As headhunters we interact with two categories of candidates; those we pursue and those who pursue us. The former are often elusive, the latter not so much.
Our bread and butter is finding candidates for our clients. We scour every crevice of every database, web site, tradeshow and directory we can find for the high performing candidates most likely to thrive in the roles we are trying to fill.
The others are candidates who reach out to us. Some are individuals who maintain regular contact while others are unknown to us. More than a few are what we call our ‘foul weather friends’. These are individuals who’ve just remembered, after many years of not returning our calls, how much they like us, miss us, and by the way, would like our help now that they have lost their jobs.
The vast majority of those who contact us simply want to get onto our radar screens and into our database. They may be looking for feedback on their resumes, or advice on how to think through their next career move. Others want a barometer on the market or our impressions of certain organizations. For these enquiries we are always happy to help.
Some candidates expect us to act as their agents in the marketplace. Though the distinction may be nothing more than semantics to some, we are an executive search firm not a placement agency and thus cannot do this. When it comes to jobs, we are only useful to candidates if we happen to be looking for their credentials on behalf of one of our clients. Such an occurrence is often a matter of timing and luck.
Finally, some candidates expect us to perform slight of hand tricks on their behalf. They come to us with resumes, career story lines, and wish-lists. While some impress with the coherence and thoughtfulness of their wish-lists, others drop fanciful leaps of logic on our laps. They have held finance roles for 15 years and now want to be a CEO, or they have spent the past 20 years working in large corporations and now feel ready to run an early-stage company. After outlining their aspirations they pause and ask us to contact them when we are retained to fill such a role. The chances of this are not high, for while ambitions are the sole prerogative of the candidate, it is not our job to do the heavy lifting on how or why it should happen.
We occasionally hear candidates describe headhunters as ‘a necessary evil’. They accuse us of recruiting to lifeless, rigid job requisites while being unable to look beyond to see the capabilities or potential of anyone even slightly on the outside. When we do not contact them for those wish-list positions, they believe it reflects poorly on our ability to look outside the box, even a tiny bit. We are viewed as gatekeepers rather than counsel, and to some candidates we fail both them and our clients.
Respectfully, such a perspective fails to grasp the relative responsibilities of each party. Headhunters are in the business of managing client risk by finding candidates who will have the highest likelihood of being successful. We are not paid to encourage our clients to take inordinate risk. This does not mean that we are unable to recognize talent when we see it, or that we do not regularly introduce interesting ‘outlier’ candidates to our clients. But for the most part, we look for evidence that candidates have addressed similar challenges in similar contexts to those being faced by our clients. We try to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of their previous successes and failures, how they adapted, overcame the difficulties and we try to map those answers onto what we believe our clients want and need. The word ‘believe’ is critical, for executive search is the art (dare I say contemporary art) of managing distortion. It is a world where clients and candidates try to make informed decisions while tentatively offering only one foot for the other to see, their best foot. It is rife with subtle and not-so-subtle challenges and any practitioner who suggests it is easy, is blithely incompetent or lying.
Candidates add to the complexity when they dump onto the headhunters the responsibility of unscrambling the real from the make-believe of their career aspirations. Simply stating that you are ready to be a start-up CEO doesn’t make it so…you have to tell us and sell us on why it would be in some organization’s best interests to put you in such a role. You have to describe to us the characteristics and context of the firm that would benefit most by having you at its helm and explain why. You have to do your homework, talk to people who have made these transitions, understand the attributes that the successful ones possess, the challenges they faced and explain why you believe you are well equipped to do the same. In other words, you have to help the gatekeeper help you through the gate.
To our fair and foul weather friends, please keep in mind that our relationship holds much greater promise if we all understand what each of us can, cannot and should do for the other.
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.