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.”

The 44-year-old has, most recently, worked hard to convince a big, publicly traded company that he would be a good fit as director of cash and treasury management. In the finance hierarchy, such a position is several levels below where he has been, but the job would be his first at a large company, and the pay would nearly match the pay at his past position. “I believe that my experience is what sets me apart, and I believe I can drive that point home well,” says Fulton. “Companies don’t pay that kind of money for a role that isn’t important.”

That’s long been the conventional wisdom — sell yourself based on what makes you unique. But these days it’s hard to know what will work. Fulton, for example, has 17 years of experience in commercial construction, yet a company in a related field — heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning — turned him away. Nor did his three years in a manufacturing environment give him any leverage when he applied for a job at a manufacturing company. At one company he even offered to prove his mettle by consulting for them — at no charge.

“They never even returned my calls,” he says.

Who Are You?

To compete, experts recommend that CFOs follow the hot trend of the moment and “rebrand” themselves. While that might call to mind gimmicks from the world of marketing, don’t worry; you won’t have to tattoo “New & Improved” on your forehead. “A personal brand is all about behavior and consistency,” says branding and management consultant Patty Azzarello. “It’s about giving others a consistent impression of who you are.”

What your next boss wants to hear is how you have driven top-line growth — by, for example, identifying new markets or acquisition targets. What strategic decisions have you made that boosted the bottom line? Starr, whose recent experience cast him as a cost-cutter, now focuses on other experiences during job interviews. “I talk about previous jobs where I was successful at increasing profit margins and gross margins,” he says. “Every company has to have that vision of how they are going to grow.”

Your job is to make it easy for a possible employer to see you as part of that picture. As a useful exercise in market research, Pam Lassiter, author of the recently revised The New Job Security, suggests that job-hunters quiz their contacts regarding the challenges that prospective employers are now struggling with — effective M&A, for instance, or how to penetrate emerging markets. “You’ve got to package your experience in terms of current needs,” advises Lassiter. Otherwise, you may find yourself sitting on the shelf much longer than you’d like.

Josh Hyatt is a contributing editor of CFO.

Social Media for CFOs in Transition

Ben Paramore is no stranger to the digital age. The longtime finance executive has a robust LinkedIn profile, a Facebook page, and his own Website, which includes a series of blog postings and articles. During his recent three-month job search, though, he learned a few additional things about how to market himself using the Internet.

Paramore counts his online presence as a boon, at least in terms of landing interviews. Two of the five opportunities he pursued came through people who had found him online. LinkedIn, in particular, was key to “being found,” he says, while his Website added context once he landed interviews because it illustrates his broader business philosophies and some of his work experience.

What wasn’t helpful? Online job sites, online job applications, and efforts to “cold-call” contacts through e-mail. “If I made the contact, they had absolutely no interest in me unless they knew me already,” Paramore says, noting that he experimented by applying for jobs with many companies, just to see if he would get a response. He didn’t. “It was like sending your résumé into oblivion.”

Ironically, however, Paramore’s two job offers — and the job he ultimately chose, as controller of a large plant for Webster Industries — came the old-fashioned way, through business contacts he had made prior to his job search.

So what’s a finance executive in transition to do? We asked several experts for the latest thinking on how to tap the power of social networking.

Profile Encouragement: Less May Be More

Many experts recommend that CFOs have a strong presence on LinkedIn, as it is one of the most popular online directories for the business community. But how do you define strong?

A clean, crisp profile, for starters. “In the analog world, you don’t want an overloaded résumé that is too ‘salesy.’ It’s the same thing on LinkedIn,” says Chuck Eldridge, a recruiter with Korn/Ferry International who specializes in financial executive searches. In some cases, he says, “all I need is a name and title”; ornaments like objectives and references are not particularly helpful to recruiters, since “you don’t really get to know someone until you talk with them.” In fact, he says he automatically discounts LinkedIn references and asks for candidates to supply references directly to him.

Beefing up your profile in specific ways can also be a good idea. Cindy Kraft, an executive coach who specializes in working with CFOs, recommends that finance executives upload to their LinkedIn profiles any slide decks, videos, or other material they may have from presentations they’ve given. “Those will help position you as an expert,” she says, and will be easily found through Google searches.

Kraft also advises creating a Google profile with an associated Gmail account in the version of your name that you normally go by (for example, Ben rather than Benjamin if most people know you by a shorter form of your given name) and reviewing any information that may be posted about you on Ziggs and ZoomInfo. Make corrections when necessary.

A number of online networking options that are specific to CFOs are emerging, including Mycfonetwork.com, Proformative, and various LinkedIn groups, like The CFO Network. (Participation in some of these is by invitation only.) “These types of groups are a really good place to practice social-networking skills, without being too visible,” notes Kraft.

CFOs can certainly create a more public presence as well, be it by developing their own Websites or becoming power users of Facebook and Twitter. But for the most part, experts say that such activities aren’t necessary to finance-focused job searches. The one major benefit may be that such steps allow a candidate to offer the broadest possible picture of him- or herself. “When you’re up against two or three similarly qualified candidates, it comes down to likability,” says Kraft. “Done well, a Facebook page can be a tool that you use to attract those right opportunities to you, and show that you understand the generation coming up,” since the people reporting to the CFO will typically be much more entrenched in such media.

Don’t Neglect In-Person Networking

Finally, don’t expect an online presence to help recruiters find you, except indirectly through other contacts you might encounter online. “LinkedIn is a useful tool, but it’s not yet a game-changer,” says Eldridge. He says he “absolutely” wouldn’t count it against candidates if they aren’t marketing themselves digitally. “It raises the curiosity factor, to be sure,” he says, but “it doesn’t make a difference in the final decision” of whether or not to present a candidate.

And while social networks can connect you around the globe, in many cases local contacts prove the most valuable. Craig Williams, a former executive recruiter and founder of Mycfonetwork.com, says the appeal of his invitation-only site is that it is city-specific, allowing for a blend of online and offline interaction. The organization, launched about 10 months ago with six cities, has since grown to eight and is likely to add several more in the coming months. Dallas, with about 600 members, currently has the largest following.

The local focus works well for many job-seekers, he notes, since “most CFOs want to reach out to their community first, before they consider relocating.”
— Alix Stuart

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