do higher-level jobs call for more advanced job-hunting techniques?

A reader writes:

I work in a manager level position at a large nonprofit, and I hope to move into a director level position within the next few years. A few weeks ago, I was in a conversation with our executive director, in which he stated that getting a director position “isn’t job-getting 101, it’s advanced job-getting.” I inquired as to what he meant by this and he provided the example that when Fergus was hired into a director position, he (our executive director) had received calls from five people advocating that executive director hire Fergus.

Are there different strategies, such as the example, that should be employed when seeking higher level positions? It sounds like Fergus’ references had proactively reached out to the hiring manager. Is that common?

It’s definitely not uncommon for references to reach out proactively when they know the hiring manager. Doing it when they don’t … eh, it can be a positive if it’s one really enthusiastic note with nuanced details about why the person is great. But five? And calls, not emails? I’d be pretty irritated with Fergus for orchestrating that and it would feel like too hard of a sell.  (In fact, here’s an old post where I complain about a candidate doing something similar.)

So your manager is illustrating the reality that what some people hate in hiring, other people love.

I do think that there are job search 101 techniques and then some more advanced 201 tactics that are more sophisticated, which you see more often as you’re dealing with more senior positions. The 201 stuff is usually about how you use your network — not having a bunch of random strangers call the hiring manager, but working your network to figure out who in it has an actual connection to the hiring manager and then using that connection to pass along a glowing assessment of you, as well as to get inside information about the job, the manager, and the company.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Edward Rooney*

    Along with the network, I’ve seen/heard most of these positions being filled via recruiters vs. job boards. If you plan to move up into this type of role, it may not hurt to ask your network of higher ups if they have any recommendations for recruiters. The best way to find them is via personal reference as there are a decent chunk of recruiters out there who are difficult to work with (or outright shady). Once you connect, they can keep you in mind as they see positions that could be expected to be of interest. You’ll have to spend a few hours meeting with these recruiters, but that helps you both figure out what you are looking for.

    1. Master Bean Counter*

      I’ve found that as I move up the shady/difficult recruiters disappear. They are more interested in slightly qualified warm bodies to fill spots. The more experience you have the less use those kind of recruiters have for you. I’ve found that as I’ve progressed the conversations I’ve had with recruiters get to be more in-depth and productive.

      1. SL #2*

        There’s a whole sub-category of recruiters that exclusively fill director-level and executive positions! My current company used one of those services to fill a c-suite position and they found excellent candidates that I don’t think we would’ve found as easily had we not hired with them.

  2. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I wouldn’t want to work for someone who thought getting five calls that persuade an employer to hire a person is a good idea.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Seriously. Who’s to say it wasn’t the candidates five adult children calling in posing as professional references?

      1. NK*

        I assumed that these were people the ED knew or knew of; I imagine the non-profit world isn’t that big at the ED level, especially if it’s in the same area. Five calls seems like a lot to me, but I don’t think it would have been unusual to get a couple of those calls from people in his professional circles.

        1. Snarkus Aurelius*

          It’s not about people in professional circles who are advocating that an organization hire someone. It’s that it was so obviously orchestrated by the candidate.

          One or two calls? Fine. Five? You’ve taken campaigning too far.

          1. OP*

            Yes, I suspect that the ED had some type of relationship or at least knowledge of the individuals who contacted him. The non profit community often seems small and we are mostly networked or at least aware of who is within the circle. I do wonder if the five calls was a slight exaggeration on the part of our ED.

  3. Artemesia*

    After a merger where I lost my job, I applied for a position with someone coming into the organization whose work was right up my alley; I also had someone highly placed in the field contact the person I hoped to work for. On the SAME day I received two letters: A Dr. Artemesia thanks for your interest we’ll certainly keep you in mind (like never) and B Artemesia, please contact my secretary next week and arrange a time for me to talk with you; I have a project that I think you would be perfect for.

    That job which was part time, let within two months to full time employment that was the start of a 35 year climb to a high level within the organization.

    Proactive is important IF the person knows the hiring manager and is very enthusiastic. Once seems good; 5 times would drive me nuts. 2, maybe. I don’t think a cold call when they are not at least acquainted would feel anything but manipulative in a bad way.

