Runner-up? Then follow up

If you don’t get the position you wanted to be hired for, stay in touch, the experts say.

It seemed like a dream match for Lawrence Franco.

In successive rounds of interviews this spring for the job of chief executive officer of Toronto database services provider Teranet Inc., “I clicked with the board and had a strategy they liked,” he says.

Just as important, “the company just felt right for me,” says Mr. Franco, formerly the president of Dun & Bradstreet Canada, who left the company after 24 years late last year when the position was eliminated because of a consolidation of Canadian and U.S. operations

Mr. Franco knew Teranet was interviewing someone else for the job as well, but he felt sure he had it nailed when, in the final interview in May, he was asked to present a 100-day plan for the business and his ideas for long-term growth of the 600-employee company.

Two weeks later, he got a call from the board chairman, but it wasn’t the one he was waiting for: The other candidate had got the job.

Nevertheless, they liked him, Mr. Franco was told, and would keep him in mind for a future role with the company.

As he hung up the phone, he says, “I felt like I had fallen off in the middle of a roller coaster ride. It was a real downer.”

For most people, the story would end there, figuring that No means No and it is time to move on.

But Mr. Franco took Teranet at its word and discovered what experts say many other executives will find in a rebounding economy: The runner-up who follows up can come out a winner.

In his case, he invited a member of the board of directors to lunch for a debriefing and let it be known he was open to another senior role with the company.

Two weeks later, he got an offer. In late July, he started as Teranet’s vice-president of business development.

Second chances such as this are going to be increasingly possible this fall, says Lou Clements, a partner in executive transition consultancy Miller Dallas in Toronto. That’s because for the past year, many companies have been holding back on filling positions and have gaps in their management structures that will need to be filled as the economy starts to recover.

However, the burden will be on the job seeker to follow up and stay on an employer’s radar. “Companies don’t generally keep you on file just in case. It’s up to you to stay in touch,” Mr. Clements says.

The fact that you do follow up and signal your continued interest will be impressive to an employer because “the vast majority of people just say ‘forget them’ and move on when they get the news they didn’t get the job,” he says.

That reaction is based on the belief there are no second chances in job hunting. In a recent Globe and Mail online poll, 92 per cent of 10,497 respondents said they don’t believe it when an employer who doesn’t now have a position to offer says it will get back to you if something opens up in the future.

Even those who might consider circling back after being jilted may hesitate because ego or feelings of failure get in the way, says Rick Lash, Toronto-based national practice director of the Hay Group leadership development and coaching company.

Getting the word that you didn’t make the cut can lead to a pronounced feeling of failure, Mr. Lash says. “It is often difficult, particularly for high achievers, to get over the feeling that you didn’t get the job because you aren’t right or are not competent,” he says.

“The successful people will be those who can step back and say, ‘All right, what did I learn from this?’ ”

People often don’t recognize it is not because they aren’t right or competent that they don’t get the job. The fact is, in executive searches, the candidates who make the short list of two or three finalists are all highly qualified, he says. A single detail can make the difference between winning and losing.

And taking the initiative is particularly apt in the current unsettled economy, Mr. Lash notes: “Employers are looking for people who demonstrate resilience.”

To mentally gear up again, you have to remind yourself that you are a high achiever and that’s why you were in the running, Mr. Lash says. However, it’s also important to step back and analyze what you might have done differently to come out in first place, he adds.

Feedback on your shortcomings may be difficult to accept, but it is essential information, Mr. Lash says.

When you reconnect with those in the company to indicate your continued interest, use it as an opportunity to find out why you didn’t get the job, he says. “What were your perceived strengths and what were the gaps in your experience or skill sets that they identified?”

“Difficult as it might be to get feedback about why you weren’t right for the job, one of the ways to help you feel more confident about yourself is to understand why you weren’t perceived as ready and to start working on a plan to fill any gaps in your skills and develop that readiness,” Mr. Lash says.

