How do you conduct a high-stakes confidential job search in broad daylight?
LinkedIn sounds like the Nirvana of job search. I mean, who wouldn’t want a shortcut way for recruiters to find X company’s next best leader?
For retained search and contingency recruiters alike, LinkedIn represents a treasure trove of potential candidates, ripe for the poaching.
From the candidate’s perspective—we’ll call them passive candidates, because that’s what they’re called in the industry—it’s a win-win, too. Who doesn’t want a 24/7 sign saying, “Look at me, I’m great, poach me, pay me more money, make me happier.”
That’s the high many of us had when LinkedIn first rushed on the scene in the early 2000s. It didn’t take long, though, to realize a few things:
- Placing content that’s effectively an online résumé erodes your credibility with people like, oh, say, boards, bosses, investors, partners, customers … the list goes on
- Treating that same content as if it’s as confidential as a résumé can actually unintentionally reveal proprietary, confidential, and competitive information about your current or past companies
As I espoused the virtues and drawbacks of LinkedIn recently, a client astutely realized: “A résumé is a handshake. LinkedIn is a broadcast.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, and if it’s not clear how I feel about it, I would add: “Some things shouldn’t be broadcast!” I’m so passionate about it, I posted “Your LinkedIn Profile Might Be Giving Away Trade Secrets” to LinkedIn.
All of this hasn’t been lost on most of the executives and management professionals with whom I work. Net result? Static, incomplete shells of profiles littering LinkedIn’s nearly 500 million users. (Caution: duplicate and spoof profiles abound, so that number is likely considerably less.)
So how does one camouflage their intentions?
If LinkedIn is the end-all, be-all of positioning oneself to be actively or passively found on LinkedIn, how does one conduct a stealth job search in broad daylight?
After all, anyone with an internet connection can see what you’re up to.
Before I get going, it might help knowing that I’m passionate about writing clean and simple copy on LinkedIn that makes people findable. That’s the point, right? Yes, strategizing around and writing that copy gives me endless consternation as I write carefully for very senior professionals. Much of my work is anticipating and “writing around” the endless possibilities and pitfalls.
I believe in the importance and power of LinkedIn.
That said, hang out with me much and you’ll also hear why I get aggravated at LinkedIn for some of the company’s choices, and rankle easily at bloggers who write articles like “Four Stunning Ways to Write a Powerful LinkedIn Profile.” First, they rarely go beyond the obvious. Secondly, they don’t mention the real-life implications that can happen to one’s career by careless, unconsidered content.
Consider that a CTO offshored 30% of his/her staff. That’s an important résumé metric, but the implications of listing that metric on LinkedIn can be unfriendly at best. Another example might be a senior vice president at a drug maker listing on LinkedIn the size of his/her operating budget and trial details. Online, that becomes scrapable competitive information.
I get it.
- LinkedIn wants engagement from users and dollars from partners, advertisers, and recruiters (the fees for recruiters to use LinkedIn’s robust tools aren’t incidental), so their design choices don’t take into account—and sometimes blatantly ignore—the very real need for senior professionals not to be perceived as active job seekers.
- Bloggers want eyeballs, so they tend to push sensationalized, one-size-fits-all advice, which builds on itself until all bloggers are preaching from the same Sippy cup. They often present “this-is-the-one-best-way-to-do-it-ever-in-the-history-of-everdome,” with little to no experience dealing in the subtle, layered, and discreet world of retained executive search.
At the end of the day, I have to let it all go because my angst isn’t going to change a thing on a grand scale. But I can help my own clients, and that’s what my work is about.
Questions to answer before writing a stitch of copy
Let’s talk first about strategy. And by that I mean, “who are you talking to” in your LinkedIn profile’s “Summary” section?
When we think about LinkedIn profiles, it’s easy to jump to “online résumé.” LinkedIn is not that (see my LinkedIn post “Is Your LinkedIn Profile Giving Away Trade Secrets?”) So then we jump to, “It’s an online profile that’s all about me.” Yes, it’s about you, but through the lens of your impact on your business and your audience. Your company’s buyers. Your employees.
As such, I write LinkedIn summaries to the needs of the primary audience.
Of course we want recruiters and investors to read your profile, and they will. But they are what I call your secondary audience and will, or should, understand that you’re communicating to your primary audience.
