Executive Recruiters: Your Job-Search Commandos
By Bill Radin
Career Development Reports
Executive recruiters (also known as headhunters or search consultants) have firmly established themselves as a visible and highly valued fixture in today’s employment landscape. Through their aggressive matchmaking, headhunters affect the careers of individuals, the lives of their families and friends, and the profitability of entire corporations.
No one knows exactly what the business world would be like without the influence of headhunters, but one thing’s for sure: sometime in your career, you’ll either receive a call from a headhunter, or initiate contact yourself. In either case, you should learn how to work with them effectively, and take full advantage of the many benefits their service provides. Here’s what you get from establishing a relationship with an executive recruiter:
In addition, working through a headhunter can actually improve your chances for success once you’ve been placed. That’s because the search fee the hiring company paid the recruiter represents a sizable financial investment in your future success — an investment worth protecting.
Headhunting is a multi-billion dollar international industry that acts as the missing link between a half million job seekers and employers each year. At last count, there were over 125,000 executive search practitioners in the United States, according to The Fordyce Letter, the industry’s leading trade journal.
There’s hardly an industry or profession that hasn’t spawned its own coterie of recruiters. They cover every conceivable pocket of the job market, from food sales to machine design to motion picture financing to mortgage banking to freight hauling to data communications to haute cuisine to college administration to city management.
Generally speaking, headhunters work within well-defined niches. To make sense of a complicated employment market, headhunters classify their candidates according to:
To give you an example, a recruiter might place project engineers (title) with computer-aided design experience (skill) into positions with companies that built submarine hydraulic systems (product).
Other headhunters might place CEOs (title) with plant management experience (skill) who work for companies that process frozen broccoli (product); or district sales managers (title) with marketing degrees (skill) who work for companies that make high-top leather sneakers (product).
Think of your own experience. How would you classify yourself? Your answer will not only help you put your career into perspective; it’ll help the headhunter determine whether you “fit” into his or her market niche.
Of course, recruiters can use other means to define their markets. Some take an industry-specific approach. Let’s say you work in the retail industry, or in construction. You’ll probably find a recruiter who doesn’t care what your title or function is, as long as you have experience in that target market. I knew a recruiter named Jim, who specialized in the printing industry. No matter what you did in the past, if it had anything to do with printing, Jim would gladly take you under his wing.
The opposite approach is taken by the skill-specific recruiters. To them, the product or service of the host company is secondary to the skills of their candidates. This is the preferred method of recruiters who specialize in placement of data processing, accounting, or clerical personnel.
Even though headhunters can’t guarantee you a new job, you have much to gain from working with them. And vice-versa, since you represent an addition to their continuously perishable inventory. While it’s true that headhunters owe their allegiance to their client companies (who pay the fees), without candidates to fuel the fire, headhunters simply wouldn’t exist.
For each search assignment, headhunters may prescreen hundreds of prospects. Therefore, the majority of their time is spent with the finalists for each open position, relegating to their file drawers the “reject” or the “maybe next time” candidates they encounter. These candidates are often highly skilled professionals who simply don’t fit the specific qualifications required by the headhunter’s client company — they’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For that reason, you should always press for a realistic appraisal of your chances of being placed. If one isn’t forthcoming, you can assume the recruiter is giving your candidacy a low priority. In that case, you can opt to let your resume languish in a headhunter’s file, or seek the help of a recruiter who’ll take an active role in finding you a new position.
I try my best to be up front with every candidate I talk to. If your skills fall outside my area of expertise, I’ll steer you to another headhunter who can be of assistance, or provide you with some general coaching which I hope will be of value.
Always look for a headhunter who takes an interest in your background, or who specializes in your industry. The last thing you need is to pin your hopes on someone who’s not in a position to help you. Be prepared for mixed reviews when you talk to recruiters. You might very well receive a brush-off like, “I’ll call you in a week to 10 days”; or bad advice, such as “You’ll never find the job you want with the background you have”; or discouragement like, “Nobody’s hiring now.” Just keep plugging away at your job search — and never take “No” from a headhunter.
Of course, even the most qualified candidacy is subject to the whims of a supply and demand job market. In many cases, a headhunter simply won’t know what your chances of getting another job might be until he or she puts out feelers or sends you out on an interview. To work most efficiently, invest your time with a recruiter who really wants to help you.
