Laid off after 17 years in one company, Nicholas Haaf needed to relearn the job-search ropes. He landed a new job by refining his area of focus and perfecting his message.
By Patty Orsini
By early 2008, Nicholas Haaf knew what was happening at his job: significant downsizing, merging of departments and numerous layoffs of executives. Nevertheless, he was still feeling pretty good about his chances of staying put in a company where he had worked for more than 17 years.
After all, during his tenure with the data and analytics provider, working in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area with financial-services companies, he had managed some of the most successful offices in the company and established a reputation as a solid leader. But at the end of February 2008, his job was eliminated as the company merged divisions.
"It's still shocking," the MktgLadder member said. "I had had several promotions, I was on a good career track; my sales team had grown the Texas division of this company into one of the top three revenue producing division in the country. And one day, it was gone."
But his shock did not translate to bitterness. In fact, he still felt a great loyalty to the company where he had worked for so long. So when his executive VP came to him asking him to stay on as a contract employee for a month to help with the transition, he didn't hesitate. "I felt such a big part of the company's growth and success that I felt a responsibility, even after learning that my position was going away, to help in any way I could."
Use the time to your advantage
Looking back, Haaf said that the month he went to work knowing he was basically out a job was difficult. However, it also helped him segue into the unfamiliar role of job seeker. While he started looking for a new position right away, contacting people within his professional network and working with an outplacement firm to rework his resume, the fact that he had some time where he was still working was a great help.
"While I worked, I was thinking about how to organize my job search," he said. "I hadn't written a resume in a while, and it took a little bit of change in mindset to put myself in the job market again."
Haaf made several discoveries in the months between the time he was let go and when he was hired. It was a learning process he said, that led to him find a new position with a smaller, growing company.
The first fact with which Haaf had to come to terms: It often takes higher-level executives longer to find a new job than mid-level executives.
"The higher up you go, the fewer jobs there are, and the longer it can take to find a job," he said. "I heard this from several people, executives that had been laid off. Hearing it helped me a lot, knowing that it wasn't unusual for two or three months to go by without getting an offer."
But that didn't mean he was taking it easy. He started his search by using his extensive professional network, built up over many years in sales and marketing. "I was connected to a lot of my former clients, and of course I reached out to them," he said. "But most of the people I was reaching out to were in the data or financial services field and were also downsizing dramatically."
A new contact list, a new search
Haaf realized pretty quickly he would need to shift gears. He thought about what he liked about his job and what skills he could bring to a different type of company. "I loved selling and teaching people to sell. I enjoyed thinking about a company at a strategic level, what makes it successful," he said. "It was midway through my search when I looked around and thought, ‘Among all this misery in the economy, who is benefitting?' Bankruptcy-process outsourcing was one of many businesses fitting that description. That type of opportunity became one of my areas of focus."
His original resume spotlighted his experience working with financial-services providers in the lending and bankcard space. He decided to create new resumes that would capture a broader audience. "I had one that positioned me as a financial-services executive; eventually I changed it to marketing-services executive," he said. "They are all truthful, but they position me in different ways."
As he refocused his search, Haaf realized something else: Recruiters didn't necessarily understand who he was and what he was looking for. So he used his networking skills to create a new list of contacts, and began to become more proactive in selling himself.
"I'm relatively fearless about contacting senior-level people," he said. "I found that initially, I wasn't contacting people high enough in organizations. When I started reaching higher up, I started getting more respect about what I was trying to do, and people were more interested in what I had to say. I started to realize that the skill set that I wanted to promote was more attractive at a certain level in the company. I still talked to a lot of recruiters, but I was more active in doing it myself.
"The value of TheLadders," he continued, "was that I was able to get on to a company's Web site, see what they were looking for, study the business model and learn who the executives were. Things like that would help me form a more tailored value proposition. TheLadders told me who was looking for positions. I started there."
Haaf described another important difference in the way he approached high-level executives: Instead of inquiring about job openings, he asked for advice or information about their business. "When you are trying to see people, you shouldn't always present yourself as someone who is looking for an interview," he said. "You just say you'd like to come by and introduce yourself. There's a lot more to positioning yourself. Executives will perceive you differently.
"People thought I had a lot of interviews," Haaf said. "But a lot of those conversations weren't interviews, they were just discussions with executives."
Eventually, his leads panned out. After a couple of months of interviews, discussions and research, a friend referred him for a job at Ascension Capital Group.
In early December, things really came together. He received an offer from a financial-services company, and then a second offer from Ascension, which he accepted on Christmas Eve, 2008. After several months of interviewing, researching and strategizing, it all came together in two short weeks.
The "Four Ps"
In his new role as VP of sales and marketing, Haaf said he brings business-development and thought-leadership expertise to a much smaller company than the one at which he'd worked before. When he set about looking for a new job, his priorities were to be able to sell, work on strategy and lead a team. He has been able to bring two of his three priorities to this new job, and, he said, "If we grow, I will have all three."
Haaf attributes his success to his own personal " four Ps: planning, persistence, pals and prayer," he said. "Keeping faith through this process was really critical. And, of course, having my network, my pals, who I met with on a regular basis just to keep me going in the right direction."
As for persistence, it's the hardest thing to do when you have a bad day during the job search. "My advice to anyone looking for a job right now is to depersonalize it as much as you can," he said. "Realize it is a job you are talking about, and it's not a reflection on you personally. Stick to your plan, and have faith. It will happen. It takes time, sometimes longer than you would like."
He worked hard to remain optimistic throughout his search. "I had one company that I interviewed with for a senior position; I had interviews all the way up to the president, and it ended up not working out," he recalled. "At that point, I thought, ‘How can I channel this energy? I could sit back and sulk, or I could use it positively.'
"So I used it as a lesson for my sons, who are 18 and 19. I told them, ‘I want you guys to know, when you have a bad experience, you take what you can learn from it and be in a better position the next time around.' Life doesn't always work out like you want to, but you do have to keep going. And I got up the next day and kept going."
Patty Orsini is a general assignment reporter for TheLadders.