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How to Get to Know a Retained Executive Recruiter

Stalking the Elusive Retained Recruiter

You’re The Perfect Executive Candidate

Executive coaches and mentors often advise senior leaders to cultivate a relationship with a leading retained executive recruiter as a way to get ahead. Yet, that’s not an easy thing to do. Let’s say you’ve done all that a good executive should do. You’ve polished your resume to a high shine. Better yet, on LinkedIn, your profile is impressive; and on Twitter, your tweets are informed and witty. Industry conferences regularly feature you as a speaker, and audiences are enthralled. In The Hero’s Journey that’s your career, you’re the hero.

Yet Retained Recruiters Won’t Return Your Calls

Yet for some inexplicable reason, retained recruiters aren’t the least bit interested. Most of the time, you can’t get them to return your calls or reply to your emails. The few times you’ve managed to get a retained recruiter on the phone, you don’t sense any real connection. Consequently, your goal of forging a meaningful relationship with a top retained recruiter remains frustratingly elusive. Executive makeovers are a powerful way to improve your chances of capturing a retained recruiter’s interest. It also helps to understand how retained search works.

Retained Executive Recruiters Can Make Your Career

Executive recruiters are not all the same, as BlueSteps Career Services Executive Director Kathy Simmons pointed out in a recent Forbes article. For example, retained executive recruiters recruit top-performing talent for senior-level executive openings. Consequently, of the two kinds of headhunters — retained and contingency — retained search partners are the ones to know.

Companies Rarely Post C-Level Openings

Retained search partners conduct searches for prestigious C-level job opportunities. In fact, companies and search firms rarely post senior executive openings. Those opportunities are unlisted. As a result, you need to get to know retained search firms to gain access to senior executive opportunities.

Compensation Begins at $300 Thousand

The average base salary for most retained search openings is $300,000 or more. Total annual compensation often tops $1 million. When equity is part of the compensation package, retained search positions also offer the opportunity for significant wealth creation. We literally are the makers of dreams come true. You can learn more about why that is by checking out other posts on Executive Search Blog.)

Why Retained Recruiters Are So Elusive

Everyone Wants to Know Them, So Not Everyone Can

Because everyone wants to get to know retained recruiters, not everyone can. There simply aren’t enough of us to go around. While it often feels like a personal slight, executive recruiters are hard to get to know because the numbers don’t work.

They’re Busy With Their Current Searches

The average retained executive search partner develops a list of 200-to-300 contacts for every search engagement — potential candidates, industry sources, and other contacts with whom we network to identify and calibrate the best prospects for the job. At any given time, retained search partners work on as many as a half-dozen searches. Consequently, retained recruiters — and the associates and researchers who assist them — are actively in touch with as many as 2,000 people. And that’s just counting communications for active searches.

Their Time and Attention Are Limited

So even if you’re lucky enough to get a call from a retained search partner, you’re competing with 2,000 people as you vie for a recruiter’s attention. Making matters worse, realistically, one can only have meaningful relationships with 150 people in our lifetime. That total, called Dunbar’s number, was derived by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar and includes family members and schoolmates. To forge a real relationship with a retained executive recruiter, you must make your way into the recruiter’s inner circle of 150 people. 

They Curate Their Inner Circle

Of course, top retained recruiters curate their inner circle. You’ll find it filled with venture capitalists, private equity investors, genius technologists, serial entrepreneurs, and high-profile senior executives, along with a smattering of gurus. If you are an Average Joe, you likely will find it impossible to wheedle your way into the inner circle because, in the inner circle, average just won’t do. You must be the exception, not the rule. It’s either that or finding a way to make yourself a priority in that retained recruiter’s life.

The Most Common Executive Mistakes

Elevator Pitch Run Amok

Executives often make mistakes in their attempts to get to know a retained search partner. The most common mistake they make is immediately launching into a lengthy soliloquy without first establishing common ground. Of course, nervousness may be fueling the executive’s social faux pas. Specifically, candidates frequently have to summon up the courage to call a retained executive recruiter. As a result, many rush through what they have to say without taking a breath, just to get it over with.

Don’t Make It All About You

Yet there is another reason for talking too much. Some executives believe that the more they say, the greater the likelihood that something in there will resonate and open doors. However, candidates who make the initial conversation all about them risk coming off as rude, arrogant, and naive. That’s a bad first impression to make with a retained executive recruiter.

Learn How Retained Search Works

To cultivate a real relationship with a retained executive recruiter, you must learn how retained search works. For example, retained search partners are not paid for making a placement. Of course, our goal is to fill retained search openings. However, companies pay us a retained to do the work of recruiting.

