When The Headhunter Comes Calling

After 20 years with Nabisco, most recently as a senior director of distribution and logistics services, Peter White was not considering a career change. But when executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates called last October about a job that offered a better salary and bonus, more stock options, and greater authority, White just couldn't resist. He joined GT Interactive Software in February as senior vice-president for operations.

These days, ignoring a headhunter's call could be a costly mistake. Recruiters often have the inside track on some of the most coveted positions available: During the third quarter of last year, a record 3,000 searches--almost 90% of which were for jobs paying six figures or more--were booked by member firms of the Association of Executive Search Consultants in New York.

FITTING THE BILL. Indeed, recruiters are well paid by their clients to find the right candidate: They generally get about one-third of the job candidate's first-year cash salary and bonus. So they're looking for someone with a specific background to fill a specific position, says John Challenger, executive vice-president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm. A recruiter may be told, for instance, to find a chief financial officer who is a CPA, speaks English and Japanese, and has 10 years of experience working for an international pharmaceutical company.

Finding such an executive frequently means raiding their client's competitors. If you're intrigued by working for a competitor, getting a call from a headhunter might be your best chance. A competitor may not be able to approach you directly, says Tom Rodenhauser, managing editor of the newsletter Executive Recruiter News, because that's a conflict of interest. But a call from a recruiter about a job opening at the competition lets you find out more about the situation without compromising yourself.

On the other hand, some companies hire headhunters simply to gather internal intelligence on rival firms even though "they plan to hire from within," says Rodenhauser. To find out if the headhunter is searching for an actual job, ask how long the position has been vacant, and why it's still available. Keep in mind that at no point during the job interview process--with either the recruiter or the prospective company--should you be offering insider information that could compromise your current employer.

Whether a recruiter is calling you to dig up some internal secrets, fill a current opening, or act as a reference or "source" for other candidates, it makes sense to take the call. About half of these so-called source calls are really the recruiter's subtle way of finding out if you're interested in the job yourself, says Buzz Schulte, managing director for Korn/Ferry International's Northwest region. And while you may not want or need a position now, says Chip McCreary, president of Austin-McGregor International, a Dallas-based search firm, you might in the future. "It's smart to have a few friendly recruiters in your back pocket who think well of you," he adds. A three-minute conversation may help you network for a job change two years hence. Moreover, you also may discover that you are underpaid.

CHECK IT OUT. If it's a cold call, you'll have to check up on the recruiter--before you start talking. Find out how they were referred to you and whether or not they are employed by a legitimate firm. If you're unsure of the caller's reputation, check with the industry trade association (212 398-9556) or the Directory of Executive Recruiters (Kennedy Publications, Fitzwilliam, N.H.).

Then find out how the firm is paid, either on a contingency fee or a retainer basis. Retained recruiters, who typically work on upper-level management positions paying $75,000 or more, receive a fee--whether any of the candidates they find are hired or not. Most work on exclusive assignment, meaning another search firm has not been retained simultaneously to fill the position. Since these firms will consider you for only one job at a time, your resume isn't circulated to that many people at once, so the chances of your boss finding out are slim. Usually, by the time you meet with their client, you'll be one of just three to five candidates for the job.

Contingency recruiters, on the other hand, generally deal with junior and midlevel executives earning less than $75,000. These firms will give you greater exposure--and thus less confidentiality--because they "float" your resume to many companies, unless you ask them not to. You'll probably be one of many candidates for any given job. Since they are paid only if they fill a position, there may be a tendency to "campaign" for you with several clients, says Rodenhauser, in the hope that someone will hire you and they will get paid. That could increase the chances of your current employer hearing that you're being shopped around.

Expect the retainer firm to spend more time with you, because they're focused on filling high-level jobs. They'll run interference for you on salary, benefits, and perks, but try and find out on your own what the market rate is for comparable jobs. Additionally, a recruiter will offer some feedback on where you stand during the interview process. For instance, a headhunter might tell you that the client feels you don't have enough experience running a subsidiary overseas. But don't expect them to evaluate your resume or coach you on the interview itself. Most will follow up with a phone call, however, once you're on the job and can help iron out possible conflicts. "Maybe there's a discrepancy about when your bonus is to be paid," says Patrick Pittard, president and chief executive officer of Heidrick & Struggles. "Or, due to a reorganization, you're now reporting to someone else. And the chemistry isn't as good."

Once you determine what type of firm you are dealing with, and whether or not you are interested in pursuing the job, you will need to be forthcoming about your qualifications. Don't embellish your education, job experience, or salary history to gain an interview with the client, suggests Stephen Scroggins, a managing director at Russell Reynolds. Recruiters usually run scrupulous background checks. To downplay your weak points, you might structure your resume differently: List your job accomplishments rather than your job history. And include some extracurricular activities such as serving on the board of a nonprofit foundation.

Lastly, if you're truly not interested in the job, say so. But be courteous. These guys keep copious notes of every phone call and meeting and store them in a central database. "I have a long memory," says McCreary, who admits that he once dumped a vice-president's resume in the trash after receiving it over the transom. "He never took our calls," he adds.

What if you're ready to talk, but the headhunters just aren't calling? You can mail your resume to a host of search firms or post it at their Web site. Be sure to send copies to a managing partner at both the branch office and the main office, says Rodenhauser. Both are fed into the central data bank, but it takes time and you may miss an opportunity while waiting. Your resume's shelf life could be a few years, but it's probably smart to update their files every year or so, to let them know that you've been promoted, or are still looking.

BEATING A PATH. But some recruiters don't think you should contact them--period. "You can list yourself with us, but it probably won't do much good," says Pittard. "You have to be the right fit for the job we've got now."

Instead, get the recruiter to call you. "We're always on a talent search," says Alfred Judge, president of Cambridge Group, a Westport (Conn.) search firm. "But we can't find you if you're the best-kept secret in your business." To raise your visibility, be active in an industry trade group and network with other execs. Get the public-relations department to issue a press release about your recent promotion or successful marketing campaign and circulate it internally as well as to the local papers. The key, says Judge: "Make sure your accomplishments are known within your company and within your industry."

That could bring the search firms beating a path to your door. Then again, if your boss understands the breadth of your talent, you may not need to go anywhere when the headhunters come calling.