In the September 17, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader is looking for the good headhunter in hiding.


How do you find a live, breathing, human and credible headhunter? Internationally? Nationally? Regionally? By State? The top “brands” of executive recruiters are as much of an abyss as job boards. Submit a resume, try to contact them directly — best of luck. Where are the “old school” professional headhunters that are proactive and follow up?

Nick’s Reply


I’m afraid you’re dreaming of the good old days in your imagination, my friend. Good headhunters don’t do what you are looking for — and never have. They don’t find jobs for people. They don’t really want unsolicited resumes. They’re busy working on specific assignments to fill specific jobs. If you’re a good candidate for such an assignment, they will find you. That’s what they get paid for.

Headhunter =

Headhunter=“Head” + “hunter.” They hunt. They don’t gather resumes or candidates that come to them. That’s the good headhunters. You may be confusing them with the rest of people that call themselves headhunters. (See How to Judge A Headhunter.) The reason it might seem harder to find good headhunters today is that the explosion of online recruiting has spawned innumerable spammers calling themselves headhunters.

Like Human Resources (HR) people, 95% of today’s so-called “headhunters” aren’t worth spit. They’re keyword pushers dialing for dollars. They spam e-mail lists with “job opportunities,” pitching jobs to people they know nothing about. That’s not “searching” for the right candidates. That’s dumpster diving, and — as you suggest — it’s usually not done by humans anyway, but by spambots and algorithms. (See Suzanne Lucas’s excellent Inc. article, When a Headhunter Makes His Profession Look Bad.)

How to find a headhunter

The best way to find a good headhunter is to call the president, CEO, or manager you’d like to work for and ask what headhunter they use to fill key jobs. It’s the best way to get a credible referral — but even then, it’s no guarantee the headhunter will respond. I discuss this in depth in How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you. This PDF book will tell you loads more about how to work with headhunters, how to vet them in detail – and how to avoid the charlatans.

The few good headhunters out there are worth their weight in gold. But one thing: The odds a headhunter will place you are tiny. Find your own job. That’s what the rest of this website is about.

The reader responds

I’m the President & CEO. Calling the manager is somewhat difficult.

Nick’s Reply

You didn’t say initially that you are a CEO or President. The odds are much higher that a headhunter would handle the search for such a role. But the idea is the same.

Where a headhunter looks for candidates

Headhunters are not likely to find you in their e-mail. That’s not where they look for good candidates, because there’s no more credibility in random incoming resumes than there is in the random e-mail solicitations people receive from spammers.

A good headhunter wants high-value referrals from business people he or she knows and trusts — the headhunter goes to them, not to the e-mail box. At your level, the searches they conduct are usually done quietly and confidentially. If you’re a good candidate, they will find you.

The board of directors

The suggestion I offered about how to find a good headhunter is still the same, but a C-suite executive would talk to members of boards of directors. This is actually more productive at your level, because board members often serve on multiple boards and have more and better connections — not to mention insights about opportunities. Ask them what headhunters they like when they need to fill a C-suite job. Their headhunter isn’t likely to help you directly, but might be a good conduit to a headhunter that’s working on a specific, relevant position.

What I’m really saying is that a good headhunter will find your name on the lips of other respected executives in your industry — because that’s who they’ll ask for candidate referrals. It’s better to invest your time being a respected and known member of your professional community than to chase headhunters. (See Shared Experiences: The key to good networking.)

How many good, credible headhunters do you know? Did you find them, or did they find you? How? What advice would you give to this CEO?

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  1. Hi Nick,
    Funny you should ask.
    I was “contacted” early last week by a person whose “firm” was trying to fill 2 positions here in the Northeast. It was on LinkedIn. I am never on that site. I feel it is set up for salesmen looking for leads. I do check in there once or twice every 6 months and this is how I saw the recruiter’s request.
    Anyway, I responded that he contact me through email. Still waiting……….. Not expecting an answer.
    Anyway, I believe there are some executive placement firms in existence. Do you think an inquiry with a reputable one is a waste of time?

