What You Should Know About Headhunters by Joseph McCool


Executive recruiters can usher you into the corner office or leave you stranded after the fourth interview. Here’s what to expect.

Executive recruiters—or headhunters as most businesspeople know them—are especially influential agents of executive mobility and management-career opportunity.

They are powerful ambassadors of hiring organizations’ brands and cultures, and their work lubricates the wheels of corporate growth, change management, and leadership like no other external business advisers. Their actions can shape corporate performance, because they hold the keys to most of the world’s highest-paying management jobs by virtue of controlling access to them.

Collectively, executive recruiters network their way to millions of experienced managers around the world each year to identify the most promising candidates. Their judgment determines who deserves to be introduced to client hiring organizations.

The truth is, whether you’re building a company or your own senior management career, you can’t get anywhere in business without the headhunters.

Candidates Shouldn’t Pay to Play

It’s important to understand that not all executive recruiters work from the same sheet of music. Theirs is an entirely unregulated business pursuit with no barrier to entry, and given that there are distinct differences between them and other, unrelated parties like so-called executive agents and coaches who would seek to support your career choices, it’s especially important that you understand what you really need to know about headhunters.

For starters, you should know that no one in the business of executive recruiting should ever ask you for money to facilitate your next management-level career move. If you’ve already held a management position, let your experience, credentials, and references do the talking for you. You don’t need to open your checkbook to get ahead.

Having now addressed what executive recruiters are not, let’s delve deeper into the kinds of executive recruiters who may, if they haven’t already done so, reach out to you.

Executive Recruiters

Two types of executive recruiters work from outside the hiring company to facilitate the recruitment of new executives.
The retained executive search consultant is engaged on an exclusive basis by a hiring company to identify and assess candidates to fill senior management positions typically paying a salary above $150,000. These consultants typically recruit for strategic executive jobs and are paid a fee for the search, usually without regard to its eventual outcome. Executive search consultants recruit most of the chief executives and other C-suite leaders for the world’s largest companies. Given their deep relationships with hiring organizations, they are acutely aware of which companies are growing, the talent those organizations need, and what they are willing to pay to attract top-notch executives.

The contingency headhunter is contracted nonexclusively and often is in competition with other contingency-fee search firms to identify potential candidates for lower-level management positions that usually pay a base salary of $75,000 or more. Only firms that identify candidates who are ultimately hired get paid a fee for their services. The contingency headhunter is much more likely than the retained executive search consultant to distribute your résumé to as many potential clients as possible because it increases his or her chances of making the right introduction and, ultimately, of getting paid. If you haven’t yet landed a job with significant management responsibilities, it’s far more likely you’ll be working with a contingency recruiter.
A small but increasing number of especially large corporations have entrusted the sourcing of executive-level management candidates to their own internal sourcing teams. That means an initial recruitment call may come from a member of a corporate executive staffing team (essentially an in-house management search unit) or perhaps a recruitment-specialist partner of a private equity firm whose portfolio company may need someone with your experience and knowhow.

Running the Interview Gauntlet

Whether you’re initially contacted by an internal staffing coordinator or an external agent, you should expect to answer questions about your background, credentials, and management experience so the recruiter can gauge whether you should be a candidate for the open position.

If the headhunter thinks you’re deserving of a shot at the job and a good fit with the hiring organization, you’ll likely be invited to engage in either a follow-up telephone interview or a face-to-face interview at the headhunter’s office or at a public venue, such as a hotel lobby, club lounge, or private conference facility.

If you pass their litmus test and meet the requirements for the job, you may be invited to interview with the client hiring organization, which represents your first real interaction with your potential employer.

It’s important to remember that the external recruiter is paid by the hiring organization. The recruiter’s interests lie in closing the search assignment to the client’s satisfaction, not yours. Sure, the headhunter wants to orchestrate a mutual engagement process that gets both you and the hiring company to fall head-over-heels in love with one another. But at the end of the day, headhunters represent and are paid by the hiring company. That may explain why far too many management job candidates are left at the altar of the executive search wondering—without a clear answer from even some of the most influential headhunters—why the courtship didn’t result in an offer of employment.

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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