Terrie's Job Tips -- Where to Go After Being CFO?

One trend that I'm noticing in my recruiting practice is the increase of highly qualified bilingual job seekers in the market. This is not surprising, given that foreign firms are being hard hit in their home markets and naturally Japan is expected to contribute to the cost-cutting moves going on around the world. Then of course you have the general meltdown in the banking sector and the corresponding fall out with their traditional suppliers.

Cutting a top manager can lop off JPY30MM-JPY50MM from top line costs in a single move, and so such people are proving to be vulnerable in the current market. It goes without saying that the demand for these senior people once they've been made redundant is low. Fear means that there is very little job hopping going on at the top, and thus there are few new job openings – the exception perhaps being where a company is deliberately trying to push down senior salaries through a program of strategic replacements (a risky strategy in my opinion).

So what do you do if you're a senior person and suddenly you're out of work? The answer seems to be different depending on your background. If you're a foreigner and don't have strong Japanese, then you may have to look at pulling up roots and heading home for a while. I'm seeing very few new non-bilingual senior positions becoming available at present – and I don't see this situation changing until at least mid-2009. If you're a foreigner and bilingual, then there are opportunities – but you're probably going to need to do the recruiting footwork yourself, approaching the head offices of companies that you know to be hurting and which you could do a better job at helping than the current managers. This is a fairly aggressive way of getting a job, but it works. Allow 3-4 months of this type of approach to start getting a pipeline of opportunities. Of course, you should also be talking to Daijob.com and other recruiters.

If you're a Japanese and bilingual, then the focus is going to be on your specific experience and whether you fit the job description of open positions – companies are getting a lot more choosey. Most opportunities are going to be lower down the totem pole than where you are probably positioned presently. In particular, you may find that you have to re-set your expectations in terms of salary and job title a bit, in order to get back into the workforce quickly. As an example, let's look at CFOs.

The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) role means different things for different companies. In larger firms, this person will usually sit on the board as an executive director, and be the go-to person for all financial matters, including accounting, treasury management, investment, tax, etc. Usually a CFO has accounting experience, but typically they will not have done accounting for some years. Right now, there are very few vacant CFO positions at large companies in the market, but there are some at smaller firms. The problem is that the definition of "CFO" is different for these smaller operations.

Small companies don't have the capacity for a high level of employee specialization: everyone does multiple jobs. Thus, when a smaller firm advertises for a CFO, what they are really looking for is an Accounting Manager who has finance/treasury/reporting management experience and who can manage a group of other accounting staff. This is clearly a different skill set, and one that you may have forgotten how to do. There are schools to help people work on their accounting skills, but rather than being set up for those refreshing their knowledge, these learning organizations are primarily set up for university students graduating into the profession.

Instead, my recommendation is that if you're a CFO looking for a new job, you haven't done accounting for some years, and it really shows on your resume, then you might want to do some part-time work for a smaller firm, or for a non-profit, just to show that you still know what is involved. I don't think we need to be talking about long-term career refreshment here, probably no more than 3-6 months of such "arubaito" is needed to reestablish familiarity. The fact is that your bilingual skills and other work experience will strongly reinforce your desirability as a candidate – but having some recent and live experience is going to make you that much more attractive.

Not just for CFOs, I recommend a similar approach for other senior professionals out looking for jobs and not finding anything suitable at their level.