- Product developer? Talk to your user base and your investors will get it.
- Ad agency digital marketer? Talk to the needs of your enterprise clients and recruiters will love it.
- CEO? Division president? Talk to your target market and then layer in what a great workforce you have around the world.
So I always ask clients who their primary and secondary readers are likely to be:
Primary reader examples:
- Others: ____
Secondary reader examples:
- Industry leaders
- Past, present, and future bosses
- Employees/team members
- Board and/or committee members
- Business partners
- Vendors/third parties
- Other: ______
What do you want to convey to your primary readers?
The career story line should be less about you, you, you, and more about giving them the confidence that you’re the right person with whom they should engage in business.
Now, how will that be read or viewed by your secondary readers?
Recruiters, especially in retained executive search, are often looking to people who are happy in their current jobs. Why? Because unhappiness might signal a problem, and not knowing where that problem originates (with the individual? with his or her company?) leaves room for a bad placement, so they will steer clear at the whiff of unhappiness.
But if you know these things, you can write the copy so it speaks to the primary reader, but is built on the bones of the needs of the secondary reader.
Let me say that again: if you plan and write copy that fulfills all of the first-level requirements needed for your secondary reader to reach out, you can then write the content as if you’re speaking to your primary reader.
Here are two examples from the same subject writing an opening paragraph for their LinkedIn “Summary” section (I made this up, so it’s entirely fictional):
- Explicit/direct: As a chief architect, I offer twenty years of product architecture and platform development experience, leading teams up to 200 and managing operating budgets of up to $50M.
- Not explicit/indirect: As chief architect at Acme, Inc., I’m privileged to bring my twenty years of product architecture and platform development expertise to the company’s automation initiatives. Our teams represent some of the world’s brightest minds, working from Silicon Valley to Taiwan, to bring our customers the next innovation in SaaS and PaaS technologies.
What do you notice? The explicit/direct version cites numbers that would be really interesting in a résumé (such that they’re permissible to share), but really have no business out in the public. The explicit/direct version also speaks all about the person, not to the various publics s/he works with day-to-day.
- Which feels more like a leader?
- Which person would you want to work with or for?
- Which person sounds like someone you’d want to get to know? To hire? To do business with?
To the knowledgeable reader (let’s say a recruiter), s/he will know that this person manages teams and can infer that the potential candidate likely manages budgets. (BTW, those two concepts can be added to LinkedIn’s “Skills” section.) But now that reader has context, has a sense of the person’s style, and can now do his/her job of seeing if the potential candidate has managed a large enough team or budget to be a fit for the position in question.
But the subject hasn’t taken a “pick me! pick me!”/résumé-esque approach to their profile, they’ve maintained their negotiating power because they appear to be happy (even if they aren’t), and most importantly, they haven’t revealed that they might be passively open to opportunity.
Get started by making some key decisions
When I work with people, I ask the following decision-making questions—shared here nearly verbatim from my LinkedIn questionnaire:
DECISION 1: In a perfect world, what do you want to achieve with your LinkedIn presence? What is your reason for being on LinkedIn? What do you want your visitors to know about you? What shouldn’t they miss?
- Context: Without the “why,” you will have nothing but a stilted “Summary” section that sounds like everyone else’s, using words that sound awesome at first, but are actually used far too often. Words and phrases like “self-motivated team player” and “results-driven.” Words and phrases that show up mercilessly in job descriptions but are actually meaningless. (Show me an SVP who hasn’t been self-motivated in his or her career. It’s possible, but unlikely that an unmotivated person would make it to SVP.)
DECISION 2: How active will you be on LinkedIn? Will LinkedIn be a static holding place, like a virtual business card? Or will your LinkedIn profile be a presence that you aggressively cultivate? Hopefully you’ll start (or continue) nurturing your online presence, but let’s be realistic.
- Context: The less you intend to log into your LinkedIn profile, the more broadly or generally you might want to write. Your content needs to stay up-to-date, so if you decide to create a static holding place, don’t forget it! Calendar a monthly or quarterly login—at the very least.
DECISION 3: How will you handle your job search plans? Are you creating a LinkedIn presence to use as a professional business tool? Are you conducting, or soon will, a stealth job search and need to do everything you can to keep your intentions quiet? Or do you plan to openly announce your job search and use LinkedIn as an active job searching tool?
