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The Rules of Engagement for Executive Search Firms

This article originally ran on TLNT.  To view it, click here.

Let’s face it.  The active candidate has become a second-class citizen.  Conventional wisdom says that there continues to be a glut of in-transition executives in the job market.  Just post a job on and you can expect an avalanche of resumes to bury your inbox.  Or, set your corporate recruiter loose on LinkedIn and within a few days, she will be sitting in your office with a stack of profiles from which you can choose your next VP of [insert job title here].  The only catch is that the vast majority of these candidates are either out of work or have something going on in their current companies that is pushing them out the door.

That’s not to say there are not a number of talented executives in the active candidate pile.  There are.  You can’t have the type of economic upheaval we have experienced over the past several years and not some very talented professionals be displaced.  But, do you really want this demographic to make up the entire applicant pool for a critical senior hire?  That answer comes down to making a choice between whether you are looking for the best talent available or the best talent period.

In my opinion, this is where the talent acquisition function is currently failing its client base.  Many have mistaken the increase in candidate visibility for an increase in candidate quality.  That’s simply not the case.  The number of truly outstanding executives remains constant regardless of the state of the economy and regardless of how many millions of professionals have a LinkedIn profile.  And guess what?  If you’re posting a job on Monster or LinkedIn, or one of your junior recruiters is trolling social media sites for potential candidates, then that group of outstanding executives isn’t even in the candidate pool for the critical hire you are making.

Those superstars are ignoring the form letter a recruiter dropped in their InMail box – the one that’s identical to the 100 other InMails indiscriminately sent out to an unsegmented group of professionals who happen to have the recruiter’s wish list of keywords in their profiles or resumes.  You’re getting the same 4% response rate that credit card companies get from their mailers.  Consequently, most recruiters aren’t talking to the best candidates, only the candidates who will respond to them (and believe me, given the pressures they are facing, your recruiters are more than happy to do just that).  The reason why they aren’t getting to the right executives is that they are giving them no reason to respond; they are not engaging them on a personal level.

When I kick off a new retained search assignment with my team, the first thing we do is identify a Top 25 List.  The list is comprised of the most desirable candidates in the market based on our client’s criteria.  Those criteria vary from search to search but usually include issues around culture fit, leadership capacity, a track record of achieving sustainable results, and how the new executive will fit into the client’s succession plan.  In every case, this list is made up of the rock stars and soon-to-be rock stars in their fields.  This list is also almost exclusively made up of passive candidates.  They are well thought of and are doing great things in their current companies.  They aren’t looking to change jobs, aren’t looking at job boards and are ignoring the mass mailer type of job inquiries coming into their inboxes.  We don’t consider a search complete until we’ve had direct conversations with everyone in our Top 25.  So, how do we engage them?  Following these simple rules gets us most of the way there.

 Rule #1 – Personalize Every Communication

Never send anything to a star candidate that you could have sent to another professional.  If your first contact is by email, do your research and make sure the contents of the email are personalized to the individual you are targeting.  If you could remove his or her name from the top of the message and just as easily send it to 100 other potential candidates, you have already lost them.  The same rule goes for voicemails and, most importantly, the first live conversation.  Do your homework and know as much as possible about the individual before making contact.

Rule #2 – Throw the Position You Are Seeking To Fill Out the Window

The beginning of a first conversation with a high potential candidate should be exclusively focused on getting to know that person.  What are their career aspirations?  Where do they get their energy from in their jobs and companies?  Get them talking about themselves and play the role of career counselor versus headhunter.  Believe me, it’s a different conversation than these folks usually have with recruiters and it helps to quickly establish trust and credibility.

Rule #3 – Identify Gaps between What Is and What Could Be

Regardless of how happy one of the Top 25 is with his or her company and role, there are always gaps between current state and ideal state.  Be an active listener and when you discover those gaps, probe as to why that is and what their current employer is doing to close them.   A good recruiter uses this strategy to turn an implied need into an explicit need.

Rule #4 – Build a Value Proposition Unique to the Candidate

Once you have established the groundwork, create a compelling value proposition for the candidate.  Help them understand why your company (or client) has the potential to accelerate their career growth.  Be prepared to overcome objections, because there are always one or two.  A potential candidate once told me that he expected to reach the end of the runway in his current company within 24 months and that he would be more active in his career search as he approached that date.  I asked him whether it was a short-sighted career strategy to be at the mercy of what was available in his desired timeframe versus considering a compelling position and company where the timing might be a little off.  After thinking about it for a day, he came to his senses and threw his hat in the ring.

Rule #5 – Know When to Back-Off

Sometimes, these rock stars really are in the best place where they are, or at least in a better place than what you currently have to offer.  If you agree that’s the case, resist the temptation to put on the hard close.  It will enhance your credibility with the candidate, who most often turns into a source and a long-term relationship.  Stars know stars and are happy to make referrals for people they trust.  If you’ve demonstrated that you have their best interests in mind, they will open their network to you.

As we all become more visible through social media, it becomes easier to identify potential candidates.  But, it also becomes easier for those candidates, especially star candidates, to tune us out.  We clear our email and LinkedIn inboxes in the same way we throw out junk snail mail.  We treat the cold call from a recruiter in the same way we do the telemarketing call.  Increasingly, those of us in talent acquisition give passive candidates less and less reason to respond to us, mostly because we have demonstrated that we know little or nothing about them beyond their title and company.  If you are seeking to increase candidate quality versus candidate volume, develop an engagement-oriented recruiting strategy.  Make sure you are attracting the best of the best out there, not just those who will return your call.

2 Responses

  1. I regularly see your ‘new searches’ shopped out over emails to people asking for referrals. Does not sound like top 25 approach.

    1. Kyle,

      Thanks for the comment. I am not surprised that you have come across an email or two relating to our searches. We regularly use a multi-prong strategy to completing our engagements and, unfortunately, it invariably extends beyond contacting our Top 25. However, we are extremely diligent in identifying that key group of professionals and customizing our approach as outlined in my post.

      Thanks for reading.


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