Cold, Cruel World

Suddenly, CFOs who are pounding the pavement find that fewer doors are opening. Here's how to get that foot back in.

Oh, the irony: just two years ago we described a robust seller’s market for finance talent, with CFOs seemingly able to write their own ticket — and rewrite it any time they chose.

Today, even the best-qualified finance executives will find that a job search is anything but a walk in the park. Fewer openings, fewer coattails to grasp, and a new insistence on directly relevant experience are three major factors that can keep a would-be CFO from landing that next gig.

In terms of available posts, a recent report by executive-search firm Crist Kolder Associates found that 75% of CFO hires this year were internal, the highest proportion since 1995. More challenging still, out of the 668 large firms it surveyed, only about 12% were likely to make any new CFO hires in 2010. Two years ago that figure was 20%.

The ranks of newly hired CEOs reached a five-year low last year as well, which did little to help job-hopping CFOs; traditionally about half of new CEOs bring in outside CFOs within their first three years in office.

The biggest challenge, however, may face those CFOs who have left the workforce — however briefly and regardless of circumstance — and now want back in.

Gary Starr knows that fact all too well.

The 49-year-old out-of-work CFO admits that he was startled when, having successfully helped sell the management-consulting firm where he worked in Stamford, Connecticut, he launched a job search and immediately learned that “if you are out of a job, companies won’t look at you.” (Starr has chronicled his experience in a three-part series on CFO.com called “Notes from a Job Search.”)

While he has gotten interviews and has landed contract work, Starr has been unable to secure a full-time position. The most common reason for being passed over? “Companies want someone who is a 100% fit,” he says. “They are looking for a round peg to fit in a round hole.” Law firms, for instance, want to hire only finance chiefs who already have law-firm experience; the same goes for accounting firms. The fact that Starr has worked in a professional-services firm, dealing with similar issues and developing a relevant skill set, doesn’t seem to matter.

He’s given up trying to convince hiring managers. “There is no way to persuade them otherwise,” says Starr. “You can try and make a case for yourself, but sometimes you have to know when to shut it off.” Best to stay in the good graces of those who might hear of another opening or be interested in assigning contract work, Starr reasons.

Other job-seekers are now apt to hear an even more discouraging word: overqualified. Scott A. Fulton says that hearing that he is too qualified for a position has become “a major hurdle to overcome.” Fulton has found that “most companies are laser-focused on what they are looking for.”

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