how to get your first executive job

They’re common scenarios: Michelle has served in a management or director role and wants to move up in her company. John maintains several career goals, one of which is to be an executive by age 40.

So they start a job search, reach out to an executive resume writer, or start applying for jobs with the goal of taking that next step and landing that executive role.

But just because Michelle or John feels they are ready to make that leap doesn’t mean employers are going to feel the same way. In fact, moving to an executive role through the standard job search process is one of the most difficult transitions today’s job seekers face.

“I tell people to take a long, honest look at your track record,” says Kurt Rakos, founder and partner at SkyWater Search Partners, an executive recruiting firm. “Do you have any professional management or senior leadership experience? If you don’t, I’m sorry but you’re unlikely to convince a hiring manager to take a chance on you. In any job search, remember to put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes.”

Executives promoted from within

Rakos continued: “The hiring manager is juggling a whole lot more than one open position and a stack of resumes. If they’re great managers, they’re equally focused on nurturing and retaining their current high performers, building bench strength, and rewarding internal superstars with the big promotions. Want to know one of the quickest ways to undermine all of that effort? Pass over your proven, internal talent in favor of an unknown, outside hire.”

Dave Arnold is President of Arnold Partners, an independent CFO search firm for technology companies. Arnold focuses on CFO and Board searches.

“It is not the resume that is going to make the big difference [for an executive job search],” says Arnold. “It is having the right mentor who will champion you into the executive suite coupled with demonstrated skills to perform at the executive level. This is a combination of technical know-how and executive presence.”

Arnold asks every CFO he meets how they got their first CFO role. About 80% are “battlefield promotions,” he said, meaning they were not previously in the executive chair.

“Their CFO leaves the company and either championed the person to the CEO/Board or the CEO/Board saw this person in action and trusted them enough to put them in the seat,” said Arnold. “Usually they had to earn it after a temporary stint. Getting your first C-suite role through a recruiter or applying on your own is almost fruitless; it generally needs to be done through your network of trusted people of influence.”

So, where does that leave you if you’re a high potential candidate who really wants that next big promotion?  

How to create executive opportunities

Consider these seven tips and strategies:

  1. Find a way to gain that experience: Look for opportunities with your current employer.  “If actual executive positions are few and far between, ask for opportunities to take on formal leadership roles on significant projects,” says Rakos.

  2. Seek management training: Ask your employer for management training and leadership mentoring. If none of those are realistic options where you are, start looking for employers who might hire you into a paid management training program that offers opportunities for promotions into leadership or executive positions, suggests Rakos.

  3. Serve on a non-profit board: “One of my best pieces of advice is to seek a significant role in a volunteer organization,” said John Crossman, CEO of Crossman & Company, a commercial real estate company serving the southeast United States. “It will teach you important skills [and] cause you to be seen as a leader. It could be a charity or a trade association. Organizations always need help and you can leverage success there to be seen as an executive.”

  4. Find a mentor: Mentors aren’t just for recent college grads or entry-level job seekers. Many C-level executives still have strong mentoring relationships with colleagues who can motivate and challenge, and be a voice for one throughout their career. They can provide direction and connections.

  5. Develop relationships with recruiting firms: Executive recruiters are in the business of finding the right candidate for the employer that hired them, not finding a job for an executive.

    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach out to an executive recruiting firm and submit a resume or seek out a meeting. If you do get contacted, share your goals with the executive recruiter. They will be up front with what you need to do to get noticed.

    You might not be a fit now, but by taking the necessary steps now, you can continue down the right path of landing your first executive job once the right skill sets or experiences are developed.

  6. Become a consultant: Prove your expertise and ability to influence by becoming a consultant. Use those measurable results to show how you can impact a department, team, or product launch, or how, as a consultant, you were able to drive change, save money, or solve a problem for an organization as you strive to obtain your executive role.

  7. Network, network, network: It sounds trite but it’s true, says Rakos. “Rev up your network,” he says. “Keep talking to employers – your own and others. Ask what they’ll need to see from you in order to put you in that role you’re pursuing. Focus, honest self-evaluation, and hard work always pay off.”

The Jobscan article How Executives Find Jobs suggested: “Schedule phone calls, lunches, and outings with past associates to catch up and learn what’s happening with the leadership at various companies. Attend industry conferences, conventions, and meetups. Get facetime with as many people as possible.”

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Executive resume writing tips

Despite these challenges, job seekers will always pursue career advancement opportunities, including executive roles. That often starts with writing and/or updating a resume.

When writing an executive resume, be sure the resume highlights these areas, says Crossman:

  • Numbers and results: Emphasize initiatives you have taken that have saved time, increased revenue or improved processes – clearly state the outcomes of those efforts in dollars, numbers, and time.

  • Strategic decision-making: Stress your involvement in strategic decision-making and give examples of the ideas you contributed to that had positive results, even if you were just part of a team.

  • Leadership successes: Demonstrate your leadership abilities by pointing to direct reports that have been promoted or the lack of turnover on your team.

  • Ability to influence: Clearly communicate your ability to influence groups who do not report to you with sound business acumen and advice.

  • Communication/speaking skills: Highlight strong verbal and written communication skills, focusing on any areas where you reported results to C-level executives, a board, or key decision makers.

    This relates to the ability to influence, but seeking out opportunities to be a guest speaker or keynote speaker at industry events or conferences is a great way to influence, while showcasing (and improving) communication skills. It is also can boost your status within an industry and others will take note.

Want to know if your executive resume is a match for your next executive role? Use Jobscan to optimize your resume and boost your executive interview chances.

Executive resume and job search mistakes to avoid

These factors can derail one’s desire to move into an executive role, says Arnold:

  • Career stagnation, lack of promotion, not having clear accomplishments outlined.
  • Not having a clear and accurate sense of self by either overstating your accomplishments or underplaying them.
  • Lack of the right education. “That MBA you did online is not the same as a full-time Wharton MBA,” says Arnold.
  • Resume typos or errors.

Additional executive job search articles by Matt Krumrie


Matt Krumrie on athletic coach resumes.Matt Krumrie is a professional resume writer, and owner of Resumesbymatt.com. He has 15 years of executive resume writing experience and specializes in helping talented professionals take the next step in their career.

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