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How to get a headhunter on your side

The first thing to know: They'd rather be called recruiters.

Kevin Marron
Globe & Mail
August 3, 2005

Tony Loria was happy working as an investment banker when he first met headhunter Kevin Hall several years ago. But he knew at once this casual business contact might some day be crucial to his career future.

And he was right. Following many informal meetings over the years, during which Mr. Loria mentioned he might some time want to make a move into a more operational role, he now finds himself working as chief financial officer for an oil sands technology-development company -- a position for which he was recruited by Mr. Hall, a co-managing partner of the Calgary office of executive-search firm Ray & Berndtson.

"It's common sense to keep in touch with an individual like that and develop a relationship early before you need it," Mr. Loria says.

Not everyone is as lucky to run into a recruiter socially. Most people have to work hard at making contacts with recruiters, who are notoriously busy and often difficult to reach.

And many job seekers don't know how to make the most of a relationship with a recruiter once they do come into contact with one.

So how should you go hunting for headhunters? What do you need to know about them? And how can you get them working for you?

The first thing you should probably know is that many don't like to be called headhunters. Recruiters or executive search professionals are more diplomatic terms, suggests Stephen Nash, chief executive officer of The Counsel Network, a recruiting firm specializing in legal personnel.

The fact that recruiting firms often specialize in certain industries is another crucial piece of information, says Neil Patte, publisher of The Directory of Canadian Recruiters, which has more than 3,000 listings. "There are recruiters for every type of job and most people contact the wrong ones," he says.

Gordon Kirk, president of G. Kirk & Associates Ltd., a Calgary firm specializing in the oil and gas job market, says it is also important to understand how recruiters are paid. He notes they generally work for the company doing the hiring, not for the candidate seeking work.

They may operate in one of two ways. Some firms, including his own, conduct searches only on the basis of a retainer, whereby a company pays them to find candidates for a specific job.

Other firms work on a contingency basis, which means they collect résumés and identify good candidates, then try to place them with companies that have vacancies to fill. Some firms may conduct both contingency and retained searches.

Retained searches are most commonly used to fill senior positions, while contingency search firms often focus more on vacancies at middle-management levels and below, Mr. Kirk explains.

From a job-seeker's perspective, both kinds of searches have their pros and cons, Mr. Kirk says. Retained search firms deal with fewer job opportunities but always have specific jobs to fill, whereas contingency firms juggle many more possibilities but only place people in some of these positions.

In either case, it is easy for a job seeker to get lost in the crowd of applicants. Chad Rutherford, a senior recruiter with SearchWest, a Vancouver contingency search firm specializing in sales and marketing personnel, says he receives about 5,000 résumés a year and places just 50 people in jobs. "So there are 4,950 people a year I do not place."

While most executive search firms encourage job seekers to send in résumés, they do not usually follow up with potential candidates unless they appear to be a good fit for a specific job opportunity.

Ray & Berndtson, for example, has 255,000 names in its data base; Mr. Hall says he would typically call 125 to 175 people for any specific job opportunity.

Of these, he says, about 35 might show an interest in the position and he would probably conduct interviews with about 25 of them.

As a result of the interviews, he would come up with eight to 12 candidates to present to his client. The employer would pare it further to a shortlist of four to six people.

So how do you position yourself to get that initial call from a headhunter? Doug Caldwell, chairman and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Caldwell Partners International Inc., says the most important things to demonstrate are leadership and the respect of your community and profession

That might sound a bit mushy, but Carl Lovas, chairman of Ray & Berndtson's Canadian operation, has a similar message. If you have a high profile, you are likelier to get calls from recruiting firms -- either because they think you are a good candidate for a position or because they see you as a knowledgeable person who might be able to suggest other suitable candidates.

Another piece of advice may seem obvious but is crucial: When headhunters call, don't blow them off.

You might not be interested in the job they are suggesting. You might be too busy to talk to them right away about other potential candidates. But establishing a good relationship with a recruiter is so important that you can't afford not to return that call and offer some helpful suggestions.

"People who work with us, we work with them. Scratch our back, we scratch yours," Mr. Hall says.

And even when you feel frustrated because a job search doesn't work out for you, keep your cool, Mr. Hall advises. "Some people get upset . They say, 'You took me all the way through this process and I didn't get the job. Don't call me again.' That is not being helpful for them if there's another job just round the corner that might suit them. Why burn bridges?"

Anne Fawcett, vice-chairwoman of Caldwell Partners, says it is important to remember that recruiting firms keep notes on every encounter with a potential candidate. Some candidates, she says, show courtesy to recruiters but are cranky or condescending when they speak with receptionists or secretaries.

"You should remember that every single person you meet in the process is part of the search team and conducting oneself in a consistent manner is essential," she says.

Recruiters admit that it can be difficult for job seekers to get hold of them and their attention, but they insist that there are polite and appropriate ways to do this.

Ms. Fawcett notes that recruiters are constantly racing against deadlines to fill specific positions and it is often hard for them to find time for a candidate who isn't a fit for a current job search. She therefore suggests sending e-mails, since recruiters can respond to these when they have some spare time, or forward them to colleagues.

Mr. Nash says recruiters will be more likely to find time to talk to people who present themselves in the right way: Show respect, recognize the headhunter is very busy and ask politely for five minutes of their time, he suggests.

You'll be more successful in building a relationship with a headhunter, he adds, if you bring something to the table by offering to share your own knowledge and insights on your industry or profession.

Dealing with headhunters is not a one-way street and potential candidates should always be sure to ask the right questions at every stage in the process.

And make sure you are dealing with a reputable recruiting firm.

"Interview the headhunter," Mr. Kirk advises. "Ask about turnaround times. Ask about privacy -- what is done with your information and how long it's retained in their files."

"You should expect the recruiting professional to listen as carefully to your point of view as vice versa," Ms. Fawcett adds.

"We're all going to be part of the business community for years to come and there's probably some longer-term, if not short-term, benefit in us forming a relationship."

Respond the right way to a recruiter

Responding the right way to a headhunter can make or break your career. Here are some dos and don'ts from Doug Caldwell, chairman and chief executive officer of Caldwell Partners International Inc.


  • Check out the credentials of a search firm to make sure you're dealing with a reputable organization.
  • Demonstrate your own integrity at every stage in the process.
  • Deal courteously and professionally with every member of the recruiting firm.
  • Show energy, enthusiasm and confidence at all times.
  • Make your conversations interesting and prepare for them by summarizing your message in bullet points.

  • Be negative about former employers or your existing employer. Talk instead about your interest in growing your career and growing responsibility.
  • Ask questions too early about salary or the company culture. Get almost to where the job offer is being made before you get into those probing questions.
  • Forget to send a handwritten thank-you note to show your appreciation for the recruiters' efforts. Not very many people will think of doing this so it will really help establish a good relationship.

© 2005 Ray & Berndtson



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