Discussion: November 24, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

In today’s newsletter, a reader tells how she’s on a roll… conducting her job search exclusively through personal contacts. She hasn’t sent out a resume but has lined up phone calls with VP’s and CEO’s at her target companies.

How is that possible? How’d she do it? (You’ve gotta subscribe to the newsletter to find out… and it’s free!)

I didn’t publish this week’s Q&A column to congratulate myself because a reader finds that the Ask The Headhunter approach works. I ran it because it’s Thanksgiving and it’s nice to share an upbeat story!

But I also ran it because I want to ask you something:

Does the talk-to-people approach that this reader is using a substitute for the traditional job ad/resume approach, or should it be used only in addition to job ads/resumes?

Have you ever searched for a job purely through personal contacts? Is a person nuts to skip resumes and ads?

Is it enough to talk to people? Please weigh in and don’t worry about getting extreme…


  1. The goal should be to brand yourself: become Brand You.

    That includes following your passion, creating an online presence, expanding online social networks, posting your accomplishments on your professional networking sites, becoming an expert, teaching and mentoring, being involved in your industry, joining relevant groups, continuous face-to-face networking and excelling at what you do. Once you have done that, you will be able to pick up the phone for your next job; or better yet someone will pick up the phone and invite you into your next job. That is how to secure your future and avoid the job market and recruiters altogether.

    In the meantime it is better to find a job through people than by sending one tweaked résumé after another into virtual data graves; however, if you haven’t fully branded yourself, you may find out about your next job through people and avoid recruiters, but you will still have to submit your résumé.

  2. Neva, if I was to all that stuff, when am I supposed to find time for actually researching the potential employers? Each part of that long list of buzzwords may have a merit, but the day only has 24 hours, and one must prioritize the time.

    One reason I dislike the “make yourself a Brand” talk is that it is a lot about wrapping, image, not about content.

    I am now in the process of looking for a new job due to relocation, and instead of branding, I prefer to study the geology (I am a petroleum geologist) in the working areas of two or three possible companies. When that is done, I can call contacts (e.g. former fellow students) in those companies, to talk shop. These people know me already and who I am (including the less perfect parts of me), and I do not see any reason to build a brand to create an artificial image of me.

  3. Oh, and BTW,

    I don’t think one should avoid ads altogether, if an interesting advertised position comes by, why not apply? I got my current job that way. Just not do like too many people do, rely solely on ads and job boards.

  4. I haven’t actually performed a complete job hunt through personal contacts alone, though the idea does intrigue me. I just may do my next one that way. I did land one position without answering an ad, but that was because they called me (a company where I was previously employed).

    I have used personal contacts as a supplement to ads and recruiters. I remember one interview I went on after answering an ad – it was with a friend of a previous coworker, and when he remembered me, I was given an offer right away. Easiest interview I’ve ever had.

    In a nutshell, building a string of personal contacts works, whether you rely on that network exclusively, or use it in combination with more traditional job hunting methods. Besides, having that network will also allow you to check out the company whose ad you just answered and determine if they’re worth working for.

  5. I am glad that this method is working for this individual. However, at first glance I would presume that this individual has had experience at the more senior levels of an organization. There is something to be said about a past exec. trying to make inroads to an organization based on previous title….now forgive me if I am off base here, but I have experience, academic credentials, but zero large company experience. If I was to try and contact people at the VP level, and indeed I have….to arrange informational interviews etc. I doubt I would get very far….despite a well polished 30 second elevator, a passion for business (through leadership development and training) Again, I am glad this method works, for this person. I however must continue plodding along submitting resumes, listening for leads (which is hard as I don’t really know too many people where I am)….so I network where I can, research opportunities as well and also write letters of inquiry to those companies that I would be interested in…

    All the best to all who are seeking opportunities, the right one will come along.

    an early but hopefully well timed Happy Thanksgiving everyone……

  6. Greg, I would just advise you not to think only of senior managers as the people to network with. My company accepts referrals from all of our employees and seriously considers them, whether they come from a managing partner or the receptionist. Although we do post ads on our own website and one of the national boards, I would say the majority of our hires are referred. The majority of applicants we get from the national board are so far off base in terms of skills and experience that it really isn’t worth the time it takes me to look at them. Most who apply are letting the engine send their resume and it is not doing them any favors.

