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Persevere to find a suitable C-Suite role

The high rate of unemployment doesn't just affect the bottom end of the market, it affects every level of our economic ecosystem all the way through to the boardroom - and the pressures and fears are exponentially worse, the higher you go.

In our industry as executive talent search specialists, we have the power to change people’s lives for the better. It’s a privilege that we take incredibly seriously, but the fact remains we are only looking for a single candidate in a pool which is becoming increasingly deeper and accordingly more competitive.

We have to work hard to place our candidates, but the reality is candidates have to work twice as hard as we do when it comes to landing those coveted C-Suite positions. They have to be aware of the jobs that are on offer and, vitally, conscious of both their own qualifications and competencies.

It sounds counter-intuitive sometimes, given the skills shortage that exists in this country, to even say being over-qualified for a job is as much a liability as being under-qualified, but it is. It’s critically important to have the right skills for the right job – and the right demographics too. In the current situation of growing unemployment and the disruption in the marketplace, many people do actually have the skills and the experience, but they might be just too old for what the company wants – or they might not be representative of the direction the firm wants to aspire to.

That’s not the candidate’s fault, but it doesn’t make it any less easy for them to accept. It’s tough out there and candidates’ expectations have to be tempered by the reality of the situation, which is incredibly difficult sometimes for people who have just left high powered, high status employment and find themselves floundering as they try to get back in the game.

There are no quick fixes and no easy answers. Thomas Edison famously said that genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The same is true for successfully applying for jobs. You’ve got to keep trying and know that when you make it to the panel interview, that’s the equivalent of being a nominee or a finalist at an event like the Oscars. There’s still no guarantee that you’re going to win it, but you’ve been recognised for having the requisite skills and competencies to be a contender for the top spot.

Many people get hold of me to find out where they went wrong when they get a letter telling them their application was unsuccessful. In truth, just like the awards ceremonies, there’s no simple answer. Employment panels are made up of different people, applying their subjective judgments against a scorecard, it’s as simple as that.

At other times there are obvious pointers for behaviour that can be fixed: like not preparing properly beforehand and giving the panel the respect of having studied the company thoroughly – given that in most cases you’re applying to be given the chance to lead it. Or there’s your CV. It’s amazing how many CVs we see that are simply inappropriate for the job being sought. CVs aren’t one-size fits all. They need to show, as concisely and as professionally as possible, the competencies that you have for the job that you are applying for. Instead we are inundated with CVs with photographs of the subject that tell us more about that person’s sense of self than actual achievements or competencies. Or we get CVs that all look the same and all follow the same fashion.

A couple of years ago, the fad was for CVs with halo-ed circular picture boxes and all the text aligned to the right. These days it’s the appearance of graphic renditions of skills and competencies illustrated with the logos of the companies that people worked for. It might have seemed like a good idea in the beginning, but it’s difficult to pull off properly and often comes across as difficult to read, even harder to understand and downright unappealing. To make it worse, some people have paid a lot to end with CVs that are almost guaranteed to go straight to the bottom of the pile if they don’t get sent to the shredder first.

It’s vital to work with the process and do your homework; just as you need to study any possible place where jobs are being advertised these days; from social media sites, to online job portals, client websites and even old school newspaper advertisements, you have to tone down your expectations of what’s going to happen.

The industry standard is to acknowledge every application, but the truth of the matter is that HR departments are being inundated with unsolicited CVs every day – we are too. It’s physically impossible to acknowledge the unsolicited emails. If we were to do that, we would do nothing else. That doesn’t mean you should stop sending them, it comes back to Edison; one day, just by showing up, your CV makes it to the top of the pile and you get a shot, but don’t make it anyone else’s responsibility if it doesn’t happen. Don’t badger the HR departments with queries, and if they do respond, don’t abuse their courtesy by asking effectively be coached or counselled.

Everyone knows how desperate it is and how badly many of you need the job, sometimes even having to find the funding to get data to be able to attend the virtual interview, but it doesn’t mean the HR departments are having it any easier, having to deal with all of this. They can’t simply keep your CV on file either for any other job to come up that you might be suitable for, because the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act is very strict about how personal information is obtained and used.

Keep trying, keep improving how you apply and be realistic of your expectations both of the job and the process of competing for it. If you manage that, you will be successful. Amid the heartache of the pandemic and the damage it has wrought professionally and personally to so many people, there are increasing numbers of stories of high-level executives who have found their way again – just by refusing to give up hope. You could well be next.

5 Oct 2021 12:42


About the author

Lucia Mabasa is managing director of pinpoint one human resources, a Johannesburg-based executive search firm. Visit for more information.