    • @Tony: No, I don’t think a query to a reputable search firm would be a waste of time, but I think investing the time to “triangulate” and get introduced is better. See link below. If headhunters took the time to respond to every unsolicited query, they’d never have time for a chocolate chip cookie. But they do tend to respond to calls from people referred by their clients!

      Every time I do one of my Talk to Nick consultations and discuss how to get such intros, clients are stunned not because it’s so smart to do that, but at the fact that somebody had to explain “the obvious” to them.

      It works!

  2. There are people out there who do, to some extent, what you are asking for. I work at a State/Federally-funded organization that has the mission of workforce development. The staff has career advisors to help make you “job ready” if you aren’t already and business liaisons that will help connect you with the employers they work with if you have your act together. This is a free service that is paid for (in part) out of your tax dollars based on the federal law “Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act” or WIOA.

    The catch is, although each state has a collection of these, they may have different service delivery models so you would need to feel them out and see if they can help in the way that you need. In all cases, don’t expect to have to do any less work to achieve your employment goal.

    Nationally, my organization is referred to as an “American Job Center” but has a different name depending on the state that houses it. For example, in Michigan we call it ‘Michigan Works.” In Illinois it is called a “Illinois WorkNet Center.” This link will help you find the one closest to you:

    Happy hunting.

    • I’ve only recently learned about this service (I’m in Illinois and its version in my area is WorkNet Dupage). Here, you get set up with a “WIOA-approved” training program to be trained for jobs (supposedly) where you’d earn at least 80% of your salary when you were laid off. You have to “prove” that you’d get jobs you’ve shown them IF ONLY you had this other training. I’m getting my application approved and I’ve come up with a training vendor that is “WIOA-approved”.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “service delivery” here. Have I already hinted at it above? Also, I’m interpreting that the work you refer to means following and completing the training program you’ve set out to complete (via their “IEP”)…is that what you meant?

      I wasn’t sure about them connecting us with potential employers, but I’d consider that a bonus.

      • You touched on what I meant by different service delivery methods. The process you described is not the process that my employer uses but there are similarities.

        For example, we don’t get a lot of funding for training so our emphasis is on community connections, appropriate job search techniques, and finding employers that will train you on their own dollar or do not require an additional credential. Training is one of the tools available but is not THE tool. That’s part of why I have been following Nick’s blog for so many years; back when I was a case manager, I was researching best practices to help my clients get the job they are looking for and got hooked on this resource.

        There is training, of course, and they do have to be WIOA-approved training facilities with WIOA-approved credentials but the criteria is dependent on the characteristics of your region to some extent.

        The work I am referring to is the stuff that Nick advocates. Researching viable employers, understanding what your strengths so you can advocate for your own worth, cultivating your network, etc. Organizations like mine can teach you how to do those things and maybe make connections more easily but it is still ultimately up to you to do what your are advised to do. We are not staffing agencies that “place” clients. That said, maybe some of them do but I wouldn’t count on it.

    • @Al: Thanks for sharing that. There are many such programs around the U.S., some better than others. They’re worth looking into, but vet them as you would any job-help program. And as you note, they don’t “do the work for you!”

      In NJ, I do pro bono workshops for two non-profit, “user-run” career groups. In fact, I’m doing one tonight, 9/17, — the Career Forum at the Somerset YMCA (Mt. Airy Rd. location) in New Jersey. If anyone’s nearby and interested, please join us! No registration required. You’ll find it online.

      The other group is NJ PSG (, which used to be state-funded, but our former governor cut the funding because the focus of the group is on white-collar folks. So the members took it over and run it themselves. I’m doing a workshop at their Somerville, NJ location on Sept. 23 (it’s in a Methodist church).