  7. Personal contacts has definitely worked for me. Companies hire from within, from referrals and who they know with ads being last on their list. Job seekers tend to look at it the opposite way – from the bottom of the pyramid-with online ads first. Taking the approach companies use to seek employees can work when you play your cards right. I’ve found my best contacts networking on trains in business class. If you ride through major metropolitan areas you will meet senior management engaging in conversations, hooking up with colleagues coming in from airports, connecting for meetings etc. It’s not always about what these people do or industry they serve, but who they know and the sound advice they are willing to offer you that will ultimately align with what you are looking for in your own search! Similar to LinkedIn, your goal is to get to the second degree contacts.

  8. When I was looking for jobs, I got leads to most of them through networking and that happened because the companies I could reach had openings. There are situations where somebody’s network will not point to an immediate opening, and in those cases a resume will be crucial.

    Even if a friend or acquaintance in a target company knows your work well enough to act as a reference, there are additional benefits to putting a well written resume in front of the hiring manager. For example, your acquaintance in the target company employee may know some details of your accomplishments and skills, but not the full range you offer.

  9. In 32 years in the workforce, my current job is the only one I ever got through responding to an advertised posting. But even here, I had an inside contact who gave me advance notice of the posting and was an advocate for me all the way (He is my current supervisor.)

    To address Nick’s question ‘Does the talk-to-people approach that this reader is using a substitute for the traditional job ad/resume approach, or should it be used only in addition to job ads/resumes?’ We advise our clients to pursue every avenue available. The important point is to prioritize your job search efforts in direct proportion to the likelyhood of success. That means the direct people part should represent 70% of your efforts. The internet is available 24/7/365, so there is no reason to be searching linkup.com, indeed.com and simplyhired.com at 2:00PM on a Wednesday afternoon when you could be calling, knocking on doors etc.

    Chris Walker

  10. ALL my jobs (except two) have come through people I knew. The two that didn’t were the worst of the lot. My current job came through a young neighbor I befriended and helped while he was still a student. Five years later, guess what? Yep, he was a young manager, and I was unemployed.

  11. Hi Karsten,

    The idea is to do all that stuff on an on-going basis, rather than rushing to do it when you find yourself looking for a job.

    Personal brand goes much deeper than wrapping and image. The wrapping and image are the reflection of your brand. Your personal brand is the value you offer and your differentiation from others, and it has to be authentic. To be authentic it has to be true to your very core: your beliefs, values, passions, aspirations and accomplishments. It also has to be marketed. A great brand will have no value if it is not marketed. You can proactively create your brand or be reactively branded by others.

    As I mentioned, part of self-branding is networking. Those former fellow students are part of your network. Are they part of a current network?

    Some thoughts/case study:

    Two geologists have their eyes on a job at a particular company where former fellow students whom they both know work.

    Candidate A

    A has highlighted and updated his/her activities and accomplishments on LinkedIn for sometime. The former fellow students at the company have followed the updates and are among the connections.

    A has a website and blog, including papers he/she has written over the years and articles about, and photos of, his/her projects and countries in which he/she has worked. The blog is interactive and includes a category on global renewable energy.

    A has 200 connections on LinkedIn, including some top, sought-after global energy experts and top petroleum geologists whom he/she has met through online social and face-to-face networking, on mutual work projects and at industry seminars.

    A has been recommended on LinkedIn by ten top industry professionals.

    A has proactively branded himself/herself and actively marketed his/her brand over the years.

    The hiring manager takes note of A’s top, sought-after contacts, references and extra-mile activities.

    Candidate B

    B isn’t signed up on LinkedIn. His/her accomplishments are on his/her résumé. He plans to bring his former fellow students (none of whom is the hiring manager) up to date when he/she phones.

    B has also written some excellent articles; they are listed on his/her résumé and available on request.

    B offers to supply references on request.

    Be knows some important people as well, but the contacts are not visible.

    B has done well but hasn’t bothered with branding. As a result he/she is at risk of being branded by others as out of date, a good candidate without the visibility to take the company to the next level and into Web Squared. The hiring manager only has B’s brief résumé with which to work in deciding whether to grant an interview.

    B is relying on those former fellow students to put in a good word. They liked B, faults and all, at university, but don’t know the details of his current accomplishments.

    Which one do you think will get the job?

    That’s what branding and brand marketing are all about.

  12. @Neva: Please see my comment to Kathy Sweeney, about headhunters, on http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/1121/how-to-say-it-why-you-should-read-my-resume

    The distinction you draw is a very important one. Both A and B in your example are clearly good potential candidates. And the way you draw the distinction certainly points out the power of how A has branded him/herself.

