It took over a year for Watchfire Signs, a maker of digital billboards in Danville, Ill., to fill a VP of sales position and nine months to nab a director of marketing. "Finding the right people is much more difficult than you would expect in this economy," says Randy Berg, the company's vice president for human resources.
Even as the unemployment rate hovers well above 8 percent, many experts report a growing gap in one key sector of workers—business's top ranks. "It's totally counter-intuitive," says business consultant David DeLong, coauthor of The Executive Guide to High-Impact Talent Management. "There is an increasingly critical shortage of executives qualified to lead complex, growing organizations."
Some 25 percent of the 330 human resources pros polled in a new survey by Deloitte Consulting say that a shortage of qualified talent is their foremost concern. And while almost half of the nearly 1,300 respondents to Price Waterhouse Cooper's 2012 CEO survey said they were confident about the prospects for growth, only 30 percent believed they had the talent on board to lead it. "The challenge of finding the right people is our No. 1 inhibitor of growth," says Tony DiBenedetto, chairman and CEO of Tribridge, a Tampa-based IT services and business consulting firm.
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The shortage is partly a function of demographics. As baby boomers on the top rungs retire, there are not enough generation Xers (born from 1965 to 1980) to take their place. "That group is 30 million people smaller than the generation ahead of them," says DeLong. According to one study, he says, candidates in the age bracket that normally fills leadership roles are expected to drop 30 percent by 2015.
At the same time, the leadership pipelines in many organizations today are producing barely a trickle. "The need for succession planning caught companies by surprise," says Brian McGowan, executive vice president and managing director in Atlanta of the Chicago-based executive search firm DHR International. "Now there is a void as the senior level professionals age out."
Many executive recruiters and coaches see the trend as a boon for managers looking to move up the ladder. "The market for top talent is only going to get hotter," says Delong. How can you position yourself for an upward move?
Groom yourself to lead. "The biggest mistake I witness regarding promotions is that high-potential candidates wait for job openings, then apply for the position and start prepping for it," says Sarah Hathorn, CEO and founder of Illustra Consulting in Atlanta, which provides executive coaching and leadership development expertise to companies.
Slimmed-down, budget-minded employers can't afford to put people in high-powered positions and train them, Hathorn says. They expect "little or no learning curve when it comes to such things as your executive presence, your ability to build high-performance teams, and your knack for identifying talent in the raw and developing it."
That doesn't sound like you just yet? A career coach can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, and how to develop your leadership creds and buff your image. Another idea gaining traction: Seek out executives you admire and ask them how they got there, job by job. This "backward career mapping" can allow you to better chart a course for your own rise.
If you work for a large company, it can be useful to talk with someone in succession planning, often a role of human resources. "Tell them you are interested in becoming an executive and would like feedback on things you need to be learning to reach that goal," advises Mary Key, head of Key Associates, Inc., a leadership development consulting firm in Tampa.
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Then start acting like the leader you want to be. Volunteer to head up a task force or project. "Management is always happy with someone who says, 'I want more,' " says Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, cofounder of SixFigureStart, an executive coaching firm in New York City.
The strategy worked for Jordan Brannon, until recently a sales rep at Coalition Technologies, a Web design and marketing agency in Los Angeles. In addition to developing new markets and consulting on products and services, Brannon saw a need for a set of standards that would help the sales team—for re-designing sales proposals, rewriting agreements, and documenting the sales process. He went to work creating them. After a few months watching Brannon's above-and-beyond performance, recalls the company founder and CEO Joel Gross, he realized he had found the executive to head up sales.
If you don't see ways to hone your executive chops on the job, look for opportunities off the clock. "We like employees who show initiative by taking leadership positions in organizations like the United Way or Boys' and Girls' clubs or through public speaking," says DiBenedetto.
Get training. Take advantage of leadership development seminars and workshops, including any training offered by your company. Tribridge launched Tribridge Academy two years ago to nurture leaders from within. It's worthwhile to work toward additional certifications and perhaps to get an MBA or other advanced professional degree. "The validation can make all the difference," says John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
Having a few initials after your name could also provide better job security. In 2009, when joblessness peaked, the unemployment rate for workers with a master's degree was just 4 percent, compared to 5.5 percent among those with bachelor's degrees (and 9.8 percent among those with some college but no degree).
Zigzag your way upward. People used to reach the top by working in one company, says Challenger, but today they do so "by deftly moving from company to company."
The secret is to be "deeply engaged in their networks in their field." He advises staying involved in professional and alumni organizations, and joining the programs committee at your firm to bring in experts who can speak on cutting-edge topics in your industry. You'll have a way to make unforced connections with industry influencers while expanding your network exponentially. McGowan advises using LinkedIn groups to pose questions and start a discussion.
Angela Raub's 20-year career is a testament to the power of zigzagging. "I call myself a professional mutt," quips Raub, now vice president of business development for Hotel Equities, Inc. in Atlanta. She's made mostly lateral and diagonally upward moves, from director of business development and client relations in telecommunications to director of corporate relations in higher education to vice president of business development in the hospitality industry.
The career tactic paid off when Raub was laid off from a position heading corporate relations at a business school in 2009. She aggressively tapped into her connections and landed three primo job offers in just three months—two as directors and one as vice president of business development at a non-profit.
The strategy also works within organizations. The model of linear, vertical promotions that take you up like an elevator is fading. To advance, executive-worthy employees need to develop an understanding of the whole company by working in different departments. "You can't be siloed in one area," DiBenedetto says.
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Find a mentor. Seeking out a mentor, inside or outside of your company, is more important than ever, experts say. Having one "is a huge competitive advantage," says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. "It gives you a perspective you wouldn't ordinarily have."
Mentors may also make you privy to otherwise private information, such as an upcoming job vacancy or new initiative where you can make a mark. And the higher your mentor is, the better. A 2010 study from Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women advance in business, showed that men and women with senior-level mentors advanced further and earned more than those with less senior mentors.
Suzanne Garber first learned of a highly appealing job as chief operating officer for the Philadelphia-based Americas Region of International SOS Assistance, a provider of medical assistance and security services, from her longtime mentor. A senior vice president at the company where Garber worked as a manager, he heard about the position from an executive recruiter; it dovetailed with her passions for helping people and international travel. "My mentor received the fax for the job while I was sitting in his office, and he passed it over to me even though he knew it would mean my leaving the company," Garber says. He then provided a reference that helped seal the deal.