Overcoming a Resume That Lacks 'Big Names'

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When screening a job applicant's prior employment, Wall Street takes its cue from the Talmudic sage who advised, "Be the tail of lions rather than the head of foxes." But what if you've only run with nameless foxes? How do you persuade the lions of the bulge-bracket or Alpha Magazine's Hedge Fund 100 that your true place is among them? Recruiters and career coaches offer several tips.

First, build a track record as a top performer in your field, says New York career coach Win Sheffield. "All these places respond real well to results."

Managing directors of smaller firms will have client relationships that can generate business for a new employer, says Burke St. John, vice chairman and head of the global financial services practice for CTPartners, a worldwide executive search firm. A transferable book of business is always attractive to a top-tier institution. That's especially true in bull markets, and all the more if the candidate's loyal clients are concentrated within a hot industry, market segment or geographic region.

For candidates in operational or accounting roles, the key is to consistently show initiative and leadership. "Really be pro-active, get a reputation for becoming the go-to guy or gal on a particular project," says George Yulis, principal at Rothstein Kass Executive Search Group. "That's how you build a portfolio of experience that sets you apart from your peers in any particular industry.... That's one way you get past the fact that you've worked for ABC Co. instead of Goldman Sachs."

Make Yourself Visible

Second, show initiative beyond your workplace, through professional development course work, reading to stay on top of the latest trends, attending industry conferences, and taking an active role in professional associations. Along with upgrading your skills and professional network, such activities can raise your visibility and stature, placing you on the radar screen of upper-tier employers and the retained search firms that work for them.

Third, be prepared to accept a lower title to jump to a firm with greater brand value. "If you're a VP, you may get hired as an associate. If you're an MD, you may get hired as a director," says St. John. "The compensation may end up being the same or more, but you have to be willing to drop your title a notch. I see that occur frequently."

(Because those sorts of opportunities most often arise in bull markets, St. John says they have just become more scarce. He doesn't expect Wall Street to resume the frenetic hiring pace of 2007's first half any time soon.)

Prove Others Want You

Fourth, prove that other firms are eager to employ you. "What gets you in the door (at a top firm) is making yourself marketable and desirable by everybody else," says Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a nationwide career counseling network.

The club teaches members to approach less desirable employers, get multiple offers, and then use those offers as bait to win over more selective, higher-tier employers. "We've done this with Wall Street people for years," Wendleton says.

Fifth, remember: Interpersonal skills matter. Someone who's a pleasure to have around has a better shot at getting hired than someone who can just do the job, says Yulis. So, do your best to be likeable.

Last but not least, network. The single most powerful antidote to an unimpressive resume is an introduction from a well-placed contact inside your target firm.

No one has ever composed "the perfect resume" that conveys everything they are capable of doing, Sheffield points out, but a resume's shortcomings are magnified for candidates who lack big-name employers. "If you have the no-names but you're showing fabulous results, you can get in through your resume, conceivably," he says. "But it's easier to get in and show your full worth and value if you can make a connection through networking."

Sheffield speaks from experience. Earlier in his career he moved from one bank to a better-paying one, sidestepping the latter's training program - the typical gateway. "The person who referred me in was an employee and had a sense that I might fit in there," he recalls. It turned out his skill-set uniquely matched the bank's specific need.

It isn't mere snobbery that leads the biggest banks and hedge funds to focus on candidates with similar employment histories. Thanks to the top institutions' training programs, "you know what you're getting" when you recruit from them, says Sandy Gross, managing partner of hedge fund retained search firm Pinetum Partners.

But she and others acknowledge that candidates from smaller institutions deserve credit, too. "They've almost had to work harder" to reach the same level of responsibility as those at top-tier firms," she says, "because they had to advance without that cachet of the names on their resume to open doors for them."

Big name, small name. Does it really matter? Post a comment below.

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