Senior Executive-Life Issues

Common mistakes for executive job-seekers

05 December 2011

Human Capital Alliance’s Vauraporn Iamsupanimitr discusses a recent study led by Harvard Business School associate professor, Boris Groysberg on common mistakes made by executive job-changers.

Senior executives considering new jobs should carefully and consciously assess the risks and realities so that they can avoid making mistakes that may result in major setbacks.

In today’s fast changing business environments, people are expected to change jobs many times before their retirements. Careers have become processes of continuous movements.

Recent US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the average baby-boomer will change jobs 10 times.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Five ways to bungle a job change”, Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams said that job moves are seldom easy and nearly always emotionally fraught. “Moves of all kinds entail significant internal and external challenges and often cause turmoil in one’s home and social life.”

After interviewing 400 search consultants from 50 industries and 500 C-level executives in 40 countries, including  HR heads at 15 multinational companies, Groysberg and Abrahams concluded that five common mistakes generally accounted for most problems.

In general these included:

1.    not doing enough research
2.    leaving for money
3.    going “from” rather than “to”
4.    overestimating yourself, and
5.    thinking short term

The researchers said that the mistakes were usually not independent of each other and generally followed predictable patterns and persisted throughout the course of careers.

These mistakes played out as a system of maladaptive behaviors that included dissatisfaction, unrealistic hopes, ill-considered moves, and more dissatisfaction

For instance, executives that fixated on money would often disregard the need for research. “Overestimating yourself can cause you to ignore a bad fit – a problem that research might help you anticipate.”

Some job seekers make all the mistakes at once. For instance, if they overestimated their value, they will feel unjustly treated at year-end reviews. “They will jump to the first company that promises a signing bonus without doing due diligence on the firm’s long-term prospects.”

The executives surveyed were not young untested professionals but included successful people that hadn’t looked for jobs for years or even decades. “Surprisingly, many of them were ignorant of job market opportunities.”

Many of these executives, they said assumed their new companies would be flexible about having them learn new areas of business as when they were young. “If they’re high up on the hierarchy, it may have been some time since they received truly honest feedback about their strength and weaknesses.

Mistake number one – not doing enough research

Many executive job seekers, the authors said neglect due diligence in four areas.

1.    If they don’t do homework on job market realities for their industry or function, they will be not fully informed and will be prone to unrealistic expectations.

2.    Many executive job-seekers don’t pay enough attention to a potential employer’s financial stability and market position even if they are people that would normally scrutinize the balance sheet of a company they are acquiring.

They assume companies offering them jobs are on solid ground. It is up to applicants to assess if new jobs will exist in six months.

3.    Many executives fail to consider the cultural fit.

Although hiring managers are supposed to attend to matching cultural fits, new hires suffer most if it’s a poor fit.

4.    Too many recruits assume the official job title and job description accurately reflect the role. Many companies are known to sweeten titles to attract top talent.

Additional, in badly managed organizations, people may find themselves in ill-defined jobs that have little relationship to formal titles.

Mistake number two – leaving for the money

The authors research showed that it was easy to fall for financially attractive offers.

Most search consultants said that although executives contemplating job changes rank money fourth or fifth in terms of importance, they usually bumped it to first place when making the final decision.

Mistake number three – going “from” rather than “to”

Often, many job seekers are so unhappy they are happy just to get out. Instead of planning their career moves, they lurch from one place to the next.

These people the authors said apply artificial urgency rather than wait for the right job and often fail to look strategically for opportunities that their current companies may have for them.

Mistake number four – overestimating themselves

The authors’ survey indicated that many executives believed they contributed more than they actually did at their current organizations. They tended to undervalue the organizations’ strength in helping them achieve their objectives.

Many of these job seekers, they said seem to have unrealistic view of their skills, their prospects and occasionally their culpability. “The often can’t identify sources of success and failure at their existing jobs.”

These candidates looked at their current companies as being the problem and not acknowledging that they themselves may be part of the problems. These people may also fail to be realistic and be self critical, and therefore think that external circumstances and environments have more to do with their frustrations or failures than their own issues.

“They may overestimate the salaries they can command and their capacity to deal with the new positions’ challenges, particularly, the difficulty of creating change at large organizations.

Mistake five – thinking short term

Executive job seekers with short term perspectives can make many mistakes.

For instance, if they overestimate their abilities, they may believe they should be paid a high salary now and not after they’ve proved themselves. Some people leaving organizations for more money are often overly-influenced by immediate short-term information and considerations.

The authors conclude that the best protection against career management mistakes is self awareness, which they said is a broad  concept that encompasses not only an understanding of one’s career-relevant strengths and weaknesses but also insights into the kinds of mistakes they you are prone to make

Knowing how to correct tendencies, how others perceive us and when to consult a trusted mentor or network is critical.

If an executive takes a wrong job, the authors said the experts were unanimous in their views” “Cut your losses and move on.”

They suggested that these executives should make their next moves strategically. “Don’t hesitate to go down another road if it becomes evident that a certain kind of change wouldn’t be right.”

Executives, they said should understand what elements of a job make it truly satisfying for them and what constitutes a healthy work-life balance.

Vauraporn Iamsupanimitr may be reached at

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