I was recently contacted by a Global Chief People Officer, who was utterly perplexed. He had been in touch with a dozen top executive search consultants, but none of them had introduced him to any new roles. And he had an immaculate background for a global executive.

Being in his mid-50s, he had started to fear that he was experiencing age discrimination, since nothing else seemed to make sense. And it was at this point that he had come to me as a referral from a mutual friend, another Global Head of Human Resources with whom I had previously worked. She had recommended me as someone who would give him the unvarnished truth, and we had a great dialogue about some personal factors relating to his situation. Out of this conversation came two general factors that I wanted to share, in case it helps others in a similar situation.

If a Company is Looking for Someone as Senior as You…Something has Probably Gone Wrong

In the past, if not quite the norm, it was still relatively common for companies to reach out to the external market to hire even their most senior executives. But since the 2000s, we have seen the market for top corporate hires gradually decline. Largely due to the proliferation of talent management practices at the corporate headquarter level, most top roles are now backed up by a comprehensive internal Succession Plan. Long gone are the days where companies would scramble to hire positions at high levels from the outside; nowadays, there are a handful of internal hopefuls vying for these roles. And in the case of multinational companies, these hopefuls could be sitting anywhere around the world, ready to relocate to the corporate headquarters when the call arrives.

So if there is a senior leadership role on the market (in this case, a Global Chief People Officer role), there’s a high chance that something fairly unexpected has happened. Perhaps there was a recent exodus of talent, clearing the bench of all potential successors. Perhaps there was a sudden industry shift, leading to a requirement for new skills that hadn’t previously been nurtured. Or there might be a cocktail of personal and performance-related issues behind a decision to bring in new senior leadership talent.

To the individual job-seeker in their 50s, the experience of not being approached for these roles might feel like age discrimination, particularly if they didn’t encounter the same situation when seeking jobs in the past. And who knows, in the case of some individual decision-makers, that’s exactly what it is. But in my experience, the reason they’re not being approached is largely due to the relative scarcity of senior roles at their level. And even when such a role does exist, company decision-makers are under pressure to hire someone with specific attributes to fix an esoteric problem. No compromises.

The ‘Cooling Effect’ of the Corporate Matrix

The scarcity of the top job in his specific field doesn’t itself explain why this Chief People Officer wasn’t being considered by executive search professionals. Alongside the rise in corporate succession planning, the last decade has also seen a shift in corporate culture away from single-minded ‘top-down’ decision-making, and towards the gathering of a diversity of viewpoints. The process of hiring top senior talent has not been immune to this shift. In the past, it was quite common for executive search professionals to work with a very small number of decision-makers when hiring even the most senior roles. These days there are many more stakeholders, both top-down and at peer-group level, who are brought in to have a say about who should be hired above a certain grade. And the reasons for this are logical. The new senior executive can develop a three-dimensional view of the situation they’re getting into, and the people they would need to work with. And the corporate stakeholders can themselves bear an element of personal responsibility for ensuring the success of their new senior colleague.

The downside to this consensus culture is that the ultimate decision-maker can be reluctant to put forward anyone whom they predict will not be accepted by the majority of these colleagues. This effect is further magnified if the decision-maker is using an executive recruiter, since they can be even more demanding with their requirements. If an executive search consultant veers away from their brief, the decision-maker can be justified in saying: “I came to you as the expert headhunter in your field, so I expect your suggestions to be more accurate. Why are you introducing a person who won’t be accepted by our stakeholders, when I could have found someone like this myself on LinkedIn”?

While it’s never the intention of the headhunter or the corporate decision-maker to box themselves in, there is an element of self-censorship when it comes to putting forward profiles where the senior job-seeker doesn’t have ‘10/10 boxes ticked’ from the outset. It’s not that they are bad people, or narrow-minded and discriminatory people; they’re time-poor, task-focused, and pragmatic in the execution of the role they’ve been allocated. And why is this particularly relevant to job-seekers in their 50s? It’s not necessarily that their age is a decisively negative factor. It’s because they are the ones eligible for the top positions. And with the hiring of top roles comes an increased level of scrutiny, a stricter application of this trend, and hence a disproportionately strong effect.

So What Should You Do?

There is no magic wand that can reverse these two general trends. But I would end this article with a few simple words of advice.

a)     Most importantly, keep positive. You don’t need to feel like you’re constantly on the back foot; you don’t need to apologise for yourself; and you don’t need to waste energy blaming others. It can be emotionally bruising to encounter repetitive rejections, especially on the back of a long and fruitful career. Don’t let this happen. The truth is that some decision-makers do have an age bias. And they’re missing out on some great people. But ‘tune out’ those companies that aren’t able to give you a chance, and focus your efforts on those that can.

b)    As an adjunct to this, be humble. You are not automatically entitled to a new job, the world doesn’t owe you anything. Think of being 75% self-assured, and 25% humble… any more humble, and you’re under-selling yourself. Those numbers mean absolutely nothing, but they’re a good check on yourself if you’re having a bad day and feel like you’re wobbling around the 50/50% mark.

c)     Leverage your existing relationships to the max. Keep in touch with close colleagues and clients from the past, those people who can simply vouch for the work that you do. Personal recommendations from these people are the best way to convince corporate decision-makers to set aside any perceived ‘imperfections’ in your background, and focus on what you can bring to the organisation.

d)    Be active in applying for roles directly and through job sites like LinkedIn. But maintain your relationships with executive search consultants. They still might have that illusive ‘10/10’ role for you. Find the right balance between being responsive without becoming annoyingly over-responsive. If you feel that you’ve been unfairly overlooked over a role, engage with them to explain what they may have failed to notice. And decide for yourself if you can trust their explanation behind what you’re missing from the full list of criteria.