Three Lessons I Learned from Executive Recruiters

The reality behind how they work and what they do.


I suppose you may remember one particular scene from the 1946 debut of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Cast me as George Bailey, and cast Mr. Potter as the executive recruiter. This is how I felt when I met with executive recruiters early in my career.

(Potter’s office – daytime)
Potter is lighting a big cigar which he has just given George. The goon is beside Potter’s chair, as usual.
Thank you, sir. Quite a cigar, Mr. Potter.
You like it? I’ll send you a box.
Well, I… I suppose I’ll find out sooner or later, but just what exactly did you want to see me about?
George, now that’s just what I like so much about you.
(pleasantly and smoothly)
George, I’m an old man, and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even. You know just as well as I do that I run practically everything in this town but the Bailey Building and Loan. You know, also, that for a number of years I’ve been trying to get control of it… or kill it. But I haven’t been able to do it. You have been stopping me. In fact, you have beaten me, George, and as anyone in this county can tell you, that takes some doing. Take during the Depression, for instance. You and I were the only ones that kept our heads. You saved the Building and Loan, and I saved all the rest.

The lesson of the story? In a tough economy, keep your head, and keep your senses about you. Go back to the basics of how to work with executive recruiters. Executive recruiters are good coaches — not careless and callous like Mr. Potter — but they taught me tough lessons.

In my early days I would sit in front of executive recruiters, in their really small chairs, and advocate for my clients. When they would pull out the stacks of resumes and show me that not one person made their business, it made me very uncomfortable. Most job seekers feel powerless when dealing with executive recruiters. Perhaps several of my early worklife lessons will help you understand the reality behind how they work and what they do.

Know your terms.
If you’re working with a recruiter, you need to know if they are in-house or third-party. Are you familiar with the terms “recruiter,” “executive recruiter” and the slang term, “headhunter”?

Recruiter is a general term that can refer to either an in-house recruiter or a third-party retained or contingency recruiter (headhunter). Executive recruiters are often on staff and in house at the company you want to work for next. Then there are cases where an executive recruiter may not be in house, but has a contingency relationship with that company to provide qualified candidates for potential hiring. You may also be working with retained recruiters. Retained recruiters generally get paid their fee regardless of whether or not the company makes the hire. Contingency recruiters, however, are paid based upon performance.

Retained recruiters often have been partially compensated and have already been paid to do part of the search. These retained searches have been given to the retained firm so that the recruiter can have an exclusive, with no competition from other recruiting firms. Retained searches allow third-party recruiters to “retain” exclusive rights to find the right person.

Build your relationship before you need it.
George Bailey ended up in Mr. Potter’s office at his hour of desperation. Hopefully, you don’t send unsolicited resumes or, worse, show up in an executive recruiter’s office in your greatest time of need – when you need a job. In my early experience I would send unsolicited resumes, and quickly learned a key lesson. Recruiters “place people” they don’t “find jobs.”

A recruiter may dispense job search advice, but most of his or her time is spent finding the right fit for the client, the employer. Approaching an executive recruiter with the right expectations is a major factor in how successful your relationship will be. It’s wisest to step back and take the long-term view of your relationship with a recruiter.

You should make your first contact with a recruiter long before you are in desperate need of a new job. Think of it as a networking relationship in which you have a relaxed give-and-take rapport and information sharing. A good recruiter will always be interested in good leads and information. Depending on how comfortable they are with you, they may even be able to give you advice on ways to improve your chances for job placement in the future — such as what specific accomplishments in your current job will make you more attractive to potential employers.

In turn, you should be helpful to the recruiter by providing good job prospects for them. This doesn’t mean just throwing names at them, but offering up substantial information that will be helpful. Remember that the executive recruiter is essentially working for the client company — and they’re often working on multiple placements at any given time. If you’re not on their radar screen when the job you’d be qualified for comes up, then you’ll have missed your chance. The best way to stay on their radar screen is to offer assistance without expecting anything in return.

Don’t be a wandering generality.
I remember telling an executive recruiter how great one of my clients was and how they could help his firm drive revenue and reduce costs. He let me rattle on for about 10 minutes before he cut in, “John I don’t recruit for medical sales positions. I recruit for physicians who want to go from private practice or related work to the CROs (Contract Research Organizations).”
I only thought that his firm worked with sales people.

He went on to explain, “I don’t get paid until I find an exact match for one of these positions and I don’t work with, talk to or do much of anything else as it relates to recruiting.” This lesson taught me that some recruiters must specialize in very restricted niches. When working with highly focused recruiters, it’s important to quickly identify what they’re looking for and convey specific achievements. Key questions to ask specialized recruiters are:

  • Do you or any of the recruiters at your firm specialize in placing people like me and my specific background?
  • Who at your firm knows if I would be a good candidate to be placed?
  • How can I study your most recent opportunities so that I know I am a good candidate for your firm to place?

Prepare resumes professionally and carefully, and go into any interview, including interviews with third-party recruiters, with intelligent, cogent questions.

Don’t be intimidated by executive recruiters. They don’t run the town and are not the only hiring authorities. They can, however, be an important part of your search process. Get help in identifying them, how they work, and how they can help you. Make sure you speak to them and find out their niche, and how you can help them. While they ultimately work for the client company, they also have a vested interest in helping you.