Retained Search Shifts the Power Dynamic

Retained executive recruiters don’t make one thin dime by placing you. Rather, they get paid to target and recruit top-performing passive candidates. Consequently, how retained executive recruiters get paid shifts the power dynamic. You need the retained recruiter more than they need you. So when a candidate is arrogant or rude, that retained recruiter will cross you off their list of contenders. You have shown us who you are. That also tells us how you treat others. With some exceptions, great leaders do not act that way.

Moreover, when a candidate is rude, more often than not the executive is not yet a senior executive. More seasoned executives make it a practice to build their networks and cultivate relationships with retained recruiters. They know retained recruiters are the door through which they must pass for once-in-a-career jobs with compensation so high it creates significant wealth.

By comparison, contingency recruiters who focus on lower-level job openings don’t get paid until they make a placement. Consequently, they actively market Most Placeable Candidates (MPCs) to multiple employers to increase the likelihood of making a fee. However, with retained executive recruiters, retained search partners don’t have any financial motivation to get to know you. More to the point, the motivators are much more nuanced.

Stalking the Elusive Retained Executive Recruiter

How to Blow It with an Executive Recruiter

Assume You Make Retained Recruiters Money

Gracing an executive recruiter with your presence and assuming that there is a payday in it for the retained executive recruiter is wrong-headed. Worse, you come off as a retained search rookie — someone who lacks experience along with manners. I get that we all have bad days, yet top-performing leaders rarely make that mistake. Remember, retained executive recruiters don’t get paid to place you.

Assume Your Awesomeness Qualifies You

In other words, as awesome as you are, your awesomeness will not motivate a recruiter to get to know you. Frankly, our world already consists of the best of the best. Consequently, you must find common ground and cultivate a real relationship. In other words, you must become genuinely interested in the retained recruiter and want to get to that person — the same way you wish the retained recruiter would show interest in you.

Assume Retained Headhunters Are Talent Agents

Another mistake executives make is assuming we are talent agents or managers. We are not. Talent agents or managers have to be licensed. Worse, you’d have to pay them a piece of everything you earn before taxes for as long as the agent or manager represents you.

In my former career as a television journalist, I paid 10% of my gross income to an agent and more than 20% to a manager for the duration of my contract. In other words, after paying income taxes, I took home half my salary. While some headhunters have tried to set themselves up as talent agents, the business model doesn’t really work in the world of executive search.

Assume We Will Market You

Don’t assume that a retained executive search consultant will market you to multiple employers to get you the best offer. A single employer is paying the retained search firm, so the retained recruiter is recruiting you to that company. When recruiters present candidates to other employers at the same time it is called “parallel processing”. Marketing a candidate disloyal to the employer that is paying them. Consequently, it a conflict of interest and, therefore, is considered unethical. No candidate that has been presented client company should be referred to a different client until the original client has closed out the candidate. Since contingency recruiters are not retained, they market candidates to multiple employers at the same time. They do it to maximize the chances of placement and getting paid. However, they only market so-called MPCs — Most Placeable Candidates — and focus on lower-level roles.

Behave Badly as a Candidate

Retained executive recruiters will eliminate you from consideration — if not from their very lives — if you treat them or their clients badly. Remember, executive recruiters are paid to assess your leadership and communication abilities. So if you fail to communicate promptly or if you lack the executive ability to navigate the recruiting process without screwing it up — then you have proven yourself unworthy of the executive suite.

Ghosting a Recruiter, Client, or Worse

Ghosting a recruiter or client; failing to stay engaged or communicate promptly and professionally; lying or refusing to disclose mistakes you’ve made in your career; failing to set expectations; or saying you’d relocate when, at the end of the day, your children would never talk to you again — that kind of behavior destroys your credibility with retained executive recruiters. When you burn bridges with retained recruiters, you cut off your access to elite opportunities.

Being Transactional in Your Dealings

Another way to blow it with a retained recruiter is to be transactional. Retained recruiters recruit top performers. As arbiters of great talent, we identify, calibrate, and advocate for the candidates we place – that means behind closed doors we frequently go to bat for you. The simple truth is hiring executives frequently do not want to move forward with a candidate due to some concern that does not have a bearing on that person’s ability to be successful in the job. In other words, many executives would not have been hired if it weren’t for us.

Gassing Off the Retained Recruiter Who Got You the Job

Another mistake executives make is writing off the recruiter once you get the job. Of course, candidates don’t like it when recruiters stop talking to them when a search is complete. Retained search partners feel pretty much the same way. We invest hours interviewing you to learn how your career unfolded. In addition, we delve deep into your motivations, career preferences, and goals. Moreover, we assess how all-that-you-are lines up with all-that-our-client-is. On top of that, we orchestrate client offers and negotiate compensation packages, tending to every penny, percentage, and exchange rate. Of course, you don’t owe a retained recruiter anything for getting you the job. But gratitude goes a long way. Besides you just might need the recruiter again if you suddenly find yourself looking for a job.

