The truth about headhunters

In the October 11, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter who’s tired of high-pressure headhunters asks how to recognize the good ones:

The sales pitches I get from cold-calling headhunters are intense. They’re in a hurry, they avoid sharing details I need and they are high-pressure. How do I know when I’m talking to a good headhunter?

My Advice

This week’s Q&A is an excerpt from my PDF book, How to Work with Headhunters… and how to make them work for you. The book is 130 pages, packed with 62 myth-busting answers for fearless job hunters. I hope you enjoy this sample!

If the caller is a fast-talking salesman, hang up. It’s that simple.

Judging a headhunter and qualifying a headhunter are two different things. You can judge a headhunter’s character whether you decide to work with him or not. This kind of judgment is largely based on observation. If you’re going to actually work with a headhunter, first you must qualify him — and that means you’ve got to test him before you put yourself in his hands. Let’s discuss judging headhunters. (For a thorough discussion of how to qualify a headhunter, please check pages 28-33 of the book.)

  1. If the caller sounds like an earnest business person politely asking for your help with an assignment, you should keep talking.
  2. The best headhunters reveal high standards of conduct and reveal the same qualities they look for in candidates.
  3. They are easy to work with because they are straightforward. They speak clearly and directly. They are not secretive or cagey.
  4. They don’t waste time playing games or putting on airs. They make you feel special, rather than imply they are.
  5. They are not in a hurry. They take time to talk. They pay attention. They answer your questions.
  6. They are knowledgeable about their business, their client, the job they’re trying to fill and about you.
  7. A good headhunter doesn’t call anyone blindly. He already knows quite a bit about your background, or he wouldn’t call you.
  8. A good headhunter reveals integrity by being honest and trustworthy. He will do what he says — including returning your calls.
  9. He is conscientious. You’ll see this in the questions he asks. Rather than rely on your resume, the headhunter will learn about you by talking with you extensively.

If you’re a possible candidate for the headhunter’s client, you’ll get an interview in short order. If you’re not a fit, he won’t lead you on. He will move on. You may feel you’ve been dropped, but a busy headhunter won’t spend more time with you than his assignment warrants. He’s not being rude; he’s doing his job.

Try this test.

When you’re done talking to a headhunter who sought you out, ask yourself, Could this headhunter write an adequate resume about me based strictly on our phone call?

I sometimes write a candidate’s resume just like that, after a phone call, and I provide it as a summary to my client. It’s a good test of my own grasp of a candidate’s credentials and value. If a recruiter’s call is so cursory that you don’t think he could write your resume from it, that reveals an unskilled headhunter or an inadequate recruiting call. A headhunter who calls to merely request your resume is no better than a job posting on the Internet.

When you meet a good headhunter, you’ll know it from the characteristics listed above, and you’ll recognize him as someone with whom you want to cultivate a long-term relationship. (Needless to say, the headhunter could be female.)


(For more answers about headhunters, check the Table of Contents. 30 sub-sections of the book include 62 Q&As that teach you how to conduct your job search with and without headhunters… plus How to Say It examples and Insider’s Edge tips.)


How do you judge headhunters? What tips you off to a good one, and how do you avoid the lousy ones? Have questions about how headhunters behave? Post them and we’ll discuss.

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Don’t be afraid of a C-level contact

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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3 Ways to Be a Smarter Job Candidate

In the September 20, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wonders how to get smarter, negotiate better, and avoid getting taken advantage of:

I had what may be a “Eureka moment.” I’ve been accused of lacking the “cojones” to handle interviewing and the job market, and I think it’s true. I started my career when companies treated people with respect. Today, employers deliberately set things up so that the job candidate is at a huge disadvantage. The rules have changed so that employers can really take advantage of the diligent, loyal folks who have the 1950’s work ethic.

They make an offer and demand you respond within 24 hours, or it is rescinded. They make statements in interviews that they back out of as soon as you take the job. Don’t assume that they will send you a health insurance card, or that the work week is 40 hours, or that there’s even time to eat lunch. One place I worked made everyone buy their own pens and office supplies. You almost need a bulldog lawyer to negotiate everything for you.

