How to Have a Productive Relationship with an Executive Recruiter

The following posting is based on a presentation I made on December 5, 2010 at The Learning Annex Career Day.

The dark secret about everything that anyone ever tells you about a job search or career advancement is that it is all art, not science.  Sometimes so-called “experts” will contradict each other.  If their way gets you the job, great.  If I suggest the exact opposite and you get the job, even better.  The important thing is for you to do what is comfortable for you.  It’s your job search.  You get all the credit when it’s successful and all the blame when it fails.

I’m an executive recruiter.  But in order to emphasize what that means let me take a minute to tell you what happens if you come to me for career counseling.

The first thing you do is to pay me $50.  I hand you a receipt and ask you one question:  What needs to happen at the end of our hour for you to feel that your time and money were well spent?  Why do I ask that question?  Because you are paying me for my time and expertise.  It’s your meeting.  I care what you care about.

Now, if you come to me in my capacity as an executive recruiter, you are not paying me.  I don’t care what you want.  I care what I need and what I need is to make my client, the employer looking to hire someone with your qualifications, happy.  It’s your role to put my mind at ease that I don’t have to worry about you as a candidate.  That is what the relationship is all about.

Obviously, you come to me as a recruiter because you want a job.  A recruiter can find you a job only if he has a client looking for someone with your qualifications.

Who are our clients?  Employers looking to fill mid- senior- and executive-level positions.  Rarely do we get entry level positions simply because it is not worth it for the employer to pay us to fill a position with a salary under $30,000 – although it does happen.

If the recruiter has a client looking for someone with your qualifications, he can do a lot for you:

  1. He can review your resume and suggest changes.
  2. He can invite you in for an interview and work with you on your presentation skills.
  3. Most importantly, he can advocate on your behalf so that, unlike someone who is responding to a classified ad, he can set you apart from the other candidates.
  4. He can smooth over any small problems that might have raised some minor concerns during an interview.
  5. He can assist with negotiations.

But remember one thing, you are the candidate, not the client.  It is the recruiter’s job to represent the client’s best interest, not yours.  Except for confidentiality and acting in accordance with relevant laws, recruiters have absolutely no fiduciary or any other kind of responsibility toward you.

So why would you want to work with a recruiter?  Because we have clients looking to hire people.  Moreover, by and large, if the employer is using a recruiter that means they are probably not advertising which means the candidate pool may be lower, which means your odds may be better of getting an interview.  After all, if they could fill the position by placing an ad, they would place an ad.

How do you find a recruiter?  My background is in non-profits.  Years ago I spent a long time Googling “non-profit executive recruiters” and eventually had a mailing list of close to 900 firms.  I sent my resume to all of them.  Was it worthwhile?  Let me put it to you this way, since I created the list the longest I have ever been unemployed is six weeks.

Google “executive recruiters” in quotation marks, within your profession.  Go to their websites.  The vast majority will only accept resumes via e-mail or their websites.  Google may have it wrong, so it is important to confirm that they do represent persons in your profession.  The only way to do so, is to look at their websites and see what searches they are working on or have completed.

Once you have found recruiters, how to have a productive relationship with them?

Simple:  Don’t waste our time and don’t insult our intelligence.

If you see that a recruiter has posted a job, don’t submit your resume if you do not meet the minimum requirements.  We have to work quickly to close searches.  We don’t like to waste time.  If you submit your resume for something for which you are unqualified you have informed us that you either can’t read or you think we won’t realize that you would make a lousy candidate!  Not a good way to start a relationship…

But we do like to get resumes because that’s how we build up our resume data bases.  So what can you do?  Just send a cover letter saying that while you are not qualified for the position you would like to submit your resume so that we have it in case something comes in.  No time wasted.  You come across as a professional.  Everyone is happy.

If you do any of the following, even if you are qualified for the position, I know that you are an amateur, not a professional, and I will not risk submitting you to one of my clients:

Do not use a form cover letter.

