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Working With Headhunters


For those who may not be familiar with the euphuism, headhunters are the middlemen of the employment market and are more properly titled, executive recruiters.

One of the biggest reasons that job seekers lack these contacts is that many think recruiters only work for senior executives, which is not always the case.  Admittedly, headhunters are generally classified as either contingency or retained, and the latter do normally work with senior, seasoned professionals, many others are what I call talent seekers.  If you possess the skills they are looking for in a job search they are conducting, they may very well go to bat for you and pitch you to their corporate clients.  In order to work with headhunters intelligently, it is wise to know how they think in order to win their favor and support.


One of the biggest reasons that job seekers lack relationships with recruiters is that many think recruiters only work for senior executives, which is not always the case


First off, you might think that you’re doing the recruiter a favor by presenting your credentials. After all, isn’t it true if they place you they make thousands of dollars?  You’re right, but until you are successfully placed, you’re only one of hundreds, if not thousands, of potential candidates who might adequately fill their job search assignment.  Here is possibility for conflict.  It’s one thing to have a fish nibble on the hook (i.e., have a headhunter call you), and quite another to reel the fish into the boat (i.e., have them refer you to their corporate client).


You need to be a smart fisherman and finesse each call to achieve the best short and long-term value of the contact.  A short-term goal is to have them present your credentials to their client, whereas a long-term goal is to build an ongoing relationship that can benefit you when you find yourself needing to look again for employment.  These relationships, if handled properly, can result in a career network being created.  If you take it lightly and don’t prepare properly for these rather brief and preliminary phone screens, their precious time can be wasted and the potential for a long and fruitful relationship squandered.  It is your responsibility not to blow it.  It is not the responsibility of the headhunter to convince you the opportunity is worth considering.


The conversation with a recruiter can at times be somewhat unnerving.  Since they have never met you, may have received your resume unsolicited, and probably have not helped you before, it is very easy for you and the recruiter to disconnect.  Each recruiter conversation takes on a dual purpose, one is overt and obvious, meaning the recruiter is looking for the right candidate who can fit the job profile, yet, there is also a subliminal issue that is more dicey to consider.  The reality is that recruiters are more concerned that you might embarrass them in front of their favorite client upon presentation and hurt their valuable relationship.  So on the face of it, when a recruiter calls they are interested in you for the position, whereas the truth of the matter is they’re probing to see if you pose a risk for them to recommend you for an interview.  The key is to remain tactful no mater what the recruiter says, how pushy they are or how uninteresting the opportunity appears to you initially.


You should ask intuitive questions regarding the search assignment, specialty, urgency, number of candidates under review, what issues they are trying to solve, etc.


Your Key Objectives When Talking To Recruiters:

  • Win an interview – in other words – don’t get screened out.
  • Help the interviewer remember you for future searches if this one does not fit
  • Demonstrate interest and enthusiasm (passion for opportunity).
  • Prove that given a chance to be presented to their client, you will make them look great.
  • Memorize the resume and know exactly where everything is so you can lead them to the information that demonstrates your best qualities.



Key Action STEPS: to successfully handle recruiter calls.


  1. Learn the reason for the call

At the point of initial contact we don’t know what about our background attracted the recruiter’s attention.  So a great first question to ask is: “What in my resume caught your attention”?


You need to be persistent here because the tendency of a recruiter is to be dismissive or vague.  Additionally, the recruiter’s reputation is on the line regarding the recommendations they make to their clients, so  they will probe for weakness.  Recruiters have a brief agenda, they might call dozens of candidates with one opportunity in mind, it is your duty to stand out from the competition.


You need to deflect away from weaknesses and redirect their attention to your strengths.  For example, you might not have demonstrated broad industry experience because you have limited work history or recently focused on one industry, i.e. health, insurance, technology.  The recruiter needs to see that you have learned common management, tactical and business strategies hence have expertise that ensures you are a good fit for their search.