Headhunters come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and exhibit the same range of personal merits and character strengths as the rest of the human race. The majority are honest, hardworking entrepreneurs, who work diligently to help candidates find meaningful, rewarding jobs.
I’ve found that headhunters can be divided into three different personality types:
A perfect example of the Sherlock Holmes headhunter is Norman Roberts, who works out of an office in Los Angeles. It was his ingenuity that led to an unlikely (but highly successful) match in 1984. He took an unknown travel industry executive — Peter Ueberroth — and placed him as the head of the U.S. Olympic committee.
While personality and style are important aspects to consider when selecting a headhunter, you should also evaluate the headhunter’s past results. Assuming you feel a modicum of comfort with the person you’re dealing with, it’s a good idea to check into their track record and experience level. If you discover a consistent pattern of success, you’re probably off to a good start.
Otherwise, you might find yourself stuck with the fourth type of headhunter: the Inspector Clouseau. This type embodies none of the above personality traits, only the endearing, bumbling incompetence of the movie character portrayed by the late Peter Sellers. In his Pink Panther movies, Inspector Clouseau was able to crack the trickiest cases; but only through sheer serendipity or plain dumb luck.
You’ve probably heard of the so-called schism in the world of executive search between “retained” and “contingency” headhunters. True, differences exist, especially in regard to billing methods, candidate salary levels, and operational procedures.
However, I prefer to think of the entire search industry as a microcosm of the American political system, in which both Republicans and Democrats live in peaceful co-existence.
“Gee, that’s a far-fetched analogy, isn’t it?” you ask.
No, not really. Republicans and Democrats are both loyal Americans; they just have different views concerning society and the way the country should be run.
The same could be said of the retained recruiters (who get their fees paid in advance and work to fill higher level positions) and the contingency folks (who only get paid once their candidates are hired). Each serves a different slice of the employment population, and each has a different concept of how the search business should work.
Interestingly, the lines of demarcation have begun to blur in recent years. Just as Republicans and Democrats have cross-bred portions of their constituencies, so have the retained and contingency headhunters. Although the traditional break point in salary is around $75,000 (with retained above and contingency below) it’s no longer unheard of for a contingency recruiter to place a CEO at $200,000 a year; or a retained headhunter to place a manufacturing manager at $55,000. What’s more, each camp will, if the situation warrants, borrow from the other’s method of billing the client. Lately, I’ve heard stories of contingency recruiters charging partially retained fees, and retainer headhunters accepting assignments “on spec.”
As the search industry continues to evolve, it’ll matter less and less how the client is billed. Currently, there are about a dozen different billing schemes, from flat fees to hourly fees to itemized service charges. One clever recipe combines contingency with retained to produce — voila! — “contained” search.
Understanding these broad divisions will help avoid confusion and save you time if your salary level is fairly polarized. That is, if you’re currently earning, say, $35,000, there’s virtually no chance you’ll be working any time soon with a retained headhunter. Similarly, if you’re earning over $100,000, the odds are, the headhunter you work with will be retained by the client company.
Both contingency and retained recruiters play for big stakes. Fees generally run from twenty to as high as thirty-five percent of a placed candidate’s first year compensation. With that type of arithmetic, it’s easy to see why headhunters develop ulcers, not to mention a healthy skepticism towards their clients and candidates. All it takes is for an employer or candidate to change his mind at the last minute, and the headhunter has lost, say, $10,000 or $20,000 in personal income for months of work.
Let’s talk turkey for a minute about what to expect from headhunters, and how to establish some common sense ground rules. Here are seven issues you’ll want to discuss before you set any relationship in stone:
By the same token, you must be fair with headhunters. For example, if you’re pursuing a job search on your own or through another party, keep the headhunter aware of your activity, so you don’t cross paths. A recruiter’s time and reputation are his most valuable commodities; he or she deserves better than to be manipulated or left in the lurch.
Recruiters can’t work miracles by waving a magic wand over your resume; all they can do is match your background with a suitable opening, and help guide you through the job changing process efficiently and competitively. While it’s true that headhunters have their limitations and can’t be all things to all people…
It makes good sense to build a solid relationship with a competent headhunter.