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Insights from an Executive Recruiter: How to Stand Out and Win in Your Job Search

Michael Williams is the Managing Partner of the Ottawa office with Odgers Berndtson Executive Search where he is engaged by companies to identify, recruit and present C-Suite executives, Board Chairs and Board members to many of the private, public, and not-for-profit organizations headquartered in Ottawa, ON Canada.

Michael generously agreed to share his expertise as an executive recruiter to help identify what executives do well and not so well when conducting their job search.

The Client – refers to the company that hires Michael, the executive recruiter, to find exceptional candidates for their open roles.

The Candidates – refer to the executives considered for the open role by the client (the company that hires Michael).

What do executives get right with their resumes?

Michael says great candidates do these three things well at the resume stage:

  • Speak about concrete deliverables and accomplishments using #’s and %’s
  • Make the job of the recruiters easier by drawing clear connections and links between your offering and the open role.
  • Help recruiters visualize you in the role.

What gets your attention at the interview stage?

When he meets with candidates, he immediately assesses things like communication and listening skills and whether executives have direct, relevant examples to share with him. He wants to ensure executives are approachable and conversational as he’ll be presenting these individuals to his clients.

Executives can and should come to an interview with relevant questions, stories and “the pause.” He describes “the pause” as a moment after the question has been asked, to reflect on the question, and let things fall silent as you think about the question. This, we agree, shows thoughtfulness and a personal comfort and confidence level in your ability to think before speaking.

He looks for executives who care about the conversation, are genuinely interested in the role and are capable of holding a back-and-forth conversation about their interest in leading the company. It’s not Michael’s job to direct the conversation. It’s a two-way exchange where you’re asking questions about the role and demonstrating interest and alignment with the position.

He especially appreciates when you come prepared having done a deep dive into the company by perhaps reviewing the financials and reading the annual report.

BONUS tip: Engage the hiring panel. Ask Board members why they chose to be part of the Board. This leads to an exchange of shared values and interests.

What percentage of executives are getting their job search efforts wrong?

“A lot! It’s challenging to give a specific number, but it is most candidates, at least at the start of their journey.”

Read that again: Most executive candidates are getting their job search efforts wrong.

This is good news for you because now you know most people struggle to get it right.

So be the one who doesn’t struggle. Be the one who gets it right.

Look, it’s not like we teach career transition in school, and certainly not at the executive level, so learning about career changes and executive recruiters (reading this post), makes you more likely than your competition to get things right!

How can executives stand out / do better?

  • Keep information simple and direct. Be transparent.
  • Make it easy for others to understand what you do.
  • Go above and beyond generic applications.
  • Identify the connection between you and the role. Be specific and clear.
  • Tell us your motivations for this role. Why are you talking with us?

Michael and his team are consultants and advisors to their clients. They can only advocate for you so far. You must make it easy for them to take you to their client and present you as the top choice.

“I” vs. “we”

Learn when to use “I” language vs. ”we” language. Many of us are taught, inside organizations to use humble/servant leadership language. Recruiters aren’t hiring your team, they’re looking to hire you. So you must learn to turn down “we” language and turn up the volume of “I” language. This will take considerable practice for some, but it’s worth doing. Learning to identify, assess and promote YOUR strengths is part of a successful job search.

Get support.

“Most executives have been out of the market for seven to ten years. In that time, the approaches to executive job search change.” Michael adds, “A small investment can have a huge impact!” referring to hiring an executive resume writer and career professional to support your executive career change.

Many executives try to go it alone, thinking they’ve gotten this far on their own. But like any athlete, at some point, you’ll need the help of a good coach to take you to the next level.

Executive recruiters work for their client (the company). They present the best candidates to their clients and from there, a hiring decision is made. Career professionals work for the job-seeking executive candidate. We work with candidates to eliminate blind spots, build their confidence and position them as the candidates of choice.

A final word about cover letters.

Michael tells me, “Everybody reads cover letters.” *record scratch* “Michael, are you sure I can quote you on that? There’s a lot of debate on the internet about whether people read cover letters?”

“In the not-for-profit sector where I focus a lot of my work,” says Michael, ”99% of the people on the hiring committees read cover letters and those that don’t simply run out of time. Rarely, have people not read your cover letter.”


Michael provided valuable insights into what executives can do to improve their job search efforts and stand out to executive recruiters:

  • Deliver specific accomplishments.
  • Make connections to open roles.
  • Help recruiters visualize you, in the role.
  • Demonstrate communication and listening skills.
  • Have relevant examples and questions.
  • Research the company so you can show genuine interest and alignment for the role.

Implementing these strategies will increase your chances of success and make a lasting impression on executive recruiters.

Related Categories: Advice, Featured, Interview Strategy, Job Search, Working with Recruiters

About The Author
Maureen McCann is an award-winning career coach, master resume writer, and master certified interview, employment, and career strategist whose clients include C-level executives, managers, and professionals in all industries including the Canadian banking, oil and gas, healthcare, IT, and government sectors.

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