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Career challenges that arise during an economic slowdown can be overwhelming, but there are steps one can take to improve an otherwise unsatisfactory career situation. A sure-fire way to uncover new opportunities is to market yourself.

Marketing Yourself: It May Just Be Job One

Career challenges that arise during an economic slowdown can be overwhelming, but there are steps one can take to improve an otherwise unsatisfactory career situation. A sure-fire way to uncover new opportunities is to market yourself.

Although not an easy task, marketing yourself can be extremely effective if you keep in mind that “it's a numbers game.” For executives seeking better opportunities – and especially for those who have been laid off due to a corporate downsizing, merger or acquisition – it's important to understand the laws of probability. A proactive approach to strategic positioning and aggressive marketing is the best strategy.

During everyone's career, occasional growth opportunities surface. If maximized, these opportunities permit people to grow professionally and may allow them to avoid potential career disasters. Therefore, it is imperative to maintain an awareness that allows you to recognize these situations as they develop. This career awareness is critical especially during tough times. As we all know, it is easier to find a new position when employed than when unemployed.

Financial leaders take pride in the responsibility of maintaining their organization's overall corporate stability and financial health. Depending on the corporate structure and their role within the organization, however, financial officers may not always have the ability to keep the ship on a steady course – or for that matter, keep it afloat. In these cases, it may be a good time to evaluate other options and possibly put together an exit strategy.

Contrary to the thinking of a few corporate idealists, there's no shame in protecting your career. Furthermore, it's irrational to assume you must go down with the ship. Professionals need to always be conscious of the company's financial stability. Equally important is to fully understand the current financial situation of companies being considered in a job search; a little due diligence goes a long way.

For those less opportunistic individuals who let the market shape their career, a sluggish economy will inevitably yield little or no growth, a potentially volatile career path and, in many cases, multiple periods of unemployment. A perpetual career roller coaster may be a sign that someone is more reactive than proactive.

Businesses structured to remain profitable during economic declines will usually provide more stable career opportunities. In a volatile market, senior executives must always be prepared for a worst-case scenario and assume a proactive posture. This isn't to advocating pulling up stakes every time there is a quarter of negative growth. However, there are circumstances when poorly managed businesses, overly leveraged companies and unethical business practices only delay the inevitable. These companies are walking time bombs and should be avoided.

The Marketing Plan
Once you've determined it's time to begin evaluating other career opportunities, it is essential to follow a marketing plan. This plan will determine your effectiveness, and your success.

The first step is to create a corporate target list with six categories: competitors, vendors, strategic partners, clients, joint venture participants, and/or industry service companies. These categories will provide a direct or indirect relationship with preferred industries, and present, last or previous positions where lengthy tenure was established. Reference companies should include the most recent affiliations and those exhibiting both a strong market presence and good name or brand recognition.

Some people would argue that finance executives should be able to work effectively in different industries, and that macro financial skills are easily transferred from one industry to the next, just as is crossing over into various geographic markets. Although this argument has merit, the fact remains that many corporations prefer their financial executives to have both industry specialization and local market experience.

Once a working target list of companies has been compiled, it's time to perform due diligence. Evaluate each company by size, corporate structure and culture, keeping in mind an ability to blend in easily. The closer these companies are in structure and size to the companies a person has previously worked for, the more easily he or she will integrate, making for a more effective leader.

Equally valuable steps involve evaluating the corporate culture and weighing applicable experience versus the organization's current needs. Disregard companies that wouldn't accommodate the proper level of experience or offer the desired and expected challenges. For example, it's unlikely that a $5 million privately held company would meet the job expectations of a former CFO of a $500 million publicly traded corporation, not to mention the expected level of compensation.

When the search turns up companies that meet the target profile but don't spark sufficient interest, it's still good practice to make contact. These contacts can and will provide additional information or referral sources that may lead to more desirable opportunities. Remember, the idea is to build a network.

To further refine the list, arrange the target companies in order, from most to least desirable. Using Kennedy's, Moody's, Hoover's, Dun & Bradstreet or any other corporate information directories, identify the top executives or board members of each company. These are the people to present credentials to.

Never overlook an opportunity to meet with a corporate decision-maker at a company in the preferred industry. Although their company may not appear desirable, they may provide valuable leads — and possibly the very opportunity you want.

List of Achievements
Once a target company list and set of contacts have been gathered, it's time to create a list of exceptional — and quantifiable — career achievements that have made a substantial impact on current or previous employers. See the box on this page for examples of achievements that directly impact an organization and are typical of what companies look for.

Prepare a brief introduction that creates interest and illustrates an ability to speak with confidence, as well as providing value to the organization, division or department. Provide examples of how you have contributed to organizations during your career and how you can help a prospective company achieve various financial objectives. Be sure to include specific achievements that resulted in one or more of the items listed in the box.

If you're aware of a particular objective or obstacle a company is facing, highlighting your ability to develop and implement a solution can provide a perceived value and may lead to an interview. Keep in mind that the presentation should be brief and to the point, but should be specific enough to provide value and create interest. This is not a time to be modest.

Develop this pitch presentation and practice it until it comes across smoothly. It should be sincere and concise, and if presented correctly, will sound natural and unrehearsed. It should be dynamic but truthful. Those who are prepared are confident. When we're confident, our voice is an extension of that confidence and resonates with people we contact.

This is where the numbers work: The more calls you make, the more contacts you make. Contacts equate to referrals, and the more referrals, the more opportunities to land an interview. Obviously, the more interviews, the better the odds of getting an offer and landing the next job.

Following Up
The next step in the marketing process is the follow-up. It is perhaps the most critical – and it's where many executives fall short. Follow-up is essential to keeping the referral chain from breaking; if accomplished properly, it can net multiple opportunities. A simple hand-written note, card, letter or email message can be very effective. These follow-up messages should accomplish two objectives:

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