  4. AFT123*

    To add an anecdotal story in case it’s helpful – someone I know who had worked in management at a very large, very corporate employer where everyone knows everyone had a similar experience. I believe 4 people advocated for him without prompting from the hiring manager (who was an area VP I believe, not a recruiter or HR). I don’t know if it was phone calls or emails, but I’d assume phone calls based on what I know of the environment over there. In this case, everyone knows everyone, literally. He knew the VP , and everyone who advocated for him had worked with him at that company at some point and had moved into senior level positions. If this is the environment you’re in, this would probably work well for you, simply because when everyone is fairly familiar with everyone else, it becomes apparent quickly if people are exaggerating/hard-selling, or if the sentiments are accurate and warranted. Some of the advocates hadn’t even asked before reaching out, they were just aware he was going for that position, and they thought well enough of him to reach out on their own accord.

  5. hbc*

    Was Fergus already part of the organization? I can imagine when I was at my last (pretty large) company, various people might call the hiring manager to say, “Fergus really stood out on the project he worked on with my team, you should really consider him for the new director role.” Or maybe big clients, donors, and other people with a vested interest in the success of the organization and some basis for being believed.

    Five random people? At best, the strength of the recommendations cancel out the annoyance of fielding those phone calls.

  6. CLE*

    Maybe five is over the top, but in the nonprofit community where I work, these kinds of “references” are the norm for high-level positions. It’s someone prominent who knows the CEO or a Board member calling or emailing to say “I heard this person was interested/ had applied for your opening and you should take a look at their resume – she’s great!” It says something about the job candidate that you can’t get through an interview if they have people willing to network on their behalf. Too many calls or aggressive references are annoying, but calls like this, coming from someone external who’s judgement I trust, have certainly made me look at a resume a second time. I’m in public policy and advocacy so working personal connects is the norm. Our organizations tend to be small to medium and it’s a huge investment and relatively high stakes to hire someone for a top-level position.

    It’s also the norm for a hiring manager or close colleague to ask around about a candidate separate from the official reference checking. This often helps us figure out what to look for or ask about during the interview process because our jobs are difficult to describe and there’s not a single mold for strong candidates.

    Another thing that I’ve noticed for director-level and above are potential candidates reaching out informally before a position is even posted. Sometimes they seem to be trying to convince us to skip the hiring process and hire on the spot – those don’t make a good impression. The good ones ask about time frame or how much experience we expect to require. If it’s someone I already know, they tend to ask if the position is being restructured, or I think they might be a good fit. These conversations typically start as, “I heard Lucinda is leaving. Do you think you’ll hire or promote?”

  7. Liza*

    Alison, today I’ve gotten an auto-playing video on every post despite having my ad blocker on. The videos show up between the “Posted in” line and the “10 Comments” line.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        They seem to be labelled “sponsored content” – possibly an arrangement with adblocker where they get paid to let stuff through. It autoplays sound when your mouse goes over the ad (which, as they are quite big, and located between the article and comments, is hard to avoid).

    1. super anon*

      i had to install a different ad blocker than i normally use and then have it block the entire element to get those ads to go away. i’m confused as to how it’s even showing up for me, considering it’s a flash video and i have plugins turned off by default on chrome.

      1. HarryV*

        Please consider not using ad-blocker on AAM’s site! I think we all agree this site creates valuable content which has helped us one way or another. The ads AAM puts on this site helps her generate revenue. This site costs real money to run especially with the level of traffic it generates! The videos are a small nuisance imo which I will be more than happy to let run. If it annoys you, just set it to mute then scroll along!

  8. AndersonDarling*

    But did the 5 references actually help Fergus get the director role? Fergus may have been offered the director position because, you know, he was qualified and a was a stellar candidate.
    I’m reminded of an HR Coordinator who told me that I needed to start spending $$ on directors if I wanted to get a promotion. Take them to lunch, buy them presents . . . instead, I left the company. Who wants to work somewhere where decision makers are so easily swayed?

    1. AFT123*

      I don’t think the goal or intent is to “bribe” or just rub elbows with higher level people in order to call in favors, I think the point is to make yourself visible to people who can influence your career so they can get to know you, how you operate, your values, etc. and ultimately become a valid advocate for you. If you don’t otherwise cross paths with these people, the onus is on you to find ways to connect with them, via taking them out to lunch or whatever. Maybe I’m too optimistic but I would think (hope) that the majority of people in senior level positions whose opinions actually hold weight are the type of people that will give true statements about people vs. being able to be “easily swayed”.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        Agreed. Offering to take someone to lunch to network would normally be positive. It was the buying of gifts that was off. In this case, the HR Rep suggested I purchase $50 gift cards to get the attention of the executives, then follow it up with steak dinners and spa appointments.

        1. Artemesia*

          Wow. This would so creep me out from a subordinate. A place where this goes on is a good place to get gone from.

