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How, and when, to search for job recruiters
By Susan Bowles, Special to Gannett

A number of years ago (too many, if you must know), I took a staff writing job at a regional business publication. It was my second job out of college, and I was part of an energetic group of young, aspiring writers. One man, in particular, captivated the office. He was talented, but what really stood out was his raw – almost frightening – ambition.

“You just wait,” he used to tell us after work over cocktails and cigarettes (yes – it was long enough ago that smoking was permitted during happy hour). “I’m going to be called any day by a headhunter!”

Why am I sharing this? Because this man – let’s call him ‘Fred’ – kept coming to mind this past week as I set out to discover just what sparks a recruiter’s interest in you and your career.

And, um, Fred? You were so naïve, it’s almost charming.

You see, a recruiter – or executive search consultant, or headhunter – isn’t really looking your way if you’re just starting your career. Heck, a recruiter probably won’t even glance at you if you’re mid-level, either; at least, not the retained professionals who place candidates in posts of over $100K.

But that doesn’t mean you should give up any dreams you have of working with an executive search professional. You see, Fred got it backwards. Instead of expecting a recruiter to come to him, Fred should have been courting the recruiter and building a relationship for the day his career would reach that professional’s level.

“Most people find that by the time they realize they need them, it’s too late,” says Lee Perrett, director of Talent Connections in Atlanta and former recruiting manager for the Coca-Cola Co. So if you’re savvy, you’ll begin building relationships with recruiters “as soon as you start your career.”

Now, that doesn’t mean picking up the phone and cold-calling. Neither does it mean sending blanket emails. Recruiters are busy, smart people, and you need to do some homework before knocking on their doors.

First, understand what a recruiter is – and what he or she is not.

Recruiters are hired by a company – not a jobseeker. Retained search professionals are hired to work for a company exclusively, usually to fill a senior executive post that pays $100,000 or more. Retained recruiters get paid whether or not a post is filled, meaning they can concentrate on finding the most-qualified candidate.

Contingency recruiters may be hired by a company looking to fill several openings for jobs that pay less than $100,000. A company may hire several contingency firms at once; those recruiters get paid only if the positions are filled.

Either way, the recruiter works for the company – not you. A search firm isn’t an employment agency, says Peter Felix, president of the Association of Executive Search Consultants ( in New York. It isn’t a career counseling center, either, adds Joe Hodowanes, managing director of JM Wanes & Associates in Tampa.

Next, find out who represents your industry.

Ask your current employer who he or she uses when filling an executive post, Perrett says. Ask your professional network for names. Use the Internet to research industry-specific firms. And check out Executive Search and Your Career, the career-management guide published by AESC.

“Don’t just pick up the phone and call,” Perrett says. “Do your research, do your homework, get the name of someone who does that kind of work.”

Then start making calls.

Tell the recruiter where you found his or her name, Perrett says, what industry you’re in and that you’d love to establish contact. Then offer to be a source.

“Recruiters love to have contacts in the industry,” he says. “Offer to give them help, and don’t expect anything in return.”

Don’t expect to get a lot of time, either – at least, not at first. A recruiter probably isn’t going to drop everything to chat with you.

“It rather depends on who you are,” Felix says. Getting on his or her radar and establishing an ongoing relationship may take months … even years.

Above all, be professional.

Recruiters have very specific desires. They’re interested in people who stand out, meet challenges and make a difference in their companies, Felix says. “They’re expecting above-average candidates.”

They also want passion, enthusiasm, great communication … and manners, adds Perrett.
So don’t be brusque or rude. If you are, “I’m probably not going to call that person back,” he says, “even if I have their dream job.”

And never, ever embellish yourself. Don’t inflate your position or responsibilities; don’t pretend to be more important than you are. “Because if they catch you in one little discrepancy, you’re out of their database,” Hodowanes says. “I’m taking the adage you lie to me once, you’re going to lie to me again.”

Finally, don’t neglect your own career.

Sure, it’s great to spend time networking and establishing relationships with recruiters. But if that’s all you do, you’ll never move from peripheral source to potential exec.

So spend time honing your skills and advancing yourself as you make and establish contact. Join professional associations. Become an expert in your field. Publish articles. Get speaking engagements.

“If you’re hiding away,” Felix says, “it’s more difficult to find you.”

The effort will serve you well. Executive search revenues continue to increase, AESC reports. And that trend it likely to continue as corporate HR departments shrink and companies look for ways to stretch their recruiting dollars.

“This is all we do,” Perrett says. “It’s a lot easier for us to specialize in.”

I don’t know whatever happened to Fred. If he’s anything today like he was when I knew him, headhunters most definitely found him. Maybe I can track him down, and he can tell me if it was as much of a rush as he thought it would be.

We could meet for cocktails. Just hold the cigarettes.

Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC. She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today,, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post.