People have told me I have a “golden retriever” personality—too eager to please and to be a good employee. I need to be more skeptical, and I need to be a much tougher negotiator. It is hard when you really need a job, but I’ve learned the hard way not to be so trusting. It may be better to risk ticking off an employer, or losing out on a job, than to take the job and find that someone took advantage of your good nature. How can I get smarter? How can I be a better negotiator? Can you help me out?

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 way to avoid being taken advantage of is to set your standards and expectations high. Then judge others accordingly.

One way to approach this is to politely make the employer jump a few hoops, too. The lousy ones will refuse, and that saves you time. I doubt it will cost you any good opportunities. My advice: Quickly find out what kind of people you’re dealing with. If there’s a problem, move on. Here are some suggestions.

First

Make a list of what you think is reasonable behavior from an employer, so you’ll be more aware of what to look for. If an employer doesn’t measure up, call them on it. Give them a chance to try again. Their reaction will tell a lot by itself. Here’s an example.

How to Say It
“Thanks for the offer. I’m very pleased about it, but I cannot make a decision in 24 hours. I’ll tell you why. I want to stay with the company I join for the long haul, so I want to make sure it’s the right match. Before I accept, I’d like to spend a little time with people I’d be working with, and with people in related departments. Can we schedule some brief meetings with managers and employees in [manufacturing, finance, whatever] asap? Then I can assure you of a quick answer to your offer. I appreciate your consideration. It will help us both to make a wise decision.”

Massage the wording to suit your style. It’s a reasonable request, and I think it will quickly reveal which companies are good and which are lousy.

Second

Another way to be more assertive (and to protect yourself): Ask for the full employee manual and benefits package at your first interview, or before it. Hey, they have all your info in your resume and application, right? You want their info. If they won’t give you copies after your first interview, thank them and walk away. Don’t waste your time.

Third

(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!)

There are good companies out there. You have to weed out the rest, and these are some ways to do it. Of course, you must be polite, reasonable and very professional. Never be pushy, demanding, or rude or presumptuous. Wear a big smile, grow some cojones, and be firm. Sure, this will cost you what people loosely refer to as “opportunities”—but they are really nothing at all.

Know what your standards are. Go in with a positive attitude. Stand firm the first time they push you where you don’t want to go.

Some employers demonstrate high standards. Others smile a lot and bite you where it hurts. Learn to tell one from the other by testing them. Today’s Q&A offers 3 suggestions. How do you test a company before you accept a job offer? Have you been bitten?

How can job candidates be smarter and negotiate better? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.


The Ask The Headhunter Newsletter is 9 years old today! That’s worth a special deal!

To celebrate, I’m offering an extra $5 off the 2-Book Bundle! Discount code: 9YEARS. This discount code is good only until Friday, September 23, and only on the 2-Book Bundle! Click here to order, and type 9YEARS in the discount code box when ordering!

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Bankrupt & Unemployed: How to Say It

In the last post, Bankrupt & Unemployed: Will a background check doom me?, we discussed how a reader who is applying for a job (and who is qualified) might overcome obstacles that come up when the employer does a background check. Problems like bankruptcy triggered by long-term unemployment — and a year-old DUI (driving while intoxicated) violation.

Knowing what to do is one thing. Facing the employer and knowing what to say — and being able to say it — is something else. In this edition, let’s discuss How to Say It.

There are two keys to convincing an employer to take a chance on you:

  1. Personal recommendations from credible people who know your character and your work ethic.
  2. A clear commitment — which the employer will never ask for, but which you must offer in order to get a job offer. To find out what that commitment should be, please watch the video.

What would you say to a hiring manager to get past such obstacles? And if you’re a manager, what would a candidate need to say and do to convince you to give him or her a chance?
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Bankrupt & Unemployed: Will a background check doom me?

In the September 13, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks:

I have a challenge that I’m not sure I can overcome very easily in this job environment. I was forced to file bankruptcy due to long-term unemployment. I also received a DUI (“driving under the influence”) about a year ago. I’m afraid that, despite my qualifications, prospective employers may reject me after they do a background check. Any suggestions on how I can overcome this challenge?

