Why You Should Take that Headhunter's Call

January 26, 2011

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s Career section profiled The Company Men, the latest Hollywood flick to explore the human cost of corporate downsizing, that great corporate euphemism for discarding employees in the pursuit of doing more with less, and less. For employees, being downsized is the emergency dental surgery of career hygiene, a cringing downstream eventually so unpleasant that they will put up with a lot of career pain to avoid it.

Moving upstream, career planning and development are different varieties of pain though no less shunned by many. This is the burn of hard work and exertion required to learn and develop. It is the fatigue of a purposeful, iterative, long term improvement process, the anxiety of career risk, the sacrifice of personal time and delayed gratification. Developing oneself and one’s career is never the road of least resistance, and thus many people convince themselves that they are too busy doing whatever they are doing to reflect and act on what they could or should be doing. Instead, they go blithely where their companies and careers take them until one day, they don’t. This is why inflection points, those sudden changes such as job loss, are lined with such possibilities for they force us to look in the mirror and take stock…..and for the brave, they open (or perhaps better said, break) a window to a different tomorrow.

Amidst the ruckus, a headhunter occasionally interrupts your day with an invitation to discuss a different role in a new company or industry. What do you do? If you are like at least half of the people who answer or return our phone calls (only a fraction of the people we reach out to), you simply and summarily decline. Sometimes you explain that you are happy where you are, perhaps too busy to contemplate something else, or simply uninspired by the opportunity itself. When we ask what you would be open to contemplating in the future, the vast majority of you offer no response, vague generalities, or occasionally a fantastical fabrication from some parallel universe where such a role may be attainable.

Last week I received a call from an executive who indicated that his firm had just been acquired and the new owners planned to close the Canadian operation. He was now, after 15 years with the only company he had ever worked for, ready to pursue new opportunities. More specifically, he was ready for us to ‘place him’ into another role. As I listened to him grace me with his availability, I glanced at our database and noticed that we had contacted this individual on numerous occasions over the past ten years and each time he refused to discuss the searches in question. Looking closer I noticed that at least two of these opportunities were with outstanding firms and would have significantly impacted his career and its overall arc. Now, only after being forced by circumstances, he was beginning to examine his career and plotting a path forward. Ironically he was painting a future that in fact could well have been his present had he taken but a moment to ask some of these questions in the past. Like many, he was dealing with the future only when cornered by it.

Headhunters interrupt the tranquility of unexamined careers with an invitation to momentarily look up above the din of today and reflect, even momentarily on a work in progress. And while the position being introduced may or may not pass through that individual’s filter of career desirability, it should at least lead to that filter being pulled out of the drawer, dusted off, and examined. At least so you would think…

I like to tell candidates that they should worry not when they get calls from headhunters but rather when they do not. Our calls are reminders that careers are a personal responsibility for which there are choices. Do your career a favor, take the call. It is much less painful than dental surgery.

About the author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements. Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777.