  3. There are “old fashioned” headhunters seeking candidates for clients. Not many, It is the gatekeepers in the companies that can be a problem they have to work with. There was a position that my head hunter tried placing me with. On paper it was a perfect match, The interview went well, with the co-workers, I got their personal phone numbers to follow up with. Triangulating between the HH and the workers, it seems the CEO was the road block. While I could understand CEO placing one of his own cronies but he even couldn’t pull that off. The position was technically “open” but never filled. The CEO complain about there being no qualified candidates out there. It is a case of the fish rots at the head first.

    • @Eddie: Some CEOs can’t fill jobs but don’t want to pay headhunters to fill them, either.

  4. I’ve had quite a few clients over the years who were contacted by outside recruiters to interview for positions and got hired. A good recruiter is a gold mine because they often have access to positions that are not posted anywhere. But as I warn my clients, you are either a good fit for the position in which case the recruiter will work with you, or you’re not, in which case they will not work with you or even call you back.

    When they ask how to find a good recruiter, I tell them to use the method they use to find a good plumber or car mechanic, ask the people in your network.

  5. I am working on founding my own business – part time and on the side while working full-time. My first task is market research. This is more than a google search. I am going to the library a lot these days, talking to reference librarians and learning what resources they have available – for free.

    If you want to get hired, try your local library if you have no contacts, or even if you do. They will help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

    • @Kevin: Reference librarians are overlooked by people who think everything is on Google. It may all be on Google (it’s not), but I’ll take a reference librarian over that little search box any day! Please see:

      I love reference librarians! Thanks for giving them a plug, Kevin. Many jurisdictions are looking at cutting public library funding. That’s just STOOPID.

  6. On the contrary… a “headhunter”, I welcome good resumes and will skill market them to companies I find with openings……discuss it with the candidate and try and match them up. It’s easier to have a stellar candidate to skill to company openings than trying to locate one for a requisition. If you’re an Engineer (not software or IT), send me your resume to jfortner at Dogwood dot net

  7. Nice article! I think largely truthful. Spam is a pox on our Society; yet, not all email is spam. I think a lot of the accusations of ‘spamming’ came from ignorant people who thought that they were candidates for some reason, but couldn’t get the jobs they wanted. In other words, they probably to need the article above to understand more what the role of a headhunter actually is. I once analyzed a site listing suspected “spammers” compiled by some programmers, and found that they considered receiving one email from a recruiter every 9 months was “spam”. Also, if you want to put all your money into “LinkedIn”, it might not be very productive, even if it is a good alternative to email.

  8. Line 3: “they probably need to read the article above” …. the Preview button did not work when I tried it.

    • @Nicholas: I just tested the Preview button (below the text entry box for comments). Seems to work just fine. Copy and save any text you typed so you don’t lose it, then refresh your browser. Try again. Might fix the problem.

  9. A good example of this (shoddy recruiters)is a well-known Chicago area recruiting firm that is presently advertising on LinkedIn for somebody to join their team as a recruiter. CS Recruiting bills itself as specialists in Supply Chain and Logistics (“We are Supply Chain recruiters at our core”). The ad calls for a “game-changer” with “strong recruiting experience–at least one year…” (Really? One year is strong experience?) Nowhere in the ad does it call for candidates to have any actual experience in logistics, transportation, or supply chain.

    Looking at the profiles of their “recruiters,” it’s hard to find any of them who have any logistics experience. A couple of them do, but it was very marginal experience–one to two years in non-operational roles that really didn’t count for anything.

    The ad also says, “We aren’t your average recruiting agency, don’t be afraid to abandon old recruiting stereotypes.” Gee, and just what are those? Having actual experience in the field for which you are recruiting, perhaps? Or if you don’t have that experience, you’ve at least immersed yourself in the field over the course of years and have enough armchair knowledge to talk turkey with the hiring manager and candidates.

    They also boast under “other perks” that “We are proud of our youthful culture.” I wonder what that’s a codeword for. No doubt their clients hold similar biases. A number of years ago, I contacted this firm about a job posting for which I was very well qualified. The recruiterette was clearly totally clueless. Obviously, I haven’t bothered with them since (but their jobs unfortunately keep popping up in my LinkedIn feed).