Failing to Retain the Recruiter to Fill Your Openings

Throughout the recruiting process, we serve as diplomats, career counselors, and therapists. Regularly, we help candidates and clients avoid landmines and pitfalls to get to a successful hire. As a result, most retained executive recruiters feel incredibly invested in the candidate relationship by the time a search is complete. While a simple “thank you” is all that is expected, savvy executives use it as an inflection point to cultivate a more lasting relationship with the retained recruiter that placed them. Often, executives we place turn around and ask us to conduct a search for their team. They know how we work. We already have developed a trusted relationship. And, since we’re the ones who recruited them to the position they’re in, we have proven we have great taste in talent.

How to Befriend a Retained Recruiter

Make Virtual Recruiter Connections Real

You can befriend a retained recruiter. First, you need to make a lasting connection. If a retained recruiter or two are in your social network, that does not mean the relationship is one you can count on. Social media has served as a multiplier of people we “know” — either as “friends”, “connections”, or “followers”, However, as David Weinberger has written, these connections are “loosely joined”. Disposable. As a result, you must find a way to root your social media relationships with a retained executive recruiter in the real world through real-time contact by phone, video chat, and in-person meetings.

Target the Right Recruiters 

Second, you must target the right recruiters. Develop a list of a half-dozen recruiters partners that focus exclusively on your industry or function. Of course, you can also “google” the best recruiters in your business and network with your colleagues to develop a list of a half-dozen recruiters to target. But virtually all the lists on lines have issue.

Avoid Fake “Top Search Firm” Websites

For instance, the website is a fake website. A marketing firm designed it for one of the companies listed at a top search firm — something the site does not disclose to its visitors. The marketing firm revealed in its work portfolio on his website that it created as a micro-site to drive traffic to one of the search firms now listed in the top 5. (For more, see What Top Search Firm Lists Can You Trust?)

Date a Few Recruiters: Marry One

“Date” a few of the recruiters you’ve targeted before selecting the one retained search partner you want to cultivate for life. Make sure the retained executive recruiter deserves your trust and is incredibly discreet. Seek a retained search partner whose advice is so brilliant and filled with insight that you suspect that person is actually smarter than you. You want a recruiter capable of serving as a trusted partner and advisor for the remainder of your career.

Get to Know Your Retained Recruiter

Another way to befriend an executive recruiter is to listen to them. Being an executive recruiter is a little like being a shrink. We listen to candidates all day long. However, it rarely works the other way around. So, turn the tables. Take a little time to get to know the recruiter. Ask the headhunter questions and then really listen. What they share will inform your thinking about what you can do to pay it forward. Then do thoughtful things to build a relationship with the retained search partner. Ultimately, when you support the recruiter’s success, you support your own.

Become a “Friend of The Firm”

There is more you can do to cultivate a relationship with a retained executive recruiter. Become a “friend of the firm”. It is not about trading favors — quid pro quo. We can’t shoehorn you into the position of your dreams if the client doesn’t want you. You can’t promise to use us or recommend us for every executive search that comes your way. However, for the relationship to flourish, it must be mutually beneficial. So, you help each other out when you can.

Foster Goodwill

Friends of the firm foster goodwill. So, you make thoughtful gestures. Send the recruiter a quick email with a link to a relevant article or industry report. Share industry intelligence and insight. Refer potential clients and executive searches to your recruiter friend. The more you help your retained search partner prosper, the more you help yourself. It is a circle of virtue.

Never Eat Alone

The book Never Eat Alone is a great primer on ways to support the success of those with whom you network. Retained search is, at its core, a relationship-driven business. Most of our business comes through referrals from “friends of the firm”.

Play the Long Game

Most executives want to get close to retained executive recruiters whenever they’re ready to make a move. However, savvy executives play the long game. They keep us close, regardless. They understand that retained recruiters — the really good ones — are friends with benefits of a different kind.

Retained Recruiters Help Companies Get Funding

For example, incredibly well-connected retained recruiters often broker lucrative deals. Our introductions to venture capitalists result in funding. Moreover, we facilitate M&A and private equity investment. Additionally, we regularly serve as executive coaches. Senior leaders turn to us to weigh options and sort through priorities. Consequently, we not only help friends of the firm build top-performing teams, but we are also their trusted advisors and confidants.

Retained Recruiters Help You Weather Storm

Last, retained search partners help executives weather the storm. Crises in business are inevitable. However, we know some of the best lawyers, accountants, and assorted fixers. In other words, retained search partners are success magnifiers. However, they do so regularly and willingly for select “friends of the firm.”

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Krista Bradford

Krista Bradford

Krista Bradford is CEO of the retained executive search firm The Good Search and of its research division Intellerati. A former award-winning television journalist and investigative reporter, Ms. Bradford now pursues truth, justice, and great talent in the executive suite.View Author posts

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