Do not send me a cover letter that begins, “Dear Sir or Madam.”  In my case “Bruce” is fine, but formal is always better.  “Mr. Hurwitz” is OK.  “Dr. Hurwitz” is OK.  But while I am a Canadian citizen, the Queen has not knighted me and I assure you that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a madam.  Get the name or gender of the person to whom you are writing and address them professionally.  If you can’t bother to do a little research to better market yourself as a candidate, why would I think you would take the initiative for my client?

Don’t send a cover letter that refers to “the advertised position.”  I may have a few and even if I know perfectly well which job you are interested in, if you can’t bother to include the proper title, why should I bother calling you in for an interview?

The point is this:  Everything you do reflects on your professionalism.  Take the time to write a proper business letter.  Make life easy for the recruiter:  Tell him what position you are applying for, what you are, why you should be considered, and answer any questions he asks in his job posting.  He’s not looking for poetry, just answers.

You have to frame the discussion about your candidacy the best way you can.  You are marketing you.  Do you buy a product because of its ingredients or because of the promises that the manufacturer makes and that you can confirm?  You’re the product!  Market yourself the way the manufacturer of your soap convince you to buy their product.

So that we are all on the same page understand the following:  The purpose of the cover letter is to get the recipient to read the resume.  The purpose of the resume is to get the recipient to invite you in for an interview.  And the purpose of the interview is to get the job offer.  If you don’t grab the recipient’s attention in the first paragraph he will not finish reading the cover letter.  Moreover, if you are lucky, you have 10 seconds to convince the recipient to read your entire resume.  In other words, you have to get it right from the beginning.

Both in the cover letter and the resume the greatest mistake you can make is to insult the intelligence of the recruiter or, for that matter, anyone else seeing the resume.  Do not praise yourself.  We don’t care if you think you are the best ever at what you do.  You are not!  But by providing us with facts you can convince us in a few seconds, which is all the time you have, that you may be one of the best.  We don’t submit people who do not fall into the category of “one of the best.”

Let me give you a couple examples from the introductory paragraphs of resumes of actual marketing professionals:

My intuitive business acumen and transferable skill sets have enabled me to make insightful sales and marketing decisions across a variety of industries. Leveraging highly creative marketing techniques have played a pivotal role in the sustained success I’ve enjoyed as both a mentor and as an individual contributor in start-up, mid-size and Fortune 50 companies. As a “strategic” tactician, my ability to identify specific customer needs and deliver compelling well-targeted solutions has repeatedly helped these companies achieve notable market share gains and impressive ROI’s. – But not enough to give any numbers!

Now compare that with this one:

  • 40 New Product Introductions and $25 Million in New Revenues for XYZ International
  • $40 Million Increase in Product Sales Volume with Line Extensions within 1st Year with XYZ, Inc.
  • Key Catalyst in XYZ’s $910 Million Revenue Growth and #4 Ranking in Toy Manufacturing Industry
  • $50 Million in New Revenues for XYZ with New Product Introductions and Creative Promotions

See the difference?

I was conducting a search for an HR Director for a chain of nursing homes.  Nursing homes want two things: well-cared for residents and no unions.  The HR director I submitted did not say in his cover letter, or begin his resume with a paragraph, “A consummate professional, with over 20 years human resources experience, who always exceeds his employers’ expectations, surpasses all goals, and…”  What he did was to state the following:

“Successfully fought 15 union elections and lowered union grievances from an average of 50 per year to zero.”

When the client read that line she picked up the phone, called me, said that was all she had read and that she wanted to meet him.

In the cover letter provide the recruiter with that one reason why he should look at your resume.  Make it factual and meaningful.  Don’t tell him that you “increased sales by 500%.”  That means nothing.  Tell him that you “increased sales by 500% to $2.5 million.”  That means something.

We’re tired, bored, and have been reading cover letters and resumes all day from individuals who never should have graduated high school let alone college.  We’re going to miss something.  Don’t let us miss you.  Hit us over the head with a baseball bat.  Wow us!

The good news is that, as I just alluded to, far too many people can’t write to save their lives.  If you can, you’ll grab our attention just by your writing skills.

So forget what I call, the “My mother loves me” paragraph, and think of the old Dragnet television series, “Just the facts!”  That’s all a recruiter wants.