    But now let’s step back. My issue is headhunters and recruiters and how they do their work. Headhunter X uses LinkedIn and other online data bases to find candidates using appropriate keywords. X finds A and we have a match. All well and good.

    But headhunter X has missed candidate B, an admittedly good candidate who isn’t marketing him/herself well.

    Headhunter Y might find A on LinkedIn, but by scouring the industry through e-mails, phone calls and meetings, also turns up the “hidden” candidate B.

    Which headhunter has done a better job?

  13. In my 21 year tech career whenever I wanted a new job I did all the things you’re supposed to do – networking, making personal contacts, working through friends who know some one who knows some one, etc. It has made me feel better while searching for a job. But it has never gotten me a job. Every single job I have had has come through normal channels – mailing resumes, using headhunters, and submitting applications.

  14. Neva, thanks for clarification, and you make very valid points. Can’t protest on those.

    However, I still get a kind of reaction on reflex that all that branding may be somewhat…artificial? Admittedly, my BS treshold is so low that I almost never watch TV cannels with ads, so going out and branding myself would feel somewhat artificial. Doing all that branding may be natural for people who live and breathe petroleum industry – but for us who are good workers but prefer to spend some time doing other things, it would feel awkward. Well, may be the world just isn’t fair :)

    I took a look at LinkedIn. Many of my contacts were not there. May bi I will change opinions if I actually register there, but it looks like a kind of professional Facebook – where I already am. I see the point. May be I even get an account there. But, just like facebook, there is a difference between updating a page there and chatting now and then, and actually discussing business.

  15. @Karsten: I think the problem with “branding” is that people believe it’s something they do for themselves. I think branding is what other people do to you when you deserve it (good or bad). Like reputation, you have control of your brand, but it’s assigned to you by others. There are lots of people with great “brands” who do not cultivate a brand. They just do what they do and others notice.

  16. When I was in the job market years before starting JobWhiz, Executive Talent Agent, I learned that job ads were one of the best sources of reliable leads and new networking contacts.
    Check out which firms are advertising then go and research the name of the hiring decision maker and contact that individual either through a mutual connection( preferred to establish trust and credibility through a recommendation) or directly. Customize your presentation/introduction and resume to match their needs and specify how you meet their requirements. It can’t hurt to also submit your credentials as instructed in the ad. You can dramatically improve your chances with this two pronged approach. You may not get the job but you very well might create a new connection inside one of your target companies by using this ad and that name to penetrate the corporate organization and get put yourself on the inside track for future opportunities before these are advertised to the public.
    Alas, this method advocates for networking as the preferred job search technique but it relies on job boards and other public information to start networking contacts that ultimately produce an offer because you position yourself to become one of the first to learn about a new opening or have the chance to demonstrate your value. It may also prompt the decision maker to create a new job tailored to your potential contribution.

  17. @Nick: That was a an enlighteninig way of seeing it!

  18. Thank you John for illustrating my point that no search strategy should be overlooked, they all ‘work’ to some extent. Prioritize your efforts based on likelyhood of success. See the Sources of Hire surveys from http://www.careerxroads.com for help.

  19. Hi Karsten,

    I strongly urge you to sign up on LinkedIn. In North America, it is the current business networking site, as opposed to Facebook, which people do use for business but is more for family and friends (with a cloudy reputation).

    Nick is not going to like what I say next.

    Through LinkedIn you can also join professional groups. Great connections are established through interacting with group members. Also great jobs are advertised through those groups of likeminded people.

    I landed a gig very recently that way: no need to send bs tweaked résumés into virtual black holes, no bs panel or multi interviews with ridiculous questions, no need for recruiters or headhunters.

    There is a proviso. You have to work your LinkedIn and other connections. In the meantime, for a while, job boards and job ads are still around, and there are, of course, headhunters and recruiters. Note I said, “for a while.” It is predicted that within a decade all job boards will be gone. Job searching will be an interactive activity through social networks. For that reason, alone, it is a smart thing to start getting connected sooner than later.

    In answer to Nick’s question about which headhunter is doing the better job, I don’t believe headhunters or recruiters should be gleaning résumés off LinkedIn or any other social networking site uninvited.

    I am not saying don’t work with headhunters or recruiters. If they produce results, by all means work with them.

    That industry is suffering hugely right now. In my view it is in such trouble for five reasons: (1) Recession. (2) Low barrier to entry and fierce competition. (3) Structural and technical revolution. (4) Poor results for candidates. (5) Refusal to view candidates as clients.

