This is a special posting connected to the presentation:

  • Ask The Headhunter / How to Work with Headhunters, and without them
    Cornell University Johnson School of Management
    March 5, 2011, in Palisades, NY

(I posted a preview of the topic here: Good Headhunters: They search for living resumes.)

I’ll add more content here after the event — but the main purpose is to answer questions we didn’t have time for, and to carry on the discussion.

Please feel free to post your questions and comments below — I’ll do my best to respond to them all. Thank you for joining me, and special thanks to Cornell’s Johnson School for the wonderful hospitality!

Quick access to resources I referred to:

How to Work with Headhunters

How Can I Change Careers?

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less by Milo Frank

Six Degrees: The science of a connected age by Duncan Watts


  1. Hi Nick,

    Great Presentation, Thank you! How can you change industries and still command the same or better salary of your previous industry without a headhunter?


  2. Hi Nick,
    your presentation certainly offered a new perspective on how to approach the whole process of finding and approaching an interview.
    To some extent I find it fashinating and daunting not to reveal previous compensation, but I ask myself: is the fact that companies check your previous wage a total urban lengend or it happens ?
    Second: I was wondering what you think would be the most effective career services an EMBA could offer. What is your opinion ?


  3. @GM: Glad you enjoyed the presentation – thanks for all the great questions afterwards.

    Changing careers is different from moving from a job to a similar job. The learning curve is different, and there is usually a cost associated with it. I think there’s a good way to look at it. Think in terms of value, rather than credentials and experience. The new employer isn’t paying for your 15 years of management experience or for your degrees. The employer is paying for an expected return.

    In a career change situation, the employer takes a greater risk, especially if you are new to a product area or industry. The question is, how much value can you bring to the equation? How can you characterize (or quantify) that? How can you demonstrate it, or prove it?

    Job hunters usually expect that it’s up to the employer to figure this out, and to make the judgment. As I point out in this week’s edition of the ATH Newsletter (excerpted here on the blog:, managers usually suck at figuring out a candidate’s value. They’re just not good at guessing what you’ll bring to the bottom line. So they discount a career changer significantly.

    The best approach, I think, as we discussed during the presentation, is to prepare a business plan for the job. Explain it to the employer. Demonstrate your logic – and give the employer all he or she needs to know to make a sound judgment. In other words, it’s up to you to make your case. Just like you do when you do any business deal.

    In most case, a career change is going to cost you some money. But think of it as in investment. Work out the expected ROI, and a plan to get there, and you’ll be in better shape than if you expect someone else to figure it out for you.

    Much more on this in “How Can I Change Careers,” which is not just for career changers, but for anyone who wants to stand out against the competition. See the book link in the right-hand information bar on this page.

  4. @Anthonio (sorry to those who are Greek-challenged): Some companies check your previous salary, some don’t. Some of your previous employers will provide that info, some won’t. That’s why you should never lie about salary history. Better to politely but firmly not disclose it at all, and explain that you’d like to be judged for what you can do, not on how your last employer paid you.

    This has always been one of the hottest topics on the blog. Please see these columns for more about disclosing salary:

    If you’re asking about starting a career services business, I’m not sure what to tell you. The world is awash with people selling “career services” who have never had any skin in that game. Here’s a way to look at it: Would you be willing to provide a service for which you got paid only if your client succeeded in landing a good job? To me, that’s the essence of a legit career service, and it’s called headhunting ;-)

    I’ve been asked many times to provide coaching and career counseling services, as well as resume-writing services. With all due respect to the good coaches and resume writers out there, I won’t do it, because I’m just not sure how to charge for it legimitately. The objective is to get a job. No one can guarantee that. In other words, you can’t buy it.

    On the other hand, we all go to doctors for medical help, but they can’t guarantee a cure. So maybe I just have a problem with the overall reputation the career industy has created for itself, and I don’t like what I see overall.

    I’ve been experimenting with this, trying to figure it out. I offer very limited Q&A on a private basis, usually just half an hour, and one hour max. My belief is, if I can’t share something useful in that much time, then I can’t help you and you shouldn’t be paying for hand-holding.

    Guess I haven’t figured it out yet!

  5. Hi Nick,
    Excellent talk! Thank you for your insights and words of wisdom. My question is along the same lines as Antonio’s, and I have checked out the three blog entries you noted in your response. However, my question still remains: can you give an example of how one might “politely but firmly” decline to give salary history, particularly when pressed more than once? It seems that doing so without ending the conversation would be particularly challenging.

    Thanks again!

  6. @Rich: Check your current (or past) employer’s employee handbook or policy manual. Odds are good that certain company information is defined as “company confidential,” or as a competitive secret. If your salary is in this category, then you may not disclose it. The other employer will have to back off.

    The other approach is to just say, While I’d be glad to discuss what I’m worth to your business, I don’t think it’s reasonable to tie my value to the judgment of a company I’m leaving (or have left).

    A bit more pointedly: I’d be glad to disclose my salary history, if you’ll disclose the salaries of the last two people who held this position, and of others in the department I’d be working with, including the boss.

    I don’t say this sarcastically. There is no logical or practical reason why your salary history is open for inspection, while that of others isn’t. What’s the big secret?

    This topic takes a lot of thinking about, because decades of secrecy have been laid on it. In the end, my objection is not to disclosing salary, but to the fact that companies will limit a job offer by using the candidate’s salary history.

    Far better to discuss what the company’s budget for the job is, and what your desired salary is. Then to work together, candidly, to figure out how much your work would be worth to the company in question.

  7. When interviewing for my new job, I was asked what I make today. I replied that as I expected more in the new job than in the old (because going from the public to the private sector) I would not disclose it, but I was happy to discuss my value to them and my expected salary range. I was offered the top of my salary range.

  8. Nick, Karsten: Thanks so much! This is all very timely, empowering, and actionable information.

  9. There’s another excellent, related discussion going on here:

    About what goes into your resume that makes a difference.

  10. Yes, excellent discussion. Also priceless is the “what you paid for your last meal” comment on this discussion…

  11. Nick, I am putting your words of wisdom to the test: A client of ours got wind that I might be on the market and called to offer me a position. Having worked with them for a while, I have an understanding of their business. So I put a ppt together that said their strategy for the business unit they wanted me to join is fundamentally flawed, and as a result the position that they’re looking to hire me for is destined for failure (I know it’s why the last guy left!), and then I made recommendations as to how I would approach fixing the over-arching flaws. I respectfully told them I didn’t want the job unless they made it my responsibility to make the fixes, or they otherwise committed to fixing things first. I’m not gonna lie: I felt certifiably insane as I was hitting the ‘send’ button!

  12. @Rich: The risk in defining the “flaws” is that as an outsider you don’t know the inside details. Diplomacy counts for a lot. Since these people came after you, perhaps they will swallow hard and listen. (Never push that button while you’re feeling insane… sleep on it! Sometimes assertiveness turns out to be aggression… make sure you can recognize the difference.)

    Let us know how it turns out.

  13. Hi Nick,
    Your advice–as usual–is sound and well taken. I did approach the situation with much more care and diplomacy than what I displayed in my post here (in the interest of brevity). I could see light bulbs going on over their heads as I walked them through my notes. The hiring manager more or less offered me the position on the spot and indicated a salary range that is roughly 40-50% more than I make now… But she was required to divert me through HR. The HR director and I chatted today, and he now believes that I definitely belong at a higher level position than the one the hiring manager wanted me for. He will touch base with me again next week.

    Your two biggest lessons (at least for me) at work in the flesh: 1) Never divulge my current salary, and 2) Talk about what I will do, not what I’ve done. They oughta make you a Cornell professor!