- Context: These questions feel so obvious at first, but as we’ve learned above, they aren’t. I look at LinkedIn as ripe with possibility, but rife with potential pitfalls. Slow down and make a plan.
DECISION 4: Are there policies or restrictions in your current or past companies that would prevent mentioning certain details on LinkedIn?
- Context: Apple, Inc. is famous for letting its employees list only their job title (which may or may not have much to do with their actual job). Apple, Inc. employees are not permitted to discuss what they are doing or have done. Those are exciting profiles to write. Said no one ever.
DECISION 5: What kind of copy do you want? “Above” your career if your career is in transition? Copy will need to be written “above” the details. Directly to your career? You can be more straightforward about your career content if you’re not changing careers or making a shift that has to be otherwise spelled out.
- Context: The closer you plan to stick to your career so far, the easier it is to write content. The more of a career change you’re trying to make, the higher you have to write “above” the career details. Writing above the details is much harder, and I often think of it as “Oprah speak.” Oprah is gifted at speaking in universal language—painting broad pictures that make people think she’s speaking directly to them.
DECISION 6: What are your preferences around tone of voice? Informal, semi-formal, or formal? First- or third-person?
- Context: If you’re a product developer, an informal or semi-formal first-person approach would work beautifully. If you’re a public company board director, a formal third-person approach might more closely align with your brand. Another way to look at it is how much gravitas or authority you need to have in your line of work. The more distance you need from the Average Joe, the more formal the tone of voice.
DECISION 7: Keywords. They’re everywhere! Choose 6-8 of the keywords and phrases by which you want to be found, and then commit to weaving them into your copy so they feel effortless and natural.
- Context: My Job Description Analysis helps isolate keywords and phrases (among other career decisioning things), but whether you use it or not, be sure not to use the aforementioned nonsense words and phrases like “committed,” “dedicated,” and “team-oriented.” Imagine that you’re a recruiter trying to find someone with your background. What terms would you enter into LinkedIn’s “advanced search” fields to find someone like you? “Committed?” Probably not! You’d get way too many search results. You’d also get no helpful results at all.
DECISION 8: How reachable do you want to be on LinkedIn? There are, inexplicably, two contact sections: one directly under your LinkedIn profile photo and another section labeled “Advice for Contacting [Your Name].” Do you want to include your phone number and/or email address? Are there company website pages people can visit to learn more about you contextually? Are there company or professional/personal social media sites that demonstrate you as a leader or team player?
- Context: If yes, for what purpose(s)? I’m pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t provide his personal phone number on his LinkedIn profile. Would you? So then how will you be reached? Would a Google Voice number or a specific-purpose/separate email help keep a layer of distance between you and your primary/secondary audience, while letting people still reach you? Or will you require the interested party to use their LinkedIn InMail allotment. If part of being on LinkedIn is to be reachable, you have to figure out the best way to make that possible without creating lots of hoops. BUT! While still keeping the appropriate level of distance so your phone isn’t suddenly ringing off the hook and your email isn’t suddenly getting spammed every second of the day.
Take heart! Take a first crack at your new LinkedIn profile
When I wrote my first LinkedIn profile, I was quite literally sweating. I did the same for many years, as I wrote for others. I still do sometimes!
I suppose the first thing you’ll want to do is to write everything outside of LinkedIn itself, then copy/paste it to the site.
My own LinkedIn profile has morphed over the years. My long-time profile was written in semi-formal, first-person tone of voice. As I began working with more public company board directors, executives, and very senior leaders, I decided that a more formal, third-person approach was more appropriate. Even if we laugh and have a great time working together, their initial perception of me needs to carry a certain level of professionalism.
With the third-person, formal tone of voice, I get far fewer tire kickers and unqualified potential clients. It has ultimately enhanced the match between me and my ideal client. It has also helped to more accurately frame the recent presenting work I’ve done with high-profile universities and other organizations.
So don’t be afraid to try something now, and shift a year from now. With a fair bit of thinking, planning, and caution, you’ll soon be able to enjoy and even reap the benefits of a great LinkedIn profile, without outing your stealth job search or passive candidate status.