Give yourself an edge in a tight job market

NEW JOBS in banking and finance are not easy to find. Last week, Morgan McKinley released figures showing that the number of newly-open positions fell by 47 per cent in the year to February 2012. For the past four years, large numbers of candidates have pursued a persistently small number of jobs. The market for finance professionals remains difficult.

In this environment, applicants have to stand out more than ever. It’s not enough to have a fully-stocked CV, a winning interview technique and a well-researched knowledge of the role on offer. In other words, it’s not enough to be the good candidate. To be successful in today’s job market, applicants must show themselves to be extraordinary.

But which traits, behaviours and characteristics can best separate the everyday from the exemplary?

Lewis Fraser, operations director for banking and finance at Advantage Resourcing, emphasises the importance of clear, strategic thought. “Finance is constantly in flux,” he says. One year’s zeitgeist is the next year’s MySpace. “In 2011, commodities rose to the top as banks focused on the sector to help them diversify and spread trading risk. In 2012, risk and compliance have taken centre stage, as the focus shifts to adapting practices to recent and upcoming legislation.”

Excellent candidates must show that they can identify future growth areas. Once identified, they need to consider how their future firm might manipulate market conditions and redefine its strategies in light of these trends. Strategic thought requires being aware of broad market movements, knowing the ambitions and concerns of the particular company, and finally suggesting a clear and achievable solution that will reconcile the two.

Banking and finance will prove an increasingly competitive environment in 2012. Therefore, the ability to offer coherent strategies for the future must be combined with a ceaseless commitment to innovation in approach, concept and delivery. Exceptional candidates can enter an organisation, identify opportunities and introduce new ideas. So far, so uncontroversial. More difficult is how this can be translated during the application process. How can a job applicant show off his or her innovative thinking?

Proof of ability to deliver is essential. Although “being a catalyst of change” could sound like jargon, Richard Hoar, director of banking and financial services at Goodman Masson, thinks the phrase has real-life application. Candidates must furnish examples of how their innovative thinking has directly led to benefits for previous employers. They must show how their career has achieved momentum precisely because of their ability to find new solutions. It’s a question of “subtle-selling – this is what I am and most importantly these are the outcomes of my innovative thought.” The candidate must tell a “believable story furnished with facts”.

The best place for a candidate to do this is in interview. Although interviews can seem formulaic, a visibly enthusiastic approach is essential. Fraser calls it “a key indicator that a candidate is after a particular job, not just any job.” It’s best to actually be enthusiastic about the role, but communicating a willingness to put in the hours and work outside the job’s specific remit, where necessary, can suffice. Enthusiasm is even more important in straitened times, as employers need new or existing employees to offset the impact of a possibly reduced headcount.

But Hoar thinks enthusiasm “is more than just acting the puppy dog. It’s a way of helping your prospective boss or colleagues see that you’re living the role you’ve applied for.” It involves the candidate being visibly willing to adapt to suit the job. It also requires a commitment from the candidate that he or she will “match their skill set and career ambitions to that organisation’s values and what the particular department wants to achieve.” An excellent candidate will research thoroughly to give this enthusiasm credibility.

Candidates, however, should walk before they run. Vincent Bowen, director at CMC Consulting, says that it’s “often hard to distinguish between the great and the remarkable,” but many forget the basics while trying to prove themselves perfect. “A nervous throwaway remark said at interview can determine the outcome in an otherwise exemplary performance.” Before girding themselves to be star performers, job applicants must have a clear, business-like CV, should sell their appropriate academic achievements, and above all ensure that they are relevant to the role. Potential employers are obsessed with “recruitment risk” and although they want excellence, they also deserve reassurance. Brilliance can be attractive, but the ideal candidate will understand that even brilliance needs to be anchored to the mundane.