In the September 27, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter says he’s got personal introductions to two C-level execs at a company where he wants to work. He worries, is it even a good idea to use them?

The CEO of my former company just gave me two of the best contacts that one could ever hope for. It turns out that he worked at the company in which I’m now interested. He gave me the direct numbers of the CEO and CIO there, and his permission to use his name liberally.

The problem is that I wouldn’t be reporting directly to either of these gentlemen. I technically fall under the CIO’s umbrella, but far removed — I want a web developer job that they have available.

Another problem is that I don’t know anyone else in this company of about 500 people. So how do I take advantage of these contacts without having the whole thing blow up in my face? Should I even try contacting them if they’re not going to be the ones to whom I’d be reporting? This might be as bad as trying to contact HR. Please advise.

My Advice

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

The best thing you could do is ask your CEO buddy to call one of these people and recommend you. This is very powerful. If your old friend thinks so much of you, he should be willing to make the call.

Alternately, you could call the CIO, since that’s the area you’d be in, and say your old CEO suggested you call him. But: Do not ask for a job.

How to Say It

“Joe Smith, my former CEO at ABC Company, strongly suggested that I get in touch with you. He thinks I should consider a job at your company. I’m a web developer and I’m trying to get a deeper sense of what’s important to your company in its web presence. I don’t believe in interviewing just because there’s a job open — I like to make sure I understand a business first, and to make sure I can offer something useful and profitable. Do you have a few minutes to tell me a bit about your IT philosophy and your organization?”

Don’t ask for a job

The point is to focus on what a CIO is interested in: strategy and philosophy of IT. Then let him (or her) talk. At the end, state clearly that you’re interested in working for his company and ask if he feels you’re someone the company would be interested in.

How to Say It

“If you think it’s a good idea, I’d like to talk with someone on your web development team who can tell me more about the operation.”

If he tries to send you to HR, politely explain that you’re glad to talk with HR, but first you’d like to get more information about the web work being done there. Here’s how to say it:

(This part of my advice is omitted. It’s for newsletter subscribers only. Subscribe to the newsletter  to read all of next week’s Q&A! It’s free! Don’t miss another edition!)

Note that you’re not trying to apply for a job through the CEO or CIO. The goal is to use your old CEO’s personal contacts to help you develop the relevant contacts you need in this company — in the IT department — not just to apply for a job.

Use the contact to make better contacts

Don’t be afraid of a C-level contact, and don’t feel awkward making these calls. You’ve been introduced. Talk shop with these execs, not about applying for a specific job. Use your conversations to learn about them and to expand your circle of contacts. Then ask for referrals to others in the company who can talk shop with you, and you’ll be in the door before you know it.

It’s almost always best, when you’re talking to someone higher up than you, to ask for advice and guidance. Use those exact words:

How to Say It

“I’d like to ask you for a little advice and guidance about how someone with my skills could help your web development team be even more successful.”

Have you ever used an executive contact to get ahead? If you’re an exec, have you given this kind of help? This is a topic that doesn’t get much discussion because many people feel awkward about making that call to an exec. How do you get over the hump?

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  1. Nick,
    I got my first industrial job by asking one of the company executives who I caddied for if they hired summer workers to do chemistry work. I had just graduated form high school and was looking ahead for a summer job after I completed my freshman year.
    I simply said “do you hire college students for summer work in the plant or labs”. He said he would recommend me for a summer position, and a few days later, I received a call from the HR department. I filled out an application and started working the day after my last exam. I returned for four summers afterward.
    This was my first lesson in the power of going right to the top for a quick decesion.

  2. @John: It’s worth thinking about what actually happened. The exec didn’t hire you to work for him. He recommended you to HR. So he didn’t really make a hiring decision. But HR (and the manager who hired you) likely took to heart the exec’s recommendation. Why hire someone off the street, when the alternative is to hire someone a company exec knows and recommends?

    I doubt the exec knew anything about your chemistry skills. But he probably saw qualities in you that he believed would benefit his company. One thing I’m pretty sure of: If you were a lousy worker on the links, you’d never have gotten his recommendation.

    Now let’s tally this all up. You’re a good worker on the links, and that qualifies you to work for this guy’s company? Yep. Little more than that is ascertained in a job interview, via questions that are used to make an indirect assessment. One exec’s assessment, after he spent hours with you on the links, is worth as much as, or more than, a job interview.

    This raises a good question. Why does HR rely on job boards and resumes of unknown people, when a company’s managers can hire on the links? I’m serious.

    Nice work, on the links and on the job!

