Looking Out For Number One
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\"\"Reflections on the Corner Office from Herbert Mines Associates

As the economic outlook has improved in the retail sector, so has the hiring landscape.  We talked to Heidi Rustin, Managing Director of Herbert Mines Associates, about the personal side of careerism, and what professionals should be doing to ensure promotability and maximize marketability in this fast-changing business landscape

Q: What kind of activity are you seeing right now in the executive ranks?

A: Companies who had been averse to making changes when times were tough are now free to assess the level and effectiveness of their talent pool, so we have been seeing a lot of movement at the very top.  As the retail environment has improved, and they can no longer blame the market, companies are taking a long, hard look at their executives.

Q: During the recession, executives were hunkering down and not looking to change jobs. Do you find that executives are more willing to consider new opportunities now?

A: Executives are beginning to move on from being happy just to have a job, a mindset of risk aversion, to considering new opportunities.  The difficult housing market has made relocation more challenging. However, there is a lot of great opportunity right now for the person who is willing to consider change.

Q: What is the most effective way for executives to manage their internal promotability?

A: Internal promotability is very specific to each company.  The best thing you can do is prove yourself by doing your job well. However, if you want to broaden your skills, the easiest place to do so is in your existing company. Ask for new tasks to broaden your horizons.  If you are in a finance role and you’d like to take on operations, ask for some new responsibilities that will round out your skill set and give you the opportunity to prove to your employer that you are capable of handling more.

Q: What about external marketability?

A: Of course, I am biased, but it seems absurd not to at least take a look at what else is out there.  Our job as recruiters is not just to convince people to make a move but to present them with a compelling reason to move—for a bigger, better job.  You won’t know what is out there if you don’t look and listen.  Also, part of being a professional manager is managing your own career, creating alliances with search firms, and learning what’s going on in the competitive environment.

Q: What are the signs that an executive is ready for his or her next position? What advice would you give people who are ready for change?

A: The worst thing you can do from a performance perspective is to allow yourself to be bored. If you feel like you’ve stopped learning, and are no longer excited about the job, maybe it’s time to make a change.  Managing your career means taking on new challenges time and again. They’re out there – the business is not a static one. You need to constantly stay ahead of your game and ask yourself if you are growing.

Q: Who bears the burden for grooming and growing executives –the company or the individual?

A. It depends. There are some companies – particularly larger ones – that have a very specific track and a succession plan and are mindful of grooming their executives. If you work in one of those companies, make sure you understand how the track works.  Work with the HR executive or your direct supervisor and really get your arms around what the metrics are to perform.  If you work in a smaller company that does not have a track, you need to assume more responsibility for your own destiny.

Q: If you are not looking for a job and you don’t want to put your name in play, why should you take a call from a recruiter?

A:  Again, I’m biased! You might be well paid, happy and productive but there could be an even better opportunity out there but you will never know unless you listen.  One of the reasons people are reluctant to cultivate relationships with the search community is they believe it sends a signal to the universe of being disloyal.  But listening to what’s happening in your area of the job market is not a disloyal act. Also, and this is really important, you shouldn’t wait until you don’t have a job to look for one. People are more marketable when gainfully employed.

Q: Will you still pursue conversation with an executive who says “I’m not looking but I will listen”?

A: Absolutely.  We would have no practice if we didn’t have open-ended conversations.  A high percentage of our placements were happy in their previous jobs.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who has been with the same company for a while and is thinking that because they haven’t moved, they may not be as well paid as they could be?

A: The truth is if you have a long track record with one company, there’s a good chance that you may be a bit salary suppressed.  A move can provide you with economic opportunity, because most people won’t make a financially lateral move.  At the senior level, you can do your own research by looking into company proxies for what executives make.

Q: Have there been instances where the candidate was reluctant but you knew that it was a great match and persevered?

A: That happens a lot because people have preconceived ideas about what a company represents.  I’ve had people say to me “I’m not an off-price retailer kind of guy” or “I’m a luxury exec” or “I don’t want to go contemporary.” And, in most cases when they further assessed the opportunity and got rid of these prejudices, they were pleasantly surprised and made a move.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes or pitfalls executives make in managing their careers?

A. The first mistake is job hopping or, as we jokingly call it, “Job ADD.” It is hard to point to success when you haven’t stayed long enough to see your success through. Of course, sometimes you land in a job and it’s not what you expected, so you leave after a short time. It happens. When it’s recurring, however, it could be a problem. For example, if someone leaves after a short time when business gets tough, that’s not exactly evidence that you’re going to help your new company through good times and bad. The second biggest mistake is not to trust your gut. Make sure you allow your instincts to kick in wherever you consider moving and make sure it is a great cultural fit.

Q:  One last question: When you send a candidate into a retail position, should he or she wear that company’s key designer?

A. I actually think it can seem contrived unless you already wear it. But if you are going to interview at a contemporary brand, wear something contemporary.  Don’t wear a buttoned down suit to a jeans culture company.  Retail is an image-driven business and you need to convey the right physical presence and a sense that you “get it.” Although experience, skills and business acumen are most important, fitting into the corporate culture can be a critical element to success.

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