What You Don’t Know about Headhunters: 10 Tips

Understanding what makes recruiters tick is a vital but often overlooked component of the job hunt. In a shaky economy, it may be more crucial than ever.

At long last, you have made the tough decision: it’s time for a new job. Or maybe someone else decided that for you. Whatever the motivation — new owner, new boss, company going bankrupt, getting fired after a restatement — the first thing to do is find some executive recruiters. Right?

At this point, you might as well. But it would have been smarter to forge relationships with recruiters when you weren’t in such a hurry to move — that way, a recruiter could have contacted you as positions became available. Not only is that how they prefer to work, it’s a far surer path to making a change than pushing the panic button and expecting something to happen overnight.

Understanding what makes recruiters tick is a vital but often overlooked component of the job hunt. Here’s what you need to know:

• The right recruiter. There are two kinds of recruiting firms: contingency and retained. The contingency firms get paid only when a candidate they found gets hired by a client. “There are some good ones, but many of them just throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks,” says Lorraine Hack, a partner in the financial-officer practice at Heidrick & Struggles, a retained firm. “If you don’t want your résumé to be all over the place like the daily news, you might not want to go that route.” Companies hire firms like Hack’s on retainer to identify candidates, thoroughly learn about them, and present a short list to be interviewed. But the lower the salary allocated for a slot, the less likely retained recruiters are to take on that search, so recruiters paid via contingency fees are frequently used to fill lower-level positions.

• E-greetings. To make initial contact with a recruiter, send an E-mail. “Some candidates think paper résumés stand out, but E-mail is interactive — I can just hit ‘reply’ to get back to you,” says Hack. And her opinion about cold calls: “Very poor.” Some recruiters, like Chuck Eldridge, managing director of the financial-officers practice at Korn/Ferry International, don’t mind a phone call or even a brief visit to get acquainted — to a point. “I can’t do that with every finance person in the country,” he says. Which brings us to the next point.

• It’s a rat race. Working on about 10 searches at a time, a recruiter might make five calls to prospective candidates per week on each search, according to Hack. That’s 50 calls. Each client wants weekly telephone updates on the search progress, which eats up several hours. Candidates who pass initial muster must be interviewed, followed by a written report to the client; this process takes a couple of hours a pop, and sometimes a whole day, if the recruiter must travel to do the interview. That’s not to mention their own intracompany meetings or the small matter of finding new business.

Why should you care? “If you call a recruiter and they don’t call back, it isn’t necessarily because they have a bad feeling about you — it’s that they’re overwhelmed,” says I.H. “Chip” Clothier, managing partner of HFC Executive Search. “There’s an assumption that if you call someone they’re going to call you back, but it physically can’t work that way.” Also note that while you may be out of a job, calling recruiters every week for an update is not productive and likely will just annoy them.

• Poor returns. On the other hand, recruiters take a dim view of you not returning their calls. Aside from providing all information about your accomplishments and employment history, the single most important thing to do when making a career change is to return phone calls, according to Eldridge. “It’s simple, but the number of people who don’t return calls is unfortunately very high,” he says.

• It’s a cold world. Cold-calling not only can be an annoyance to recruiters, as indicated previously, it’s also not likely to land you a job in the short term because headhunters generally do very specific searches. The vast majority of positions they fill are the result of their own proactive searches. Even if you get through to the recruiter and ask what searches are in progress, finding a match is a longshot. “Our clients usually have precise requirements for what they want,” says Eldridge. “A lot of times people will try to ‘bend’ their résumé to fit the situation, but I have to tell them I can’t — the client was very clear.”

• Heavy hitters. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that a recruiter is a lightweight go-between that you cursorily pass by on your way to the real interview. Retained recruiting firms play an enormous role in helping determine who gets hired. If you don’t ace your interview with the recruiter, you will never get to see the actual employer. And do not assume you can b.s. the recruiter because he or she knows little about finance. Hack, for instance, is a former CFO, and Eldridge had a long career at a Big Four accounting firm.

• Back-scratching. Among the best ways to build a relationship with recruiters is to help them succeed. If one calls you about a job that is not right for you, make every effort to refer him or her to someone else who might be more appropriate. “I don’t forget that, and I try to pay those little dividends back,” says Clothier.

• A wide net. Don’t limit your efforts to network with recruiters to E-mails and phone calls. “Getting to know recruiters through other means is smart,” says Clothier. There are professional conferences, finance-industry events, and networking organizations such as the Financial Executives Networking Group, where you can rub elbows with recruiters. “Those are great opportunities for getting to know somebody face-to-face in a 10-minute conversation that can be followed up on later,” he adds.

• On the record. Most major recruiting firms offer Websites where you can enter your profile and a résumé into a database that all of the firm’s search professionals can tap. The information can be updated at any time; if you are moving to Denver, say, make a note of it in your online profile, which typically will trigger E-mail alerts to the firm’s finance recruiters.

• The ship is already sinking. And, yes, do not wait until you are in trouble or transition to start calling recruiters. “It is extremely unfortunate that so many people don’t network or do it too late,” says Eldridge.

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