It’s smart to give the recruiter a few minutes of your time, even if you’re not actively job hunting. You never know when you might be.
No matter how secure your current job in executive management, you may someday rely on a corporate headhunter to move your career upstream, either by pulling you out of a bad situation or simply by helping you take your leadership skills to the next level.
You could get called by a headhunter (BusinessWeek, 09/30/07) out of the blue, or a change in control of your current organization—whether through a merger or acquisition, the hiring of a new CEO, or some other dramatic event—could alter your perspective and sense of job security in a hurry.
Just consider how a myriad of new corporate pressures, governance issues, and evolving definitions of effective leadership have steadily combined in recent years to drive executive tenure to an all-time low, according to research by ExecuNet, a leading business and recruiting membership network. Issues beyond your control can rapidly morph a contented employee into a “passive” job candidate—one who’s not actively looking but would start listening closely the next time a peer or industry colleague talks about their company’s search for new management talent, or who would return a higher percentage of headhunter calls.
Start by Listening
Regardless of how you’d now rate your own career security and fulfillment index, and given the increasing frequency of management transitions, it’s worth your while to take headhunters’ calls and give them just enough time to see where they might want to lead you. And when the headhunter calls, you’re best advised to listen to what he has to say.
Listening is critical to helping you understand a headhunter’s reason for calling and assessing how best to respond to this potentially life-changing call. (And make no mistake—many great career coups have their genesis in such a phone call.) You need to establish whether the executive recruiter (or the candidate sourcing representative) is calling you as a referral or information source on a search assignment they’re now pursuing, or whether they’re trying to qualify you as a potential candidate.
Since the person who called you will likely only provide his or her name and that of the headhunting firm, exactly why he or she has called may not be instantly apparent. It’s probably worth giving them a few minutes to explain the purpose of the call and perhaps to answer a few questions. And since you’re in a position of influence at this point (the kind of influence that legions of other managers would love to wield) it makes sense, once you’ve established the purpose of their call, to transition into the role of inquisitor and ask a few questions so you can clearly understand what’s going on.
Much of what many executives who’ve been recruited by headhunters over the years have learned about the courtship process boils down to managing their own expectations about the transition possibilities and the sheer odds that a hiring organization will choose them as its next high-impact management hire.
Impart Information Judiciously
It’s important to note that you’re in control whenever the headhunter calls. You can choose not to return the call, you can speak with them long enough to answer their questions and clarify any next steps or reason to connect in the future, and you can try to be helpful by offering a referral or sharing some market perspective, mindful that headhunters rarely forget a favor and always value information providers.
They are, after all, fully immersed in an information business.
If it’s clear that you’re a potential candidate on a search, be honest about your current compensation and straightforward about the kind of compensation you’d expect if you were ever to make a move. If you’re willing to relocate, let the recruiter know. Likewise, if you have any personal circumstances that would make moving across the country unlikely, be up-front about that, too.
But in sharing a piece of what and who you know and where you’ve been and want to go, it’s also smart to be somewhat reserved, courteous, and especially judicious when it comes to sharing any of your company’s critical data, intellectual property, and intelligence about products in development. Just ask yourself, “With whom else besides this headhunter would I even be tempted to share such sensitive information?”
You don’t ever want to reduce yourself to the role of a company mole, lest some recruiters label you as someone who shouldn’t be taken out of such an information-rich position. And likewise, given all that’s on the headhunters’ agenda these days, you don’t want to swamp them with information they didn’t ask for.
Identifying the Client
Also, don’t be surprised if they’re unwilling to identify the hiring company on whose behalf they’ve called. Many headhunters’ clients simply won’t give them permission to identify them as the hiring organization until much later in the search process and then with only a handful of ‘shortlist’ candidates. Besides, you can always do your homework on who the hiring company might be, based on the headhunter’s general description of their client.
If you have the right stuff the headhunters are looking for, you can bet they’ll take you seriously and come back to you in short order if they sense a good match between you and the leadership position they’re trying to fill.
Joseph Daniel McCool is a writer, speaker, and advisor on executive recruiting and management succession best practices. He writes Headhunter Confidential for businessweek.com/managing/.