  3. The topic strikes a familiar note, familiar, not identical. When I started out as an agency IT recruiter, I, like legions of other newbies got an issue of a local business journal, which happened to feature the “top 25 IT companies” in town. It was a summary noting the CEO’s name. At this stage of my budding career, I’d rather be taken to the parking lot and shot than cold call, but I soldiered on, trying to call CEO’s & in the process, getting a nice education in cold calling, gate keepers, voice messaging, handling rejection etc.(heck if you’re going to get rejected, get rejected by the CEO, not the receptionist) But to the point’ one CEO not only answered the call but was very hospitable and gave me a fair amount of his time. Now as a recruiter, I wasn’t looking for a “job” but business, but I’m sure he would have been as gracious to a job hunter as well. He referred me to people/hiring managers in his organization by name. He didn’t volunteer to do my work for me, which was the very best I could want. This was golden, as I remained in control and called those people, noting that Mr CEO referred me to them, offering plenty of traction to have a meaningful discussion. If he told me he’d “mention me” to others, likely he would have, but to the others it clearly would have been casual and not likely to go further.
    So in sum what I learned was much to Nick’s advice.
    1) Never assume. Don’t self edit and assume a C-Level person won’t talk with you. They are people too, and one size does not fit all. One gracious C-Level contact is golden.
    2) Don’t ask for a job, or a deal. As Nick said, ask for advice, their insights about their company, to position you to make an informed proposal about how & where you can add value.
    3) You want org structure, other C-Level contacts, hiring managers, and yes the HR Mgr’s name. That’s golden, as you can control the flow and can follow those threads with high probability of engagement.
    4) You don’t want him/her to offer to receive your resume. That’s nice, and better than nothing, but if that’s all you get, you’re no longer going to be driving the bus, nor have a clue as to what’s happening. He/she may pass that resume along without you knowing how you were positioned. There is a possibility that since it was rec’d from the CEO someone may read it and/or engage with you, but there’s a good chance it will be what I call the “due-diligence” engagement. An obligatory CYA connection so they can tell the CEO they followed up. But etc etc. you weren’t don’t fit. This route can present you with a situation where the CEO contact can work against you. Because if they do the obligatory thing for whatever reason, you’re kind of had, a decision was made without you having a chance to present your value.
    5) Follow up. You’ve got a great contact, keep it alive. If possible, offer something back, business leads/potential customers/good business contacts is a nice gesture. For instance, in my real life example, one of the contacts he gave me was super at ignoring me. After some time I followed up with the CEO with an email noting I wasn’t ignoring his advise, but just haven’t been able to connect. So he gave me another name. I connected.

  4. Nick

    Your question is very fair.

    The answer in my mind – it’s perceived as “easy” or “normal” and networking is perceived as “hard” and “time consuming.”

    The cynical side of me wonders why most job boards/agencies/head hunters/recruiters are sucessful. It seems to me that they charge large amounts of cash for a service that a temporary clerical worker could do – not to put down clerical workers – but to me it seems like most of “recruiting” is just trolling databases, which in some cases, has stale data. And most “recruiting” happens between from 9-5 – fine if you’re unemployed/working part time, but sucks for those of us employed. And to top it off, the majority of jobs are filled by reference and people you may already know… So why aren’t recruiters broke yet?

  5. Don – Think your advice is wise. You simply don’t want your business card/resume/pitch to go into the dreaded black hole. It’s the best bet to get names and numbers of actual people

  6. @Dave: You’ve noticed that most “recruiters” do little more than clerical work. They get into the business because that’s all they see — the clerical and “automated” part of the business. It seems easy.

    What you don’t see is all the “recruiters” who go out of business every day. The churn is phenomenal. I recently received an e-mail query from a guy and his wife who run a small business. He says their clients often ask them for leads on candidates. That’s nice. So he asks how he and his wife can start a recruiting business on the side, in their spare time.

    That’s “where they come from” and it’s why they go out of business far more often than you notice. The number of legit, seasoned, successful search firms is small. These are the folks who actually work at the biz 24X7. Not because it’s a grind, but because putting people together is something you do all the time in your head. Software designers tell me they think about programs they’re designing all the time, because it’s a very mental process. Headhunting is the same. If you are deep into the business, your mind is busy putting pieces together all the time. The clerical end is a very small part of it — but it’s not the part that gives you an edge.

    That’s a longshot from outplacement and most of the “recruiting” going on.