Alright, you have written a good cover letter, submitted a resume that begins with a section, I call it “Selected Accomplishments,” you can call it anything you want, but a section with a few bullet points that truly highlight your career.  Now you have my attention because you have differentiated yourself from your competition.  Put differently, you have professionally framed the discussion around your candidacy.

Next we look at your dates of employment.  The weekly jobless claims just rose by 26,000 to 436,000, only 39,000 jobs were added in November, and the unemployment rate rose from 9.6% to 9.8%.

The only good thing about this is that employers are no longer turned off by unemployed candidates.  There was a time that they simply would not consider them.  Today, unemployment is almost expected.  So don’t worry about being unemployed.  Worry about not having kept your jobs long enough.

Employers, and keep this in mind when preparing your bullet points, are all looking for the same individuals:  Leaders, decision makers, decision implementers, team players, and persons who are loyal.  Loyalty means that you stay on the job for at least three years.  It’s the most important thing.  Employers are not going to invest in a new employee who is likely to leave before they get a reasonable return on their investment.

Everyone, myself included, has a few short stints on their resumes.  There is nothing wrong with that, as long as it is not the norm.  I worked for two non-profits for about six months each.  But I also worked for six and half years, 4 and half years and six years for other employers.  That means, I am not a jumper.

One of the advantages of working with a recruiter is that we can explain to an employer things that may appear to be problems but are not.  For example, I had one candidate for a property manager position who apparently had 5 employers over a 10 year period.  Not good.  What was not clear from his resume was that the 5 employers all owned the same building.  When the new owners bought the property they wanted my candidate as part of the sale.  Five employers in 10 years bad; five owners in 10 years, very good.

I mentioned differentiation.  You have a lot of competitors.  On way to think about how many is to consider your level of education.  Last month, 15.7% of high school dropouts were unemployed, 10.0% of high school graduates with no college were unemployed, 8.7% of persons with some college or an associates degree were unemployed, but only 5.1% of college graduates were unemployed.  That 5.1% is for me the most troubling.  It is the first time since I have been tracking these numbers, almost three years, that the rate for college graduates was over 5.0%.  Up until now, it had only been 5% twice, last December and this February.

How can you differentiate yourself?  The best praise is praise that comes from someone who can’t afford to consider you as anything other than a professional.  For example, an editor or a producer.  I suggest two websites.  The first is http://www.helpareporter.com.  HARO, as it is called, puts reporters in touch with experts.  It’s free.  Go to the website and register as a “Source.”  Every day I receive hundreds of questions from reporters.  Since May of this year I have been in the press, on websites, and interviewed on the radio almost 100 times.  If you can say in your cover letter, and on your resume, something like, “Having been quoted as a source in such publications as USA Today, US News and World Report, the New York Post, and The Star-Ledger, not to mention such websites as AOL, Yahoo! Hot Jobs, and Career Builder, I am a recognized expert in…,” that will grab the reader’s attention.  And that’s what you have to do.

Another website is http://www.blogtalkradio.com.  It’s internet radio and there are probably thousands of shows.  Do a search for your profession or area of expertise.  Set up an account, it’s free, and then you will be able to contact the hosts of the programs.  Introduce yourself and offer to be a guest.  You can then differentiate yourself by saying that you have been interviewed on radio, numerous times, on whatever the topic.  If you really want to go all out, for free, you can host your own 15 or 30 minute program.

Another way to differentiate yourself is by what you are doing while you are unemployed.  If all you are doing is focusing on networking and submitting your resume to employers, that’s OK, but who would you rather hire, you or the person who says when asked what he’s being doing since he was laid off, “I went to school to upgrade my computer skills, took a couple of courses to broaden my horizons, and had a couple of temporary positions to help pay the bills?”  And, yes, you should mention those positions on your resume under the heading, “Temporary Assignments” or “Consulting Assignments.”

One other point to consider.  You know about your employers, but the recruiter may not and probably will not, even if it is a large, well-known company.  So include a short blurb, 2 or 3 lines, saying what the company does, the number of customers, number of products, number of staff, size of budget.  That way the recruiter will know where you fit in the scheme of things.  If you are a small fish in a big pool, you may be the perfect candidate to be a big fish in a small pool.

