Companies & Industries

How to Ace the Headhunter Interview


Don't try to script your first face-to-face interview. The headhunter wants to see the real you and find out how you handle unexpected challenges

So you've fielded the headhunter's initial exploratory call (BusinessWeek.com, 10/25/07), a more in-depth follow-up call, and now you've been asked to schedule a face-to-face interview with the leadership recruiter who could punch your ticket to a new role in executive management.

It's important to remember, however, that you're still quite some way from realizing the true potential of this potentially career-making headhunter interview. That's because you're probably one of multiple candidates scheduled for interviews on this specific search assignment and, when all is said and done, only a handful will be granted an interview with the headhunter's client.

Pace Yourself

Even then, there's no guarantee that the hiring company will extend an offer of employment because, until you sign on the dotted line, there's plenty that could derail the search in which you're now involved. The hiring organization ultimately could decide that a talented insider is the best candidate for the position. It could call off the search because of new "organizational variables." Or the specifications for the position could change and shift the focus of the headhunter's courtship toward other candidates.

But it's equally important to understand that no big announcement of a new executive hire is possible without that individual's having sat down with the headhunter to share a true, complete, and compelling accounting of his or her professional work life, education, and personal background.

The fact that you've been invited to meet with a headhunter says good things about your reputation and the perceived value of your unique qualifications in today's intensely competitive executive talent market. So expect to answer some probing questions about where you've been and what you've done. And plan to ask your own prepared questions about what the hiring company really needs. How does it measure success in the executive suite? What kind of pressures is it feeling in its market? Where does its senior management team want to take it in the future? And how might you help them get there?

Be Ready to Get Personal

On the eve of such an important—and, you should know, entirely confidential interview—you might be tempted to write out a minipresentation or sales pitch to demonstrate you're really at the top of your game. But don't spend too much time preparing.

You don't want to psyche yourself out before this potentially career-making interview. And if you come in too scripted, you could easily be dismissed as someone who can't deal with the myriad uncertainties that come with leadership in the modern business environment. You're far better off forgetting that you are a candidate for what could be the most challenging, exciting, and rewarding job of your life.

That's because one of the best-kept secrets of the headhunter interview is that some of the questions will be slipped into the conversation only to see how you'll handle them, the body language you'll express in response to them, and the candor you share about your life experience. Don't be surprised if the headhunter asks questions about your formative years: where you grew up, how you recall your childhood, how you believe you were influenced by your family, and the goals you've set for yourself along the way.

The Value of Learning from Mistakes

If you're planning only to retell your high school glory days or your most impressive professional accomplishments, consider this: An increasing number of headhunters—including corporate staffing executives—are using so-called behavioral interviewing techniques to better understand how your behavior has influenced your past performance and how your future behavior might preordain success in a similar situation. Few headhunters would ask you to explain how you would move Mount Fuji, but many are now inclined to ask about your weaknesses, past failures, and the areas of your life you'd like to improve.

So while you should avoid sticking to a script, you should walk into your interview prepared to talk about a few business experiences that demonstrate your approach to management, the obstacles you overcame, and the lessons you learned.

Of course, confiding that you might today do a few things differently will help the headhunter understand your sense of self and show that you have some measure of emotional intelligence. It might also convey the kind of humility that in today's world is seen as an antidote to purely charismatic leadership. It takes self-confidence to admit the occasional error of your ways, and headhunters know that better than anyone else.

Don't Forget the Basics

Aside from taking stock of your experience and how it has molded you into the leader the headhunter has read about on your résumé, it should go without saying that you've got to dress for success, mute your mobile phone, speak in clear language, explain what you can do for the headhunter's client, and be yourself.

It's you—the real you the hiring organization ultimately will have to live with every day—that the headhunter wants to learn more about during this forthcoming interview, which is precisely the reason you have to be prepared to reveal yourself in ways you might never have done before.

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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