  7. As usual, Nick, terrific advice.

  8. Although it’s not the author’s focus, anyone who’s trying to fathom the difference between a dedicated and talented headhunter and other varities in the recruiting trade (agencies, recruiters, clerical processors) should read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” the overall theme is how little things tip the scales toward success. Overall it’s an interesting read.
    But relative to this topic, Gladwell discusses 3 kinds of people…connectors (people who love to connect people to people), mavens (intellectully curious people who accumulate knowledge) and salespeople (people who love to sell). He doesn’t know it, but put them together and you have what makes a headhunter, a headhunter.
    Headhunters are good networkers, they have healthy networks and insights on who would benefit from knowing who..Headhunters accumulate knowledge, about business, particular clients present and potential, particular candidates present and potential, technologies. Headhunters are great sales people. Put this all together and you have someone who can connect dots, see value, obvious and hidden, see the big picture, think outside the box and have the sales capability to put all that together and sell the mutual benefit to the client and candidate. And as Nick pointed out, their mind works on this 24X7 and they love what they do.
    The tipping point in this case is that right headhunter who puts the last critical piece of someone’s jigsaw puzzle in place.

  9. Your buddy the CEO isn’t doing you any good giving you the names and contacts for his friends at the other company. He’s basically telling you, “I don’t want to be bothered helping you so I’m just going to give you the info and hope that you either do something or go away.” I hate to tell you, but it sounds like your friend is playing a bit of dodge ball with you.

    First of all, I don’t know ANY C-level executive or any-level executive or manager that would appreciate someone giving out their contact information without asking permission. The “permission to use his name” is a bunch of B.S. He should step up and make the introduction himself. No one likes to get caught off guard with a blind, unsolicited request. He should, at the very least, let the people know that they should expect a call from you if he’s not going to ask their permission to give out their contact info. Chances are, if they are at that level, they aren’t checking their emails themselves and something from someone the don’t know is not going to get their attention and their assistants are going to do anything with it either–no matter who it is that gave you permission to use their name.

    Find another way or man up and go back to your friend and ask the he make the introduction if he’s serious about recommending you.

  10. @Jim: Thanks for saying it. I said it in the first sentence of my reply in this Q&A. The CEO friend should call his CEO and CIO buddies and make a personal recommendation.

  11. Gentlemen you’re assuming a lot. Yes it would be great if CEO #1 called CEO #2 personally and said Hey! you’ve got to meet this guy!!! It simply may not have occurred to him. And he may will have had the referee suggested it.
    Further. if we’re making assumptions, I think it’s safe to assume that CEO#1 well understands you don’t throw the names of your contacts around particularly other CEO’s willy nilly. Have you considered that when he told the guy he could use his name, that it was a well understood code between these CEO’s that mean’s “Hey you’ve got to meet this guy!” Why else would he offer to let him use his name? There is more than one way between friends to send a signal.
    And perhaps he knows CEO#2 wants to see people doing their own heavy lifting.
    Anyway even if it’s not the best, it’s still a very good contact that you can do a lot with.
    I didn’t read a “go way & don’t bother me” negative in it.

  12. As long as the IT professional asks for advice and guidance, and contacts in IT, and does not put the CIO or CEO on the spot for a job, he should be fine in contacting these higher ups. I’ve done it successfully. No guts, no glory!

  13. Nick, more terrific advice.

    I thought the same thing–if the guy was so good, the CEO could have called the CIO and smoothed the way, especially since most CEOs and CIOs have someone screening their calls and emails for them, so if the sec’y isn’t informed that this is a legit. call, it doesn’t get through.

  14. @marybeth: I didn’t belabor the point in the newsletter because I wanted to deal with what was on the table: The old CEO made the introduction and gave permission to use his name. It’s something, but it frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense to offer that without picking up the phone. But who am I to criticize? It’s something.

    As Erika points out, just that much can pay off. It’s up to the job hunter.

    But I’d still like to chat with that CEO and ask him why he didn’t pickp up the phone, just out of curiosity. But he’s not me and he’s got his own style.

  15. @Nick: Yes, I understand. But I think we were all wondering the same thing (re why the CEO didn’t pick up the phone), but like you said, it’s something, better than nothing and up to the job hunter to pick it up and run with it.

    @Don Harkness: I haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, but have read his “Outliers”, which discusses the same thing–how artibrary, little advantages over the course of time add up to big advantages down the road. I’ll have to add “The Tipping Point” to my reading list.

    I think that in this country there is a myth that anyone can be successful AND that successful people do it on their own. The truth is that successful people often get a lot of help along the way, some of it through luck (being born at the right time, to the right family or social class) that gives them advantages others do not have, some of it through hard work (which also means being given the OPPORTUNITY to try to succeed).

  16. Ooops–typo–I meant “arbitrary”!