Companies & Industries

How To (Really) Impress a Headhunter


Why cold-calling is the wrong move and other advice so you can be on the radar of a top executive search firm

If you're already getting the occasional call from a headhunter trying to lure you to a new management opportunity, congratulations: You're obviously doing something right.

Maybe they're calling because you're a good source of market intelligence or because you've been instrumental in introducing them to powerful co-workers and peers. Ideally, they're calling to entice you with an alluring career proposition. Even if that's not the case, the fact that they're calling you for any reason is because they know you're plugged in and have potential. Rest assured, they never forget a favor.

But what if the calls aren't coming? How can you get yourself on the radar of some of the world's most influential headhunters? Here is some advice on how to establish those kinds of career-making connections and how to determine the kind of recruiter who's most appropriate for you.

Different Rules for Different Résumés

If it's still early in your climb up the management ladder, sending your résumé to a contingency headhunter—the kind of recruiter who essentially traffics in active job seekers' credentials—might be one option for greasing your next career move.

However, if you're already a highly experienced and compensated executive, you should never send your unsolicited résumé to a retained executive search consultant, via either e-mail or snail mail. If you've already made this overwhelmingly unwanted overture, do not pick up the phone. If you haven't sent your résumé but think a casual phone call would do the trick, think again. Cold-calling a headhunter is a move fraught with risk and could even stall your senior management career. It just doesn't pay to harass the uninterested headhunter.

The truth is that the world's most influential and well-connected executive headhunters very rarely, if ever, even read or acknowledge unsolicited résumé. And they even less often recruit into a critical leadership position anyone who blindly approached them as opposed to someone they painstakingly searched for. They're called headhunters for a reason. Finding exceptional talent is how they justify their large fees because A-players are seldom looking for work.

With a Little Help From Your Friends

The best way to initiate a relationship with an executive search consultant is to be introduced by a well-connected friend, colleague, industry opinion leader, alumni pal, or fellow association or club member who knows the headhunter personally. For even the most accomplished and widely respected executives, the power of the personal reference simply can't be understated. At this point, especially if the headhunter with whom you wish to connect hasn't already heard of you, your appeal as a potential candidate for a top management job hinges on just what the headhunter thinks of the person introducing you and trumpeting your credentials.

Remember, before the consultant even has an initial meeting with you, his or her impression of your potential for a future search assignments, or perhaps even a current one, will rest in the perceived quality of the messenger and the message.

The quality of your personal and professional networks will preordain the messenger and the caliber of leadership recruiters to whom they might provide you access. This alone should serve as a reminder of why smart executives continually build, expand and, when necessary, leverage their networks. If you don't have one, you better build one.

Building High-Quality Networks

Still not convinced? Bear in mind that executive recruiters find more management candidates from their own networks than from any other source of leadership talent.

That's why the quality of your own networks is especially critical in determining how many degrees of separation there are between the most influential headhunters and the marketing message that someone in your network might take directly to them. That message—ideally something that speaks succinctly to your experience, skills, and know-how—is likewise critical. A lackluster sound byte from the mouth of an otherwise much respected reference won't get the attention of a leading recruiter.

Educate your most networked friends and colleagues about how your experience might translate into a new management role. Keep your message concise and consistent lest you lose control of it. Remember that an appealing message shared by a trusted source is essential and just what you need to get noticed by the world's most influential headhunters. They're the gatekeepers to executive career opportunity and they can serve as especially adept advocates for why you might bring the right mix of credentials to a challenging and especially rewarding job opportunity.

Joseph Daniel McCool is a writer, speaker and advisor on executive recruiting and corporate management succession best practices. He is the author of Deciding Who Leads: How Executive Recruiters Drive, Direct Disrupt the Global Search for Leadership Talent, which has been recognized as "one of the 30 best business books of 2008" by Soundview Executive Book Summaries.

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