Feedback can provide additional information that puts your situation in perspective. For example, asking networking contacts within the organization about what was going on internally when the decision was made might reveal that the person who got the job had an inside track from the beginning, Mr. Lash says.

And don’t be discouraged if it seems there are no other immediate opportunities at the company, advises Tom Long, managing director of recruiter Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. in Toronto.

“Think in terms of developing a long-term relationship,” he says. “When you get into an economy like this one, employers are hesitant about making commitments for full-time hires.”

So it may take months for another role to come up. When an opening arises, decisions may be made quickly so it’s important to position yourself as a logical candidate.

“If you feel a rapport and connection with a company and nothing is immediately open, one way to keep yourself in view is to propose projects you could work on, on a consulting basis,” Mr. Long says. That gets you inside the company, which could turn into a full-time position or gives you an inside track on other opportunities that become available.

And Mr. Lash believes there will be opportunities aplenty as the economy rebounds and organizations return to a focus on building bench strength to prepare people to take on bigger roles in the organizations. A mass of retirements by aging boomers is still a threat; it has simply been postponed by the downturn. Companies are still going to have to plan to fill key roles.

“I think that in the short term there will be a lot of opportunities for moving laterally to new opportunities rather than making big moves up the corporate ladder. But in the longer term, there will be tremendous opportunity for growth once you get in an organization that is right for you,” Mr. Lash says.

Opportunity certainly opened up quickly for Mr. Franco at Teranet. After thinking about his options for a week, he did a follow-up in June with those who had interviewed him, thanking them and telling them how enthusiastic he was about the company.

He had developed a good rapport with one board member; when the two had lunch at Mr. Franco’s invitation, he was told there were likely to be other senior roles opening up at Teranet. He was asked if he’d contemplate moving into a position that was a step down from the CEO.

“I said, of course. For me, it’s not about titles but it’s about contributing and being in an organization with long-term potential,” Mr. Franco says

A week later, he got a call from the search firm saying the company’s new president and CEO, Jay Forbes – the man who had beat him out for the job – wanted to meet for dinner.

“We hit it off immediately in terms of our leadership styles and what we both wanted to see happen with the business,” Mr. Franco says.

Over dessert, Mr. Forbes offered him a position as vice-president of business development, a notch below CEO, but a key strategic role. “I told him I was prepared to jump in with both feet,” Mr. Franco says. “He said, ‘Great, when can you start?’ and I said: ‘How about next week?’ ”

Mr. Franco is delighted with how things turned out.

“Other executives might not be able to do this because their egos might get in the way, but I believe in this company and I see a lot of upsides and long-term potential for the future,” he says.

“So I really don’t feel I have settled for second place. I’m definitely a winner.”

Second chance tips

Hoping for a second chance after being jilted by a potential employer you really like? Here are tips from the pros:

Don’t feel defeated
Remember, the employer felt you had excellent credentials and potential, or you wouldn’t have been in the running at all.

Get feedback
Hold a postmortem with those who interviewed you to gain insight on perceived gaps in your skills and experience, and gauge whether the company is still enthusiastic about you.

Begin a courtship
Let the hiring committee know you remain interested in working there and are taking steps to close any experience gaps.

Let bygones be bygones
Drop any resentment over the rejection; express enthusiasm for working together in the future.

Find a need
With your knowledge about the organization, its needs and your strengths, see if you can create a role that uses your skills. In the current market, many places will want help with new business development, restructuring and team-building.

Check your ego
Don’t discount a role that is lesser than the one you sought.

Pitch consulting
If no attractive positions are likely to open soon, find a project within the organization that you can take on a contract. This positions you as an insider with a track record.

Think long-term
Even if you have to take an interim job or contract work elsewhere, continue to cultivate your contacts in your desired organization. Keeping the relationship going will keep you top of mind when opportunities arise.

This article was published in the Globe and Mail on October 7, 2009 and written by Wallace Immen.