Devex, to know which organizations may be on the hunt for a replacement.

2. Don’t expect a headhunter to find a job for you.

A common misperception is that headhunters are in the business of finding people jobs. However, the reality is they are in the business of finding their clients great candidates. The distinction is important because unless you are qualified for one of their current searches, they are not going to be interested in helping you find a position.

An executive search firm gets paid when an employer retains them to fill a position. Unless the firm is currently working on a position you would be a great fit for, there is no incentive for its employees to help you.

If you are a stellar candidate, many executive search firms will be interested to know you are looking for a new position in case they have any future openings. In fact, part of the value they bring to their clients is being in the know about who may be silently seeking new opportunities. However, similar to the stigma around executives applying directly to job postings, executive search firms can also be suspicious of candidates who too aggressively approach them.

Instead, do get introduced by a friend or colleague who already has a relationship with the headhunter or was once placed by the firm. Like many employers, executive search firms rely heavily on referrals to send them top candidates.

3.  Don’t forsake your interpersonal relationships with colleagues and other professionals for your spot in the limelight.

Just as important as landing a keynote speaking role is your reputation among peers. One of the first things recruiters do when scouting for candidates is ask around for recommendations. A frequent question is: “Who is the best person you know who does X?” You want to be one of the names that frequently comes up.

Do get noticed in your current position. Employers and executive search firms seek out leaders in their field, so make sure you are seen as one. Participate on panels, speak at conferences, get published and attend high-level industry events. When sourcing top leadership talent, this is where they look.

4. Don’t assume recruiters will find you without an established online presence.

Create a networking profile on Devex, put your thought leadership on display by managing your social media presence, and keep your information, including contact details and title, current.

Do make sure you are searchable. When recruiters and executive search firms begin their hunt for candidates, they typically start with some internet research. They will look for who authored or was quoted by industry-relevant articles and will scan speaker bios in conference agendas and online profiles in professional communities. They will search job titles to see who is currently working in similar roles. You want to make sure that your name turns up as one of these “passive” candidates in their search.

No matter if you're a recent graduate looking for your first job in the field or an executive level professional looking for your next leadership challenge, Career Navigator offers articles, reports, videos and online events to help guide you on the first step, or next step, of your professional journey. Where do you want to go?

This article was last updated on 14 November 2017

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.