Today's construction leaders need a breadth of experience and a bulging contacts book. We spoke to Chris Cheetham of recruitment consultant Hays Montrose to find out more …
Moving up into the competitive world of executive-level jobs has always been a tough step. But times – and businesses – change and what makes a killer competitive advantage in one era can become a handicap in another. So what does a modern job hunter need to move on up into an executive position?

High-flying experience
A breadth of experience is vital, says Chris Cheetham, director of recruitment consultants Hays Montrose's executive division. "Companies are looking for people to have a breadth of experience and understand business development, commercial management and managing operational delivery," he explains. "So people considering moving up into executive positions need to ensure their experience covers these areas. People who have broad business skills and are not highly-oriented towards any one area – such as commercial or operations management – but have a good balance of skills, are in demand. Companies want people who really understand all the areas: business development and procuring work, and then managing it so clients' expectations are achieved profitably."

How construction money is being spent is a big factor affecting what specialisms are sought after. PFI is now such a big factor in construction that people with experience in public sector work are popular. "The money that's being spent by clients is in public sector work at the moment, so there's lots of work in housing, health and education," Cheetham says. "So people with experience of these sectors are in demand."

Also popular is experience of partnering work. "A lot of companies are trying to increase the volume of partnered and framework business rather than competitive tendering so people with a lot of experience of this are wanted."

The big picture
Other than working in the right fields, what can a potential executive do to improve his chances of landing a dream job? A big difference between management and executive level is the ability to see the big picture – to have an overview of the industry as a whole, and the direction it is heading in. If you're applying for a specific job you need to research the company, find out what's going on internally and what work they've got on. Magazines such as Building are great for this, but sometimes insider gossip is vital – and for this, you'll need contacts.

"It's important to have a wider viewpoint than just within your own company and specialism," Cheetham says. "A network of contacts is vital, especially if you're in a regional rather than a national business – regional contacts especially are valuable. Client and consultants are equally important, and with the current emphasis on supply chain management, contacts for key suppliers and subcontractors are valuable too."

Contacts can also be a great way of finding out about vacancies, as well as putting in a good word for you once you've applied. And keeping in touch with former staff can give you a valuable resource if you find yourself in the position to hire your own team – being able to bring a group of talented people into a company makes you a valuable asset. "People who have strong relationships with the staff that have worked for them and have the personality and depth of character to attract staff to come and work for them are in demand," says Cheetham. "Then you have the opportunity to bring your reliable staff with you."

Know what you want
Many mid-range construction personnel have worked within the same company for quite a while, so how do you ensure you are successful when you enter the jobs market after what could be a long gap? Being clear about what you want and how you aim to achieve it is key. "What drives a successful candidate has to be where they want to be in the future, where they want to get to and how they plan to go about getting there," Cheetham explains. This is the first thing any wannabe construction executive must think about – and the most fundamental thing to bear in mind while they're struggling through the endless application forms and interview panels.

Good luck – it's a jungle out there.

Tough at the top: Interview tips

Recruiters, especially when interviewing at executive level, love unusual questions because your spontaneous response can reveal a lot about your character and how you would fit in at the company. Do not take any leftfield questions at face value – there’s a motive behind them, so it pays to prepare beforehand. People who know themselves and are confident about their abilities will be able to respond with composure to even the oddest questions, and will not be phased by queries they did not anticipate. It’s impossible to plan for every eventuality but here are some you might want to consider …

  • If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently and why?

  • If I were to talk to the people who know you best, how would they describe you?

  • What is your biggest weakness?

  • What makes you the right person for this job?

  • Has your career so far met your expectations? If so, why? If not, why not?

And here are some tips on how to get through those tricky situations …

  • Understand yourself
    To honestly demonstrate who you are and how you think, you need to have an insight into your values, interests, temperament and motivations.

  • Think before you answer
    Don’t just say the first thing that comes into your head. It might feel embarrassing to stay silent for a few moments, but take a deep breath and pause for thought – it shows you’re giving the question serious consideration.

  • Consider the question’s underlying intent
    Ask yourself why the interviewer is asking this – every question is designed to see if you’re suited to this job and this company. Be honest, but be aware of what the interviewer is looking for.

  • Remember you don’t have to respond
    Sometimes admitting “I don’t know” is the smart answer. Making it up as you go along is painfully obvious – and you could be tripped up.