If you don’t have time to talk, get their name, number, firm name and good time to follow-up.  You should ask if the call for a specific search or just to touch base?  If it is for a specific call, what is the title, industry, client type, etc.?  What is the time frame for filling the opening, how urgent is the search?   If their call was just to touch base (i.e. they might want to keep you in mind for future searches), ask:  type of professional work histories are they familiar working with?


  1. Communicate Interest

A more nuanced issue is that recruiters are very sensitive to voice, tonal inflections or hesitation.  Many of my clients say:  “Well, I don’t know if that sounds like something I want, I’ll think about”.  Remember recruiters are not in this business for you to be “window shopping” for a new opportunity.  There is nothing more embarrassing for a recruiter than to send a candidate on an interview when the candidate is really not interested at all.  Think of how awkward it would be for a recruiter’s corporate client to make you an offer without you being engaged or motivated.  Don’t misunderstand this point, you don’t have to accept every offer, but you must realize the pressure and objectives of the recruiter.  They screen out those who don’t convey serious interest or flexibility to changing their jobs.  They eliminate candidates who vacillate, sound un-confident, are negative, or unsure of themselves.  You cannot afford to indulge in these emotional traps.



You should always communicate interest, at least preliminarily.

You should see this as your opportunity to work with the recruiter, even if their initial offer does not sound appealing.  You would be surprised how often, after the recruiter meets with you or you meet with their client, the opportunity, salary, position description does change to become more palatable or another opportunity arises.  Once you kill the recruiter’s impression of you as someone they can work with, you not only loose the current opening, but you pollute future consideration.



  1. Confidence must always show through your voice!

There is a strong tendency by our clients to hedge their abilities with undue modesty or insecurity.  Look, its fine for you to admit to your wife that you have limited MS Word experience, but to a recruiter you should say:  I feel comfortable that I possess the knowledge and ability to navigate successfully within the business arena using Word as a tool.  You might not feel confident about your education, but you cannot admit this.  The recruiter needs to see that you can overcome objections.  “My education has been a key focus for me, and I would like to complete my degree, unfortunately, I’ve concentrated on my career and did not have the luxury of time to take the courses”.  “Mr. recruiter, do you think xyz, corp. supports their staff’s educational goals?”  Remember the recruiter did not call you because you had not completed the degree, something about your resume intrigued him and he is just probing for how you will respond to difficult issues.


  1. Prepare to take detailed information.
  • Get their name, company and phone number (write this down)!
  • Where does the recruiter see you fitting in the career market. i.e. a good title, industry or market fit.

“From my background, Robert, where do you see my work history fitting in the job market?”

  • Are their any weaknesses they can point out regarding your background?
  • When will they call you back (get a specific day if possible, i.e. next Tuesday or Wednesday).
  • Try to set up an interview within that first phone call – if at all possible eliminate phone-tag.
  • If they don’t see you as a fit, ask them for a referral to another recruiter.


  1. You need a 1 minute “Power Blurb” about yourself and the career highlights.

This should tie into the resume. It needs to be written, memorized and practiced.  Do not wait for the phone to ring in order to practice.  The first few calls tend to be the best fit.  You could easily miss the boat because you were not prepared to build a favorable impression.


Here is an example of one I wrote for a senior Human Resources executive:

      Past Three Roles:

1    Director Shared Leadership Development Services (Ameritech) –

      Created change management programs to support the $64 billion merger of SBC and Ameritech.


  • North America Manager – Organizational Development & Training (Tony Stone Images, Division of Getty Communications) – Created first-ever Organizational Development & Training program delivered to sales staff and managers for the North American group.


  • Senior Trainer – Human Resources (Federal Reserve Bank) – Designed training tools for 1,700 staff in the Chicago Region.

Recruiters can be thought of as Kingmakers, this is often how they see themselves.  Once you learn how to be their partner, you will find job doors opening that you never knew existed.


Copyright, Robert Meier

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