When An Executive Recruiter Calls…

Many executives get unsolicited calls from executive recruiters and are not sure how to react. Whether you are ready to make a move or not, the way you handle these calls is important. Executive recruiters, sometimes referred to as “headhunters,” are typically powerful connectors and should be seen as an integral part of your professional network.

Even if you are happy in your job and have no intention of changing companies, engaging with recruiters can enhance your career in several ways. Contact with executive recruiters can expose you to opportunities you would otherwise never know existed. It can also help you to help others. It can help you build your network as well as your reputation in your field or industry. So it makes sense to know how to respond and how to interact with executive recruiters.

Consider why the recruiter is calling you. Either you have been identified as a potential candidate or are expected to be connected to potential candidates. Someone who thinks highly of you may have recommended you, or you may have been identified to be in the target candidate pool based on previous experience or affiliation. The recruiter is reaching out with a positive and hopeful impression. You can parlay that into the start of a positive professional relationship, so work toward helping the recruiter with his current engagement.

It is important to know a bit about the recruiter. When a recruiter calls, be sure to ask for his/her name, recruiting firm and their website so you can establish authenticity. Understand the difference between a retained recruiter and one working on a contingency basis. Both are paid (about 1/3 of the first year salary) by the hiring company and, as such, work for the employer not the candidate. A retained recruiter will get paid regardless of the outcome of the search whereas a contingency recruiter only gets paid if s/he sources the successful candidate. Retained recruiters typically work on higher level searches and work very hard to nurture their relationships with executives at hiring companies, and thus are not so interested in speaking with random, irrelevant candidates. Contingent recruiters often “fish” with resumes – sending them out to everyone and expecting a fee if the company ends up hiring the candidate. As you talk to recruiters, be sure to put parameters on where and to whom they may present you, don’t give a carte blanche! (For more on the types of executive recruiters see the Alumni Career Services website.)

When fielding a call, try to make a good impression. Be articulate and cordial. Know that every conversation with a professional recruiter is an evaluative one. The ability to give a quick overview of your value proposition is invaluable when faced with unexpected inquiries. Gordon Grand III (MBA ’75), Managing Director/Partner and 28 year veteran at Russell Reynolds, suggests that you “ask the recruiter to send you the job spec so that you can think about it and call him back. If you are not interested, be thoughtfully helpful and suggest alternate candidates. In addition, let the recruiter know what kinds of things down the road you would be interested in.”

Credible executive recruiters should be very concerned with discretion. It is wise to establish ground rules on confidentiality during the first call and don’t send off your resume until you have sufficient information about the firm, their client, and the opportunity. Be honest about your level and your experience. You will need to discuss salary with the recruiter eventually, but if salary questions come up too quickly in the conversation, try to throw the question back at the recruiter asking for the proposed range of the position and confirming whether you’re in the same ball park. As in any kind of relationship, establishing trust early-on is critical.

The bottom line is, don’t avoid talking with executive recruiters. As stated in the book How to Work With Retained Executive Search Consultants: “Even if the call amounts to nothing, the information and help you have given can stand you in good stead for a relationship in the future.”

Connie Dato English MBA ’91
Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services

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