Ask the Headhunter: Why can’t this former CEO get a job?

If you've applied to hundreds of jobs and haven't gotten one, you're applying to too many positions. Photo by Flickr user flazingo_photos.

If you’ve applied to hundreds of jobs and haven’t gotten one, you’re applying to too many positions. Photo by Flickr user flazingo_photos.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Wayne B. Norris: I have a problem. I’ve applied to over 1,000 jobs in the last four years, gotten only four interviews, and had zero offers. Is this common?

I have a degree in physics, spent many years as an experimental physicist, been a chief financial officer of a company I took public, managed software development teams, been a CEO twice and a president twice. I’m also a project management professional (PMP) and have managed more than 100 programs and projects in software, accounting, engineering and marketing. I maintain about 35 copies of my resume, each tailored for a specific type of position, with irrelevant items removed for each type of job I apply to, and many “dumbed down” to avoid the “O-Word” (overqualified).

I suspect my situation to be common, and survive by doing consulting. But it still flabbergasts me, especially after having had a few bidding wars for my services in earlier years. Any thoughts? I am mostly just curious. I’ll make it with or without advice, but I seem to have my finger in the wrong location to take the pulse I need to take.

Nick Corcodilos: Either your story will make other discouraged job hunters feel better, because even highly skilled job seekers are having a hard time, or it will make their heads spin because they’re not as skilled as you. Of course your experience is common — just read what other readers tell us in their comments.

You do have a problem. It’s called The Employment System. It doesn’t work. But you make the mistake of relying on it. Don’t.

I know how cut and dry this sounds, but the first problem is that you’re playing odds that are stacked against you. There are not 1,000 jobs out there for you. (See “There aren’t 400 jobs for you.”) You’re using 35 different resumes, but you could use 100 — and it wouldn’t make a difference. The baseline odds that you’ll get hired by submitting resumes and applications are so low that it’s a fool’s errand. (Pardon me – I have friends who are physicists, and they are very smart, but the world can turn anyone into a fool.)

Pick three or four companies you really want to work for. Choose carefully and wisely. Then invest yourself totally in pursuing those companies. Raise your odds of success dramatically by controlling the playing field. Pursue those few companies like a bulldog — latch on and don’t let go.

Success is all about one thing: Identifying a company that has a problem. It’s not about jobs at all. It’s about finding a company’s problems and opportunities and showing how you will tackle and solve them. Nobody wants to do it this way because it’s not rote, or automated, or easy. But it’s a hell of a lot more fun and productive. Employers will hire you if you can show them how you’ll make them more successful.

Here are some excerpts from my “Fearless Job Hunting” books that will help you adjust your attitude and your strategy. Both these PDF books are available in the Ask The Headhunter Bookstore.

Here’s a way to target specific companies from “Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3, Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition)”:

Job postings are not the only (or best) place to learn about jobs. The best source of information for job hunters is indeed in articles in the trade and business press, both in print and online.

I often distinguish work from jobs, and this is precisely what I mean. Those articles don’t discuss jobs, but they tell so much about the work that they are great tipoffs to career opportunities. These articles are also where you meet the people who make industry go — engineers writing about their companies’ technologies and products, marketers debating the value of product strategies, executives discussing the viability of businesses, reporters revealing the stories “between the lines” that might affect an entire industry, and much, much more. These are the people who can lead a job hunter into a company, if the job hunter will only take the initiative to get in touch with them.

Where do you think headhunters find their best candidates, their best sources of candidates, and their new clients? This is the mother lode, and it’s a well-kept secret. The point is to find the best people where they “hang out” — in these publications.

Here’s a very different approach to an employer, when you get in the door, from “Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire”:

Career experts like to talk about interview skills. Let’s be honest: No one pays you for interview skills. People get hired for their work skills. If you’re good at your work, you can do well in an interview — by talking shop and showing how you’ll do the work.

When you meet with an employer, focus the discussion on the work you’re good at doing, and your palms will never get sweaty. Most interviews are indirect assessments of a candidate: Why are manhole covers round? Where do you see yourself in five years? What’s your greatest weakness?

If that’s where an interview goes, turn it back to the work:

“Please lay out a live problem you’d want me to handle if you hired me. I’ll do my best to show you how I’d do the work so it will pay off for both of us.”

A good employer wants to see what you can do. If he doesn’t ask, help him out and show him. It’ll turn your interview into a working meeting where you both roll up your sleeves, and during which the employer can do a direct assessment of your worth to his business.

It’s not about jobs. LinkedIn and other job boards buy, sell, rent and trade them like commodities. The baseline odds that you’ll get a “hit” are so small, the only rational course is to ignore them and do something else. (See “‘Talk Shop, Not Jobs’: The Right Way to Network and More.”)

You’re a classic example of how this pathetic “employment system” corrupts and brainwashes smart people. Consider: If it could avoid the overhead cost, any company would avoid hiring anyone because new hires represent a cost. Learn to be the profitable candidate.

Resumes and job applications don’t help you – I know you know that. So step back and use your problem-solving skills to re-cast the problem and take a totally different approach. Show the right company your business plan.

I’ll leave you with a last word from “Fearless Job Hunting”: “The truth about job interviews is that they’re not about you; they’re about getting the work done profitably.”

Dear readers: What’s the ratio of jobs you’ve applied for to interviews you’ve gotten? How do you think you could improve your success rate? I think it’s all about applying to fewer employers, not more.

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2013 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.