The Headhunter’s Call

Calls from headhunters can be a bit confusing. You know the drill: “Is there a chance you know someone you’d recommend I talk to who has this kind of background?” Could this call be about you, or is the headhunter truly seeking some networking advice? It was a real surprise when one of these calls came directed at me a few years ago.

That call came in from the President of one of the country’s most prestigious search firms, ostensibly to ask my advice about adding a new search partner (and based on the thinnest of connections between us). It wasn’t until I got off the phone that I realized he was asking me if I wanted that job. This guy was smooth . . . I gave him a few tips about others I know, and when I hung up I sat back and did some thinking. I make these same calls all day long and I couldn’t see this one coming. How did I come off? Will I ever hear from that fellow again? I’m a happy camper, but it is always a pleasure to know you’re making a positive impression.

That day started me thinking about how is it that recruiting firms determine who is a “prime candidate” and who isn’t . . .  Are there ways to optimize your situation when this happens? And why is it, exactly, that companies like the one who called me are so darn vague about what it is they want? Why not just call and ask, “Are you looking?”

Recruitment has changed with the times

I’m a recruiting industry old-timer. My practice goes decades back, and we’ve seen a huge amount of change since then; legal changes in what we can and can not do, societal changes and social media impacting our work, and changes in the expectations that our clients have about our performance. One thing has not changed, however, and that is the interpersonal connection that we need to have with our candidates.

The personal touch does not go away just because we can tap sources on the Internet to learn more about a person’s experience base. In order to succeed, a search firm still has to develop a relationship with the candidate and ensure that the connection between employer and new employee is built upon a solid foundation – one that benefits both parties.

To maximize the few minutes you get with a headhunter, think first about that person’s goals and what they are looking for. A recruiting firm has the daily goal of making acquaintances in an area of expertise that will benefit them today or when they are working on a future assignment in your area of expertise. There’s no way you can lose by investing a few minutes in helping them out, whether it be specific details and names, or general ideas about where to find such people.

On the other hand, if your caller comes across as exclusively focused on some immediate need, it can sound like a “wham, bam” selfish request. Your caller is likely to be a rookie recruiter or a person who is totally focused on making this month’s mortgage payment. Either way, you don’t need that interruption to your day! The lesson learned here is that you are in charge of discriminating between these two types of recruiting calls. If there’s a genuine interest and sincerity behind the request for help, take it and make the most of it. Don’t feel bad about buzzing off the other kind of caller.

When you are making the introduction

Many people contact recruiters in short bursts, separated by years and only when they have a need for a job. Perhaps this may be a three-month period of intense headhunter activity followed by five years of employment and little or no contact with these recruiters, until going through the same cycle once again.

This is a big mistake because a few good recruiting firms who know about you can open windows of opportunity when you least expect it. It won’t always feel like it’s timed right, but getting a call months later from someone whom you spent a few minutes getting to know can lead to very positive results. My personal experience has always been that the best career moves come out of the blue.

If you’re setting out to meet a few good headhunters, there is a strange paradox about approaching recruiters that you need to take into consideration. Recruiters tend to trust most what they discover themselves, as opposed to those resumes and CV’s that unceremoniously land on their desk. In other words, it’s better to make the connection unceremoniously, without blasting out an unsolicited CV to a list of two dozen recruiting firms.

LinkedIn is great for this purpose. Establishing a low-key connection to a recruiter via a LinkedIn invitation doesn’t hurt and it gets your credentials a quick review. LinkedIn also has a feature that recruiters use religiously . . . view their profile page and they’ll find out about it in a week or two, via the “who’s been looking” feature. If you see a few recruiters who look interesting in your area of work, view their profiles and it’s highly likely that they’ll send you an invitation shortly thereafter. You be the judge about whether to link or not.

When I think about all the ways that I have met candidates, there is nothing to compare with the excitement I feel when contacting a person who has come to me with a glowing recommendation by someone I know. Take a few of your acquaintances into your trust, perhaps your advisors and mentors from grad school or earlier jobs. Let them know that you’d be receptive to the right new opportunity. Sure enough, the word will filter back out to the recruiting firms who regularly contact these individuals. And when the headhunter’s call comes, it is from a person who has already heard about your skills and abilities.

Traits of the highly desirable candidates

When thinking about how to optimize your contacts with recruiters, it is important to look at four factors that determine how “desirable” you may be to that firm. Obviously, the most important determining factor has to do with your job-related skills, but once it is clear that you fit a client assignment, recruiters choose whom they are going to recommend by looking at candidates through these four filters:

  • Mutual respect: Recruiters need to show professional respect for their candidates, but this must be reciprocated. If a candidate doesn’t follow-up after an interview, that person takes a backseat to other candidates in the process who do those things. Of course, the recruiter must earn your respect as well by their actions.
  • Transparency in communication: Openness is very much appreciated in professional recruitment.  How does your spouse feel about a potential location change? What’s the family impact? Candidates who allow the recruiter full access to their situation are always given consideration with client assignments. Anytime a recruiter suspects that certain issues are hidden, that candidate is on the back burner.
  • A willingness to admit to areas of weakness: Recruiters hear chest-thumping all the time about how strong a person’s skills are. What is refreshing, and appreciated, is the ability to admit to an area that needs some work.
  • Realistic thinking: A person who is currently a Research Scientist shouldn’t realistically expect that they would be offered a job as Director of R&D. That may sound like common sense, but you would be surprised at the number of people who have overblown expectations of how the job market will treat them.

In actuality, anyone who has a desire to find new employment needs to tap a wide variety of resources in order to make progress. Recruiters are just one part of a process that includes many different steps; above all – networking (and I don’t mean exclusively the social media kind). The best part about developing relationships with headhunters is that they can bring you career opportunities at times when you aren’t necessarily thinking about the job market.