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:
Greater exposure. Headhunters not only maintain a myriad of existing contacts
within your field, they can also scout out new companies you never heard of.
Increased efficiency. Headhunters are obsessive networkers; they spend their time
researching and penetrating the job market. Their knowledge can save you time in identifying and pursuing prospective employers.
Personalized public relations. Employers generally look more favorably towards
a candidate who’s professionally recommended. Headhunters stake their reputations on the quality of their candidates,
and will always present you in the best possible light.
Confidential representation. Some job search situations require a great deal of
discretion. For example, you may want to explore an opportunity with your present company’s direct competitor. In such
an instance, a headhunter can present your background confidentially, thereby protecting your identity, and eliminating (or
at least minimizing) your risk of exposure.
Authoritative career consulting. Headhunters can help you determine the job or
career track that’s right for you, based on current market conditions and your own values and abilities. They’re
also in a unique position to walk you through (and monitor) each step in your job changing process.
Private training. Headhunters can give you practical, time-tested suggestions
on how to strengthen your resume and improve your interviewing technique. In many ways, a headhunter acts as a personal coach.
Third-party representation. As experienced brokers, headhunters find ways to put
favorable deals together, and iron out differences you and the hiring company may have regarding your salary, benefits, and
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.
Headhunters: The Missing Link
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
Generally speaking, headhunters work within well-defined niches. To make sense of a complicated
employment market, headhunters classify their candidates according to:
Title or function, which refers to their descriptive title or rank within the
company, such as president, plant manager, staff accountant, director of nursing, and so on;
Skill or application, which refers to their specialized abilities, such as tax
accounting, IBM AS/400 systems programming, secured lending, and the like; and
Product or service, which refers to the industry in which the candidates do their
work, such as plastics, minicomputers, industrial tools, public administration, hospitality, and so forth.
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
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.
Don’t Get Lost in the Shuffle
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.
Sigmund, Sherlock, and Donald
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:
1. The Sigmund Freud headhunter is a kindly, wise, and empathic counselor.
He or she listens carefully when you describe your values, your job preferences, your personal goals, and your family commitments.
The Sigmund Freud headhunter wants to place you with a company you’ll feel comfortable working for, and will spend lots
of time getting to know you.
2. The Sherlock Holmes headhunter is a clever, relentless, goal-oriented
detective, who’ll track down and contact every company which might provide a match for your skills. This type can be
quite creative in discovering aspects of your background which can be successfully marketed to companies off the beaten track,
or only peripherally related to your present industry.
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.
3. The Donald Trump headhunter is the consummate deal maker. This type
is less concerned with whether you’re a round or square peg, as long as you can be crunched into whatever hole may be
available, or convenient. Headhunters like this tend to give the search industry a bad name because of their insensitivity
to the true needs of their clients and candidates; and although they can often produce positive results, many times their
high- pressure tactics lead to short-term employment.
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.
The Two-Party System
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
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.
Some Common Sense Ground Rules
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
Compatibility -- Make sure you feel comfortable with the style, personality, intensity
level, and integrity of the headhunter. As in any other business relationship, you want the other person to understand your
needs and act accordingly.
Confidentiality -- Make sure your resume isn’t going to get plastered all
over town without your knowledge. An inept (or anxious) recruiter can overexpose your candidacy; or worse, reveal your intention
to change jobs to your own company.
Good Judgment -- Make sure you’re being sent to interviews that match your
background and interests with the needs of the recruiter’s client company. The most common complaint from both candidates
and employers is that recruiters "throw candidates against the wall to see what sticks."
Honesty -- Make sure there’s either a bona fide job opening or an upgrade
possibility where you’re being sent to interview. Otherwise, you’ll be spending your valuable time on one wild
goose chase after another.
Tempo -- Make sure to let the recruiter know at what pace you want to proceed
in your search for a new position. If you’re not ready to make a change until a later date, or simply want to explore
the market, don’t let the recruiter waste your time by sending you on an interview.
Arm-twisting -- Don’t be pressured into accepting a position or a compensation
package simply to please the recruiter.
Exclusivity -- It’s fine to work with a recruiter on an exclusive basis,
as long as you feel comfortable with the arrangement, and the recruiter has earned the right of sole representation. On the
other hand, you might not want to limit your options. Despite what you may be told, no recruiter has the exclusive "ownership"
of your candidacy.
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.
By Bill Radin, © 1998 Innovative Consulting, Inc.