My reply:

Here’s the video version of my advice, and below it is the printed version. (I don’t do videos from a script, so this is not a literal transcript.)

1. Avoid job hunting tools that can’t defend you.

Your resume cannot defend you when a manager sees a problem and wonders how it would affect his business. Nor can an online application form. Only someone who knows you can defend you and override objections by emphasizing how you’ll deliver benefits to an employer.

So the answer is clear: Invest most of your time getting someone who is credible and who respects you to contact the employer and recommend you. It’s not easy. But it’s the best tactic. A reference doesn’t have to be your former boss. It might be another manager from your old company who knows your work ethic, or even a customer or consultant. But it must be someone who will make the call and stick their neck out for you. (I know it might be painful to make such a request. But you’re in a painful situation, and like I said, you have to have the stomach for this.)

2. Help the employer focus on what matters most.

The employer is right to be worried. Any red flags pose a risk to his business. So it’s up to you to help the employer stop worrying. Be honest and candid about your bankruptcy and your DUI. But don’t dwell on them. Quickly focus the employer on your clear commitment to help him make his operation more successful. In other words, distract him from your problems in a way that engages him in what matters: his success. Show him that you’re worth taking a chance on.

(This is where some of my advice is omitted. To get the whole story next week, subscribe to the newsletter. It’s free! Don’t miss another edition!)… 

Just remember: The manager who hires you deserves this kind of effort from you, because he needs convincing. He won’t ask you to do it. You must volunteer.

The economy sucks, and losing a job opportunity because you’ve got problems in your personal or work history sucks even more. What if you’re qualified and have a solid work ethic? Should an employer reject you because you were forced to file bankruptcy due to unemployment? How about a DUI violation? Should it hamper getting hired? How would you handle this?

UPDATE: In part 2 of this pair of posts, learn How to Say It — and about the almost-magic commitment you can make that can move a manager from “No way!” to “I’m willing to take a chance on you!” Please check Bankrupt & Unemployed: How to Say It.

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Military transition & discipline

My office is nice and cozy. I have a big cherry-wood desk and a great chair. Views of woods and grass through lots of big windows. It’s a peaceful habitat.  No one bothers me. I know I’m safe, and in a few hours I’m gonna see my wife and kids. So now I’m going to try and show my gratitude to one guy who foregoes everything I just described, every day and every hour, to ensure that I can enjoy what I have all day long, every day. That, and my thanks, won’t make him one bit safer where he is, but I hope maybe it’ll help him through his military transition into a good job when he returns home.

military transitionQuestion

Nick,

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog in my free time over the past week. I’m a Captain in the US Army, currently stationed in Iraq and making the transition to civilian life in the next 6 months. I was wondering if you had any tips for someone in this unique situation that could smooth the transition from a mid-level military officer to a managerial or leadership position in the business world?

I’m currently serving in the Logistics branch, so I believe my skill set will translate well, but I need some pointers on how to sell it. As officers, we are bombarded with spam from headhunting firms and database job mills (often to our professional email addresses). The majority of my peers have used these services with mixed results. Perhaps you could give some guidance in one of your upcoming posts?

Thanks for your time,

Kevin W. Ryan
CPT, LG
ISF Logistician

Nick’s Reply

Hi, Captain Ryan,

Thanks for what you and all our military do for us — I’m glad to offer any advice I can, hoping it might be useful.

Here’s the best initial suggestion I can make to you:

  • Don’t go looking for open jobs.
  • Avoid the job postings and ads.

If it’s open and posted, the competition is already so huge that your odds of success have dropped like a rock. The quality of your credentials and skills is almost irrelevant because the systems (human and otherwise) used to sort through applicants is not good at separating signal from noise.