        2. Stephanie (HR)*

          Creepy! I tell employees to go introduce themselves to the hiring manager so they can put a face to the name and get an initial impression. But gifts? Even lunch?! Way out of line. (Simple networking could lead to a lunch, but not if there is a position at stake. And even then, I recommend finding a way to interact on a professional level in the work setting.)

    2. OP*

      Well, there were enough of a help that the ED brought them up as an example. I don’t think the spending $$ on director example is similar at all – I can’t say that he was easily swayed, only that he indicated that the were a factor.

  9. Chickaletta*

    Not that I’ve personally had experience with this, but of the few people I know who have senior positions they were almost always the ones pursued. The hiring manager (CEO or Board of Directors) were already familiar with this person and their work, knew they wanted on their team, and reached out in a purposeful manner to get them hired.

    It seems to me that if you’re that senior and still need five people convincing the hiring person to take a look at you, you might not be as stellar as you believe. But I could be wrong, like I said I’m not in a senior position. Regardless, I think one definitely needs a good reputation and a good network game, and that this is something that takes years to develop.

  10. Anonymous Educator*

    I don’t think this is unique to non-profits or to higher-level positions. References from people you trust matter a lot more to many higher managers than a cold-submitted résumé, no matter how impressive it looks, with two caveats:

    1. The references have to be from people you trust. Have they given references for people in the past? Have the people they’ve referred in the past worked out?

    2. The references have to be genuine references and not threats/bribes/tit-for-tat/wink-wink hob nobbing. It has to be more like “This person is amazing! You must hire this person!” and not “This person is the child of a friend of mine who’s a super important politician/businessperson.”

    Of course, I’ve seen enough times #2 happen in the past, but again… not unique to higher-up positions or to non-profits.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      matter a lot more to many higher managers

      matter a lot more to many hiring managers

  11. Milton Waddams*

    The higher up you go, the simpler it gets (for both better and worse). The personality tests go away, the laundry list of requirements goes away, requests for a particular degree tend to go away, and listings when they exist start to look like something unfamiliar to those used to lower-level positions. They talk about how nice the particular city is, and seem to talk about everything except the job.

    I guess a way to describe it is that the number of hoops to jump through are reduced drastically, but the amount of social capital required to make it through the remaining hoops increases significantly. Since social capital isn’t something you can train for, education and experience requirements become less important. This can be a little maddening, as it makes positions like that seem both closer and father away at the same time.

    1. Bibliovore*

      I think this is true. I did not have the educational requirements of the position. I was well connected in the field. I did know one of the board members, a community liaison, a non-profit partner and a significant donor. I did ask each to reach out if it was not too awkward. I don’t know if it helped or hurt my candidacy. I did get the job.

  12. insert pun here*

    In certain (non-faculty) pockets of academia, this kind of proactive reference-giving would not be weird at all. Five of them would be weird, but one or two? Totally run of the mill.

  13. Product Person*

    Hmm… I’m wondering if the calls could have been spontaneous. “Have received calls from five people advocating that executive director hire Fergus” doesn’t mean that Fergus, the candidate, asked for it.

    I’m pointing this out as someone who after being hired learned that 2 executives reached out to the hiring manager (who they vaguely knew) to enthusiastically recommend me for the job. I was surprised to learn that, as I did not ask anyone to make any calls (merely mentioned to some people I was interviewing with the company).

  14. snuck*

    I’m with the others… higher level positions to me were always about networking, and quiet conversations. Sure, there were application processes, and someone would surprise you and pop up that you didn’t expect, but generally it was more about who the person was. I was looking for senior project managers, senior business analysts etc – and while they needed to deliver a range of tasks, the real thing I was looking for were soft people skills – so employing them was different – did they have the ability to maintain positive networks.

    In senior management roles you’d be looking for people who could deliver, and at that level it’s about how they get along with other people. You don’t always want an easy to get along with person – I deliberately recruited for a regulatory legal environment role once where I wanted a person with a bit more firmness, bluntness, because the work would be unpopular (and the backbone to stand for the push back). Another time it was for a person who was always calm, part of the old boys network we worked in and who was diplomatically impeccable. Both were delivering projects of equal complexity (these weren’t small projects, but national ones, that had to intersect with all the other providers in the industry), but their personality balance in the group made a big difference.

  15. Lucie*

    It’s reassuring to know that a reference reaching out to a hiring manager whom they know proactively IS common/acceptable practice, because I was just rejected for a position due to my former manager reaching out to recommend me :-( I was told that my application was disqualified due to “canvassing” … maybe it’s different because it was an internship in the public sector? Either way, I replied with a polite email thanking them for letting me know that it’s not accepted practice and that I won’t make the mistake again in the future, but this left a bad taste in my mouth :(

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