    With respect to the fifth reason, without candidates, headhunters and recruiters would not be in business. The recruiting fee is an expense that directly impacts a successful candidate’s remuneration. How can candidates be viewed as anything other than as clients, along with the employing companies?

    I am no different from anyone else, so thousands/millions of others must feel the same way. I cringe when I see the explicit distinction between clients and candidates on headhunting and recruiting sites when it is the placement of the candidates that pays their mortgage, etc. I doubly cringe when I see instructions on how clients can contact them and instructions for candidates not to contact them. When they treat their candidates that way, they don’t deserve any business.

    The question shouldn’t be how candidates should work with headhunters, it should be how headhunters should work with candidates. “Candidates” (executive and otherwise) need headhunters and recruiters less and less, so if headhunters and recruiters want to stay in business, they must offer extraordinary value. As Bill Gates once said, if middlemen fail to offer outstanding extra value in a wired world, then there is no need for them.

  20. Basically, it comes down to personal contacts (LinkedIn, Facebook, Nick’s case study) and joining groups (I’ll agree with Neva – LinkedIn’s niche is this; I’d rank Facebook a close second in terms of business groups) to finding the job you want.

    There’s nothing wrong with scanning the online job ads once in awhile, just as long as you bypass HR’s automated tracking system (ATS) to locate the person in charge (again, LinkedIn and Facebook can help you with this).

    Have a great Thanksgiving!

  21. @Neva: I agree with just about everything you wrote. LinkedIn is a superficial database. What you do with the contacts you find is up to you. Far too many people extract contacts from LinkedIn, send them resumes, and wait for results. It’s goofy. The value lies in what you put into it — relationships take time and a big investment. Whether you do it on LinkedIn are at the local hangout is up to you. But just as superficial conversation in a bar is useless, so is “mining” LinkedIn for “contacts” by themselves.

    You also make good points about headhunters. While a headhunter is paid by the client company, the headhunter’s equity lies in the professional community from which he or she recruits. It’s why I lay into headhunters so hard about how they treat the people they recruit. (It’s no surprise that HR departments are guilty of the same thing.) I wonder what would happen if LinkedIn and other online databases didn’t exist. Would headhunters be more respectful, because it would not be so easy (low cost of entry, as you put it) to find?

    One thing I disagree with: **The recruiting fee is an expense that directly impacts a successful candidate’s remuneration.**

    Not true. Headhunting budgets are almost always part of HR, not the hiring manager’s budget. Consider your logic: We could say that any company that has an HR department that does it’s own recruiting “directly impacts a successful candidate’s remuneration.” It’s all overhead. Of course, if HR departments knew what they were doing when recruiting, such costs would be a lot lower.

    In “How to Work with Headhunters” I expose how most headhunters operate. They are simply not worth working with. Job hunters will complain about how they are treated. But what matters is knowing how to work with headhunters, because they’re not going to explain it to you.

    As for **I don’t believe headhunters or recruiters should be gleaning résumés off LinkedIn or any other social networking site uninvited.** … I don’t know one social networking site that even pretends to dissuade headhunters from using them. That’s why there are so many “garbage queries” connected to such sites.

  22. Thanks for your feedback, Nick.

  23. Neva,

    You may not believe it, but you may have indirectly given me an interview. My first replies to you had a somewhat sceptical tone towards brandbulding, and although I had heard of LinkedIn, I thought of is as a kind of mixture of Facebook and a job board – doesn’t sound good? Well, I decided to give it a try, nothing to loose (although I live in Scandinavia, not the US), found some old study mates whose contacts were othe more distant study mates, and one of them worked at a company that I had forgotten, but which now is hiring. Did quite a bit of studying on the company, its portfolio etc, called them, discussed their business and my qualifications and am likely going there for an interview next week. Although this was an advertised position, I am quite sure was able to get so far because I took the time to my homework on the company.

    So, I hereby officially reconsider LinkedIn!

  24. Seeking jobs by networking alone may or may not work without a resume.
    “I would presume that this individual has had experience at the more senior levels of an organization.”
    I have to agree with Greg.The more a person has experience and a senior level the higher the number of people s/he has in his/her network.This may also be true about the people in marketing/sales etc. We all know that networking is the best way to land a job but without using a resume altogether,I’m not sure.
    All I know is,it is nearly impossible for a fresh graduate like myself to do that.Not only I have so few contacts but since I don’t have enough experience I can’t demonstrate my skills enough in other places.I think even if I land an interview through a contact the employer will still want to see my resume.