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How to Work With Executive Recruiters

By Taunee Besson, CMF, CareerCast.com Senior Columnist

Q: "I'm looking for a new job and want to make the most effective use of executive recruiters. Should I call them, send my resume to selected ones and follow up, buy a database and do a major direct mail campaign, or what? I don't see how they can help me if they don't know I exist." –Ron, Seattle, Washington

A: Let's talk about what executive recruiting firms do just to be sure you understand their role. There are two types of recruiting firms: contingency and retainer. Contingency firms generally work with job openings up to $100,000 and only get paid when they fill a position. Retainer firms find candidates for positions typically paying over $100,000 and collect a fee whether they find someone or not. Both types work for companies, not job seekers. If you hear someone say a search firm is finding him a job, you can generally assume he is misinformed, unless he has some skill set in tremendously high demand.

Search firms fill a very small percent of the openings available at any given time. Consequently, the likelihood of a recruiter working on a search assignment that matches your background when you happen to contact him is relatively slim. Also, recruiters rarely work with candidates who have sent unsolicited resumes. Most search professionals rely on networking to identify individuals whose credentials and experience fit what the client company has requested. They prefer to work with people they know and trust.

According to David Westberry, a Managing Partner at Korn/Ferry, one of the world's largest executive search firms, "If you hope to develop a relationship with me when you start your job search, you're too late. I spend a lot of time cultivating contacts in professional organizations and the community. When I get a search assignment, I ask these people who might be the right person for the opening I'm trying to fill. If neither they nor I know you, it's doubtful you'll be on my list of potential candidates."

  • The lesson: mounting a massive direct-mail campaign targeting top search firms probably is not the best use of your time and money.

What does all this mean to you? If you want search firms to notice you, involve yourself as soon as possible in professional and community activities and networking groups, where you will be visible to recruiters and their referral sources.

If you choose to pursue a more direct approach, send a resume with a cover letter only to targeted search firms that work in your industry explaining what you want in your next position (a good source of recruiter lists is www.kennedyinformation.com). Suggest the recruiter contact you whether she has a search assignment matching your qualifications or not, since you know a number of people who might meet her needs and you're happy to help. Then, follow up with a phone call to see if you can be of service.

The old cliché, "one hand washes the other," is very applicable here. A recruiter is more likely to call you with an opportunity if you help her find the right candidate, whether it's yourself or a friend.


Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

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