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The Power of Building Relationships with Retained Recruiters

Retained Headhunters: The Power of Getting to Know an Executive Recruiter

How to Find a Headhunter to Advance Your Career

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Retained Search Partners: How to Find a Headhunter to Supercharge Your Career

Retained recruiters can supercharge a senior executive’s career, which is why you need to find a headhunter. An executive recruiter often holds the key to your success. For instance, the right executive recruiter can make your career happen. An executive headhunter can introduce you to career-making and wealth-creating job opportunities. Working with a headhunter is an essential step in climbing the corporate ladder. Given their high level access and power, retained search partners are among the most connected people in the business. Yet, they’re in such demand they can be hard to get to know. That is what makes retained recruiters so elusive.

How to Find a Headhunter When It Isn’t Easy

Let’s say you’ve embarked on a job search. You’ve done all that a good leader should do to increase your visibility. 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 Headhunters Won’t Return Your Calls

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

How to Find a Headhunter

To find the right executive headhunter, start with a list of top executive search firms. If you live in the New York area, start with a list of New York City search firms. If you specialize in technology, begin with a list of top search firms in technology. Next, select a headhunter agency or two. Then contact an executive search partner at each firm. As you do, please do not get discouraged if they don’t immediately respond. Recruiting agencies and the executive recruiters who work can be unresponsive until they have an immediate need. But you’re playing the long game. That’s how you win.

When Are You a Candidate for a Retained Recruiter

If your average base salary is $300,000 or more, you’re the kind of candidate most retained search partners recruit. When you factor in equity, annual compensation tops $1 million. Companies pay a retainer to retained search partners — typically a third of the total cash compensation of the candidate who is hired. That means the company is investing $100 thousand or more to find the perfect candidate. In other words, retained recruiters handle important executive searches that are critical to a company’s success. These searches make companies and careers. That is why it is so important to cultivate a trusted relationship with a retained recruiter. 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. With so many job seekers seeking open positions, there aren’t enough of us to go around. While it often feels like a personal slight, retained 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 at a recruiting firm 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. We meet regularly with hiring managers and human resources partners to discuss the recruiting process. 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 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 an executive search partner, you’re still competing 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 an 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 at recruiting agencies curate their inner circle. You’ll find it filled with venture capitalists, private equity investors, genius technologists, serial entrepreneurs, and high-profile senior executives with a smattering of virtuosos. 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 won’t do. Be the exception, not the rule. It’s either that or finding another 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 when they try to get to know a retained search partner. The most common mistake 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 the courage to call a retained recruiter. As a result, many rush through what they are saying without taking a breath to get to the end.

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 seeming rude, arrogant, and naive. That’s a bad first impression to make with a retained search consultant.

Learn How Retained Search Works

To cultivate a real relationship with a retained recruiter, 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 search partners don’t make one thin dime by placing you. Rather, they get paid to target and recruit top-performing passive candidates. Consequently, how retained search consultants 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, retained search partners don’t have any financial motivation to get to know you. More to the point, the motivators are much more nuanced.

Image of man with binoculars for Retained Recruiters Executive Recruiter  how to find a headhunter

How to Blow It with Retained Headhunters

Assume You Make Retained Recruiters Money

Gracing retained search consultants with your presence and assuming they make money by placing you is a rookie mistake. You come off as someone who lacks experience and manners. Top-performing leaders rarely make that mistake. They understand retained recruiters are paid a retainer, regardless.

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 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 work in the world of executive search.

Assume Executive Recruiters 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. Marketing a candidate to other employers would be disloyal to the employer paying them. No candidate 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.

Treat Retained Search Partners Badly

Retained recruiters will eliminate you from consideration — if not from their very lives — if you treat them or their clients badly. Remember, retained search partners 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 an executive 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 your children would never talk to you again — that kind of behavior destroys your credibility with retained search consultants. Moreover, when you burn bridges with retained search partners, 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.

Forgetting the Headhunter Got You Your 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. 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.

Not Recommending Your Favorite Headhunter

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 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 search partner who placed them. Often, executives we place turn around and ask us to recruit 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

How do you find a headhunter to befriend? 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 search partner in the real world through real-time contact by phone, video chat, and in-person meetings. To find a headhunter, it helps to get to know the executive recruiter in the physical world.

Target the Right Retained Headhunters

Second, you must target the right recruiters. Develop a list of a half-dozen search partners focused 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 online have issues.

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 its website, stating 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 Executive 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. That’s how you find the right headhunter. Make sure the retained search partner deserves your trust and is incredibly discreet. Preferably find someone whom you suspect might be smarter than you. You want a recruiter capable of serving as a trusted partner and advisor for the remainder of your career.

How to Befriend an Executive Headhunter

After finding a headhunter, get to know that person. Engage in conversation with the headhunter and practice active listening. Being a retained search partner is a little like being a shrink. An executive recruiter listens 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 pay attention to their answers. What the executive recruiter says will inform your thinking about what else you can do to make that person a friend. 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”

Cultivate with a retained search partner to 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 an executive recruiter 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 executive headhunter 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 reach out to an executive recruiter when they are ready to find their next job. However, savvy executives play the long game by finding a headhunter before they need one. They remain in touch with an executive headhunter, regardless. They understand that executive search consultants — the good ones — are friends with benefits of a different kind.

Retained Recruiters Help Companies Get Funding

Finding the right headhunter can help raise money for your startup. For example, a well-connected executive recruiter can broker lucrative deals. Our introductions to venture capitalists result in funding and we facilitate M&A and private equity investment. To pay it forward, we coach executives to help them become more successful. Senior leaders turn to us to weigh career options and sort through priorities. Consequently, we help friends of the firm build top-performing teams and also serve as trusted advisors and confidants.

Retained Recruiters Help You Weather Storm

Last, retained search partners help executives weather the storm. Business crises are inevitable. Yet, we know some of the best lawyers, accountants, and assorted fixers. In other words, retained search partners are success magnifiers. We do so regularly and willingly for select “friends of the firm.” So how do you find the right executive recruiter? Start with a list of the top retained search firms.

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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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