What Should You Do WHEN the Headhunter Calls?

Say hello to J. Mike Smith of Back West Inc. J. Mike is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better. Over the past 25 years as a senior business executive, J. Mike has worked with Fortune 500 companies such as Genentech, AT&T, and Visa. We are all but too excited to be able to offer the expertise of such a seasoned vet to you: the readers of THE FIVE!

The call on the line is from a headhunter: now what?

Richard Nelson Bolles has noted that the best proven job hunting method is when a job hunter takes time to sit down and do some really good work on figuring out who they are and what they have to offer. And working your personal and career network is still the best way bar none to find work opportunities once you’re clear about who you are and what you have to offer.

Even at senior levels those adages about networking hold true: most recently a friend of mine was a close second for a CEO role that was commissioned through Korn Ferry to someone who came into the job via their personal network because one of the board members knew them.

Working a personal and career network though doesn’t mean that you blind yourself to other options: while lightening statistically seldom strikes people, it still means you’re mindful of the possibility. And many people DO get their jobs through executive search – it’s simply that on a probability basis it’s a less likely route.

So what do you do when the headhunter calls?

Take the call: if you’ve been left a message, return the call . I’ve lost count of the times that search execs have mentioned that people they’ve called – sometimes on searches that I’ve commissioned – who never bothered to return the call. And I know – from the land of do as I say, don’t do as I do – one Global Head of Staffing for a major asset management company who has burned a decades worth of bridges because they not only have a bad habit of not returning calls, but interviewing for jobs and not returning calls for that role. Fail to return the call and you may be less likely to get called by that search firm next time.

Take the call at time when you can talk. Even if it’s a junior staffer calling to source you, assessments get made about you based on that interaction. If the call comes while you’re walking out the door, say something to the effect that you’d like to talk when you’ve got some time and schedule the call when you can talk easily without others listening in.

Take the call from a landline and someplace where you won’t be disturbed. Mobile phones, particularly if you’re on the move, are notoriously choppy. Take the call from a landline where you can speak clearly and hear easily. (I have had candidates take a call from a mobile phone while in line at a fast food outlet but that’s in the realm of dumb and dumber.) If you work in a cubicle, take it from a conference room that you’ve booked so you won’t get bumped. [Update June 2: See this post from the Wall Street Journal - The New Trouble on the Line - on phone interviews, and why you'll want to take the call from someplace you won't be disturbed. Thank you Kaye Monty.]

The language on the call will likely be something on the order of “I’m John Doe from ABC search and I’m calling about an opportunity as an WYZ. I’m wondering if you might know someone who might be interested and qualified for that role?” Find out some information BEFORE you figure out if you can be a source or you might even be interested. I’d want to know the following and why:

Who am I speaking with, and are they or someone else the search exec that is handling the search? Knowing whom you’re speaking with gives you a sense of which from the search side may be making decisions about which candidates get referred to the client. If the person is junior they are still important – it just means that you may be speaking with others at the search firm before anyone is referred to the client.

Is the search retained or contingent, and is the firm handling the search exclusively or with others? As noted from an earlier post here , the answer may tell infer compensation, will tell you about how the process will be handled from the search end, what you might expect in terms of vetting, and something about the search firm that is handling the assignment.

Was the search just opened, or has it been open for a while, and where are they in the search process? If fresh it can suggest there is a first batch of candidates that are being queue up for interviewing. If the search has been open for a while, it can suggest that either the qualifications are hard to find, or that the client is bumpy and potentially hard to satisfy.

If they’ll share the information, who is the client? Is the client someone you can do research on, someone that would interest you or people you know, or a client that has a bad rap and people are avoiding.

Has the search firm done other work with the client, or is this new business for the search firm? This can suggest how much the search firm knows the client, how crisp they are in ferreting out who is a good cultural fit and who is not: alternately, if the search firm is not very familiar and potentially making guesses about best fits?

How did they happen to find you? Lets you know if there is something special about you that stands out as a desired candidate, or alternately you’re one of many people that are on their list to contact.

If the role is of interest, take a call to have a further discussion: “I’m happy and challenged in my current job but I make it a practice to learn more about what might be happening in the world. The role sounds interesting and something for which I might be well qualified: when can we talk about it further?” Unless you’ve got a multi-year contract and are very happy with your current firm, I would always take a preliminary conversation if the role was of interest and something for which I thought I was qualified. Why? It helps build your network in the search world, and keeps you in interview shape. It also helps you to get a sense of what people are looking for in roles that may be in your career sphere. Should you decide to have this further discussion you should prepare in advance: see this earlier post on interviewing here . If it’s not a good fit, you’ll know after the conversation and can graciously pass on the opportunity.

If the role is of no interest, be a source: refer the search person to know who might be of find it interest and be qualified. Give them a heads up call or send them a note letting them know that they may be receiving a call about XYZ job. Search people tend to keep tabs on folks who have been helpful for referrals and I believe in the adage what goes around comes around. The job you refer someone for today may later found that favor returned to you.

Anything else? If you’re going to take the process beyond an introductory conversation on the phone you need to be prepared to be regarded as “interviewing” around. While it may not be full-blown interviewing, it’s possible that it will be regarded as such. Search firms are typically very discreet, but you never know who you bump into in search firm – or company office – waiting rooms.

blog comments powered by Disqus

The Featured Five