Let’s review.  You contact a recruiter by submitting your resume for a position for which you are qualified, or just so he will have the resume on file, but in your cover letter you say which.

The cover letter is professional, short, sweet and to the point.

Both the cover letter and resume highlight objective facts, without any superlatives.

The next step is for the recruiter to call you up, confirm some facts, and invite you in for an interview.  Remember, everything you do is aimed at putting the recruiter’s mind at ease that you are a great candidate and he has nothing to worry about if he submits you.

Be a few minutes early.  Dress conservatively.  No perfume or cologne.  If you are covered in tattoos, don’t bother to show up!  Shake hands firmly, look the recruiter straight in the eyes, smile and thank him for meeting with you.

During the actual interview, be animated, be appropriate, be honest, and perhaps most importantly, be short, sweet and to the point.  Answer the questions that you are asked.  A good recruiter will coach you about how to approach difficult issues.  And what you think is difficult, what you are worried about, more times than not, is not actually a big deal.

If there is a serious problem, let the recruiter know.  For example, a criminal record, an awful credit score, an upcoming operation, or even a planned vacation.  The recruiter can only help you if he is aware of the situation.  If you surprise the employer, the recruiter is not going to advocate on your behalf because you made him look like a fool.

Finally, the recruiter submits you.  The client likes what he reads and hears and you get the interview.  Same rules as just mentioned apply.  There is no difference in interviewing with a client or a recruiter except, once you meet with the recruiter you will know who the client is.  That means you have to do your homework and know everything about them before you arrive.  It is imperative that you ask good questions during the interview and the only way to do so is by doing your homework.         We’ll assume all goes well and they want to hire you.  The employer now asks the recruiter to check references.  The best reference is a former supervisor.  Second best is a former colleague.  Third best is a former supervisee.  Make certain they know that they are going to be contacted.

Prepare a short blurb on each reference.  How long you worked with them, where, the nature of the relationship, what their title was, their present position, contact numbers and their location (just in case it’s a different time zone).

Today, hand-in-hand with references is what I like to refer to as “Internet presence.”  Sometime in the process someone is going to Google you.  I have had a client, desperate to fill a position, reject a person from consideration because her Facebook profile photo showed her sticking her tongue out at the camera.  I have heard of people not being considered for positions because they sent out Tweets that, to be kind, were invitations to burglars to visit their homes while they were out having dinner.  I have had a candidate rejected because of her blog and another candidate because of the postings he had left on other people’s blogs.  Set up a Google Alert at alerts.google.com and track your name.  If there is anything out there that makes you look foolish, take it down, block it from public view, close the account.  Like they tell children, “If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it on line.”

After the interview with the employer, send a thank you e-mail.  Based on past experience, if there are any typos, missing words, or grammatical or spelling errors, it will cost you the offer.  In addition to the e-mail, which is expected, send a hand-written note.  It’s unexpected and a nice touch.  If the employer asked for information, get it to them as soon as possible.  Copy the recruiter on all e-mails.

All goes well and the employer makes a job offer.  Always, throughout the process, keep the recruiter in the loop.  I said it before and I will say it again, we can only advocate on your behalf if we know what is happening.  Sometimes, we’ll make the offer.  Sometimes the employer will.

If you are asked what salary you are looking for, discuss “needs” not “wants.”  If you are presently employed, say that in order to make the move you need an increase of a certain percentage.  That’s reasonable.  Once a firm offer is made, you can make one counter offer.  But make certain it’s logical.  For example, I had two candidates who both were offered $10,000 increases.  They both asked for another $5,000.  The first pointed out that he would have an increased commute which meant paying two tolls.  The $5,000 would cover the tolls so he would still have a net increase of $10,000.  Same story for the other candidate, but instead of tolls it was increased health insurance costs.  Both clients agreed because, as they said, the requests were reasonable.

Just remember one thing.  Recruiters don’t work for you, we work for the employer.  When we submit a candidate we are putting our reputations on the line.  We are risk adverse, so make our lives as easy as possible so that we don’t consider you to be a risk in any way, shape or form.

Thank you very much.

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