Planning to Get the Top Job

Over the years I’ve worked with men and women who were seeking to run a company, organization, division, or business.  “Would you look over my resume and see what you think?  Check my cover letter for spelling?  I want to make sure I get everything in there.” Really.

That’s not how it works when you want the top job, whatever the top job is.  When you want to be the one in charge, the one with the vision, the one with all the accountability, you have to show everyone what you can do.  What would it be like if you ran the zoo?  What would it be like to work with you?  That’s not a resume-and-cover-letter thing.  That’s a comprehensive campaign kind of thing.

There are lots of different kinds of campaigns—you can run a subtle, reserved, and reflective campaign, or bring on the flair.  Even if you learned of the opportunity via and are working with a search firm, there is no reason to hold back on your planning, your vision, your enthusiasm, or your efforts to advance yourself as The One.  If the job isn’t open but you are fairly sure it will be soon, whatever the reason, now is the time to figure out how you are going to get noticed and get the job.

This is work.  There is nothing simple or straightforward about it.  You can’t do this without taking some risk.  You have to assume that others are mounting their own campaign strategies, tools, and allies.  They are, I promise you, and I’m also sure you don’t even know who they are.

You don’t have to be perfect.  You do have to be thorough, focused, accessible, leaderly, inclusive, and especially, communicative.  And, if I might make a suggestion, agile (as opposed to ponderous).  Light on your feet.  Succinct and straightforward.  Don’t use all that corporate buzzword stuff to make your thoughts seem . . . longer.

Successful corner office people communicate a lot, incessantly, in fact.  They may make decisions in their heads, sort details on paper, and reflect in the dark of night, but to be successful you have to listen, explain, articulate, discuss, organize, and summarize.  All of these are communication functions.  Communication begins and ends with information.

Successful corner office candidates begin that process early in the game, by playing back to others what they heard, adding new dimension to the discussion, offering insight, asking questions, and seeking more communication.  And, the wise ones do this in documents—letters, summaries, diagrams, reports, research, and whatever other means are suitable to the occasion.  Committing your reactions and impressions to paper or pixel is an act of courage, of course, but not doing so is likely to slip you and your leaking dinghy below the horizon while another candidate’s ship heads for the harbor.  Courage is the exact thing you want to convey.

Here is a menu of planning tools that you should have before you begin your campaign:

  1. Correct and official name of the organization/company,
  2. Correct title of the position you want, name of the incumbent and prior incumbents.
  3. Last position description, if available, or make one up for your own use,
  4. Annual report, published articles about the company, industry, or region,
  5. Names of board members and brief bios of selection committee, at minimum,
  6. Names of your friends who might know them or their friends,
  7. A  list of your allies in the field.
  8. A list of your detractors, and how you will neutralize their influence if you have to,
  9. Names, titles, and position descriptions of anyone at all that you know at the target company,
  10. A checklist of items that you think are important to find out about this company and the reason why,
  11. A list of all the competencies that you believe are important for the person in the job you want, and the reasons why,
  12. An outline of the offering that you believe the board or selection committee SHOULD want to see before making a decision,
  13. A list of all the major stakeholders in the future of this company, organized as you might organize them based on their . . . stakes,
  14. A preliminary list of your questions—perhaps based on what, among the above items, you have not been able to find, but that you believe may be important.
  15. A framework for proceeding; that is, your ideas for how you might move forward to distinguish your candidacy from others.  That is, what is your distinctive advantage, competency, or offering?

Is this starting to look like a campaign?  This is why tooling and crafting your perfect resume is a waste of time.  In your head, you have to be in the job, or feel sufficiently aligned with it and urgent about it to convey your future in it better than the other candidates.  Answer the question about why you should be given it, not with a rundown of what you did in your past—but a clear vision of what you will do, why you will do it, and what will happen to the organization and its stakeholders when you are successful.

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