How to effectively work with headhunters

Let’s first understand what part headhunters play when looking for a job. We define 4 steps which constitute the basic structure of the job search process. The steps are as follows:

  • Goal: determine what your dream / target job should be like
  • USP: discover your strengths that’ll help you stand out on the job market
  • Documents: adapt your application documents and LinkedIn profile
  • Interviews: generate interest and job offers using ALL for channels:
    • Networking
    • Direct application (contacting decision makers directly)
    • Headhunters ← this is where recruiters come in!
    • (Online) job ads

Our statistics from 2012 – 2017 show that contacting Executive Search firms accounts for 18-23% of accepted job offers. In other words: worth doing!

So, what is a headhunter and how do they work?

It is important to remember that the recruitment market is corporate client driven. You are not the client of a headhunter, the hiring organization is. The (ideal) process in short:

  • Company X needs to hire a new manager
  • It decides that their internal recruitment resources are not adequate and therefore hires a recruitment company
  • Headhunters search for candidates
  • Potential candidates end up on a so-called long list
  • After an initial telephone screen (screening call), the best candidates are invited to interviews and the best 3 – 5 are presented to company X in the form of a so-called short list
  • After interviewing the candidates, company X chooses one person and signs a contract with them

When is a recruiter paid? It depends. Either based on success (once a candidate gets hired) which is called a “contingent search” or for rendered services irrespectively of its ultimate outcome also called “retained search” in usually 3 installments – usually: upon signing the contract with the client, when presenting the long list, when presenting the short list.

It is also worth knowing where headhunters find their candidates. Mostly and ideally they:

  • Search the internal database
  • Publish an online job ad
  • Contact people from the market for referrals
  • Research competitors and contact potential candidates
  • Go through professional networking platforms such as LinkedIn
  • Research the Internet through search engines
  • Use their own network that they also build in person at industry events

Summarizing, preparing a solid list of candidates is very important. Some headhunters openly communicate to actively connect with them on LinkedIn as it has become a substitute of their database (read more here: “The death of the headhunter’s database”). LinkedIn (and Xing especially for the DACH region) is an important tool. How to use it and how to prepare the best possible profile, here.

Going back to the process of find candidates by headhunters… depending on how sophisticated and complicated the client’s briefing is, the recruiter will add candidates to the so-called long list that fulfill at least 80% of the requirements.

Then, candidates on the long list are contacted through a so-called screening call. This initial contact from a headhunter lasts from 5 to 20 minutes and should be treated like an interview. Here are the reasons of why recruiters call their candidates before inviting them to a “proper” interview:

  • Saves time
  • First impression
  • Verification of motivation
  • Do paper and person match
  • Is the candidate within project budget

The most typical questions asked during a screening call:

  • What’s your current situation?
  • What are you looking for? Or if you are a passive candidate: what opportunities would you consider?
  • What are your financial expectations?

It may sound obvious, but when in job search mode, answer your phone with your full name. Don’t proceed with the conversation if the time is not suitable for you (e.g.: you are in the middle of preparing dinner or have just stepped out of the shower) – ask the recruiter to call you back at a more convenient time. Even if it’s only 10 minutes later. You’ll have time to prepare a bit by looking up the person and company that have called you.

During the actual conversation, give a summary of your profile, have a clear range of your financial expectations and ask about next steps. In a nutshell: the caller should know exactly who you are, what you do and what you are looking for.

If the headhunter establishes that you might be a fit for the role, they’ll invite you to a 1st round interview (which we already know is actually the 2nd round) which most probably will be conducted by Skype or similar video-based communicators. The most important piece of advice: think of it as a real interview. Dress accordingly and make sure that your background is tidy, not distracting, and that a source of light (window, lamp) is not behind you. Otherwise the interview won’t really see you – only shadow.

Some tips on how to prepare for a Skype interview:

  • Use your computer / laptop to connect to Skype. Using mobile devices (smartphones, iPads etc.) decreases the quality of the call; note: sometime you’ll be asked to click on something or do an exercise. Most devices won’t be able to handle that parallel to the video call.
  • Use headphones (preferably with a microphone) – otherwise the computer might pick up a lot of background noise and you will be barely heard
  • Check if you can log into your Skype account (or any other communicator the interviewer has suggested using) without any problems, especially if you haven’t used it in a while. Make sure you have downloaded all the necessary plugins or updates
  • Plug in your charger as video uses more battery. Ideally – keep your laptop plugged in during the whole interview

But what matters most is what you are going to say during the interview (no matter if it’s conducted via Skype or in person). Therefore BE PREPARED. Showing up (on time) to the interview is half the battle.
And the best method of answering most questions is by using the STAR technique:

  • Situation – give a context
  • Task – what was your task
  • Action – what did you do and how
  • Result – what outcome did you achieve; what were the consequences

You can find a comprehensive tool which will help you prepare for your interviews here.

There are also some red flags for headhunters:

  • You are (really) late to your interview, especially if you don’t apologise
  • You did not cancel your interview and did not bother to show up and to make matters worse: now you pretend to not hear your phone anymore
  • You keep calling or emailing your recruiter every two days or weeks to inquire about the status of the recruitment process
  • You are overly self-confident and arrogant

More interview / headhunter don’ts in our post “Are you on a headhunter’s blacklist”.

Here’s a good summary of Top 10 Tips as prepared by MBS Full-time MBA students at the end of a workshop:

  • Be prepared, incl. know your USP
  • Have a clear goal before you even start
  • Professional profiles on LinkedIn and Xing are written for both the algorithm (key words) and the human (recruiters / decision makers)
  • Select the most relevant headhunters (never at random)
  • The last question should always be, “What are the next steps?”
  • It’s OK to actively approach headhunters, but skillfully and by email
  • Re-schedule screening calls – even if it’s only by 10 minutes
  • Details are important
  • Make yourself “findable” on the Internet and be present in different channels
  • Send a thank you note after the interview

Do you have more than 10 years of experience? Are you currently looking for a job? Thinking about it? Would you like to confidentially discuss it? No strings attached? If yes, send an email to Subject: Confidential conversation or click here.