Your best bet is to figure out what you’d like to do, and who you’d like to work for. Start with industry — which one? It helps to start with good targets. Don’t waste time with second-tier companies. Start with the best, the shining lights, whether they’re big or small. Research their operations, figure out what job functions might match your skills and interests. (Don’t get too specific. Like the guy said, most of what we know we learned in Kindergarten. The rest is about riding a fast learning curve without falling off.) The key is that it’s up to you to map your skills onto the work, as best you can.

That’s how you pick the job(s) in the company — not from ads.

Once you’ve selected a handful of companies, and identified some functions and jobs, you need to make new friends. Something like 40-70% of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. So don’t waste time with other channels. The next task is to work backwards from contacts you already have, and ones you can develop quickly, to meet and talk with insiders — people connected to each target company. They need not be employees. They might be vendors, customers, attorneys, accountants, landlords, bankers, etc. Find them any way you can — one good way is business articles about the company. Look for names of such folks. Google them, email them, call them. Be brief and respectful. Explain you’re considering working for company X, and you know they do business with X, and you’d like their insight and advice. Have a few good, friendly questions to ask about the company.

You score when the person personally refers you to someone in the company for more information. That’s when the real fun starts.

Use these introductions (you need only a handful, and you may have to talk to lots of folks to get them) to more closely map yourself to the work and function in the company. The best way to tackle this is to ask:

“What problems and challenges is your company facing in [logistics, purchasing, marketing, whatever]? Can you give me a little insight? I’m interested in working for your company, but I haven’t yet identified where I can contribute the most to the bottom line.”

It takes only one savvy manager to hear the words bottom line, and you’re in.

This is actually a lot of fun, because you’re meeting new people, learning new things, and getting into the circle you want to be part of. If you’ve got six months, I encourage you to start now. It takes time. But it’s the only reliable way to get in the door and find the job right for you.

Employers are lousy at figuring out what to do with job applicants. Most of the time, they realize people are just looking for a job, any job. If you start by picking an industry, a handful of companies, and then focus on mapping yourself onto a company’s challenges — that’s how you use your brain to create your own job opening. More likely, you’ll identify something that’s about to come open, and you’ll be the first candidate to interview. No competition. And due to the research you’ve already done, your motivation will translate into very effective dialogue in interviews. While your competition is answering questions like, “What’s your greatest weakness? If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?”, you’ll be busy explaining how you think you could add 10% to the department’s bottom line. Big difference!

Do me a favor and stay in touch. I’m glad to help. You’re ahead of the pack already because you took time to make contact in the business world. Keep doing that. Reach out to insiders in your target industry and companies. Forget the job applications and resumes. Do this right, and you won’t need a resume. The conversations you have will evolve straight into interviews.

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention military transition once except in the title of this post. That’s because the same methods that work for everyone else will work for you, because this is all about delivering profitable work, no matter where you’re coming from.

The edge you have is discipline. The military has given you that in spades. It’s something every job hunter in the civilian world needs, because roaming the job boards isn’t a task. Identifying your objective, focusing on it, pursuing it, and not stopping until you attain it requires… well, you get it. You don’t need to transition. Just apply your discipline to the task at hand and don’t abandon what you learned in the Army about getting the job done. Not to be rude, but civilians won’t be much competition.

Start with The Basics: Pick your targets. You know the old saying, you can’t get there if you don’t know where there is.

Be safe. I’ll be thinking about you.

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Get paid to interview for a job?

It’s always interesting when someone comes up with a new approach to recruiting. Imagine getting paid to go on a job interview. Clever, eh? CIO magazine reports that a Recruiting Firm Pays Candidates for Job Interviews.

Help me work through the logic. Notchup.com suggests that the best people are busy at their jobs, and they probably don’t search for jobs or post their resumes online. Makes sense to me. So, Notchup will help employers attract these people. (The fundamental issue here is the distinction between attracting people, and going out and finding the ones you really want. Notchup doesn’t deal with that, but that’s for another column.) Notchup serves as a go-between, allowing companies to offer money to these desirable folks to come in for a job interview. So far, it’s interesting. Notchup lets hard-to-find candidates fill out a form about themselves and post information so the process can get started… And that’s where we hit the wall. Read more