How can aspiring executives get the best out of their headhunter?


Executives who know how to work properly with a headhunter can see average careers transformed into great ones. Those that don’t are not making the most of a potentially invaluable long-term ally.

As an executive search professional, I have helped many people to rise through the ranks – and, over the years, I’ve also heard many horror stories from my fellow headhunters (it’s a very gossipy sector) about the way that candidates and clients can get things wrong. I’d like to share some insights, gathered over the years, into how to get the best out of the candidate-headhunter relationship.

The first thing is to take on board is that executive search professionals are usually working for organisations with a role to fill – which means they’re not actually working for you. When you meet a headhunter for the first time, the meeting may be cast as an informal chat over lunch – but don’t be fooled, the headhunter will be assessing you as keenly as if you were applying for a job. And what he or she is assessing is how you will come across to their clients.

So you need to prepare for the meeting, organising your thoughts to create a clear articulation of exactly what you want. Which sectors and cultures are you seeking to work in, and why? What’s your long-term goal, and what experience and skills will you need to acquire to get there? Are you willing to relocate abroad? Are your CV and LinkedIn profile aligned with what you’re describing? Prepare to be challenged on any of this – after all, that’s what the headhunter’s clients will do at interview. This is not a career counselling conversation; you’re making a sales pitch for a single product – yourself.

Above all, you need to be honest. If you have gaps or unusual episodes in your career, be open about these and explain what happened. If you’ve already had conversations with a company mentioned by your headhunter, say so immediately, regardless of whether the contact was via another headhunter or on your own account. I can’t tell you how embarrassing it is for a headhunter to put a candidate on a shortlist to then discover that they’ve already met the client!

Be frank about money. If you won’t tell your headhunter what you earn, how can she work out whether a new role would be a step up in remuneration? Don’t feel embarrassed about being on a poor package; a good headhunter is likely to respond with something like, “Well, you may not be ready for the next step up, but I can certainly find you an opening at your current level that has proper compensation.”

Really, all that is required is just business courtesy and common sense. That means being patient if a search firm is taking longer to get you in front of a client than you would like. Direct approaches to clients behind headhunters’ backs end up just diminishing candidates in the eyes of both the search professional and the client. By the same token, you don’t have to contact your headhunter every couple of weeks; the occasional email or brief update when you have something significant to report will be fine. And when you’re open to opportunities, make a call, send over a refreshed CV… and let them do their stuff.

Some otherwise sensible and grounded executives get into trouble when it comes to talking about compensation. Remember, this is a negotiation, it’s not about entitlement. If you’re being offered a fair package, resist the urge to quibble over every tiny detail – I have known clients to reconsider their offer in the face of intransigence by the candidate that was in marked contrast to their impressive behaviour at interview. And I recommend that you turn your face against counter-offers by your current employers; at some level they will resent having to pay more to keep you, and in most cases it turns out to be only a short-term fix. (Also, the fact you were offered a job you had sought and then turned it down for a pay rise doesn’t play well with your reputation within the search community.)

Like any other relationship, your dealings with a headhunter should be mutually beneficial. So, if he calls you to get some insights on someone you used to work with, give him a hand even though you’re not looking for a new role right now. Do your best to help your headhunter; if you spot good opportunities or useful introductions, pass them across as a matter of course, and they will regard you more highly, and will go out of their way to help further your career.

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