How to Build Relationships with Headhunters: 12 Ways to be Credible when the Executive Recruiter Calls

As a leader who cares about the health of their career, you need relationships with reputable executive recruiters (aka headhunters). The executive search or recruiting firms looking for management-level to executive-level talent can be an important channel of opportunity. Here are 12 ways to demonstrate credibility and build a relationship with a headhunter.

First, search professionals come in a lot of shapes and sizes. One thing they ALL have in common however, is their constant need to identify and build relationships with relevant quality talent so that they can deliver on their client mandates.

So when you receive that LinkedIn message, email or phone call, how should you play it? Here are 12 behaviours to model for when you have the opportunity to talk to an executive recruiter.

1. Don’t be needy

One of the biggest rookie mistakes is behaving like the firm is there to help you find a job, and that given that you need a job, they should help you now. Wrong. The search firm is under no obligation to help you whatsoever. Try not to project an aura of neediness. (Hint: They can smell it.) Position yourself for the long-haul and you will do better.

2. Don’t be cocky

Don’t be too full of yourself. You are just one potential candidate in a daily parade of prospective candidates. Don’t be a peacock and puff yourself up. Confident humility is the way to go. A demonstrated ability to laugh at yourself doesn’t hurt either.

3. Tell them you aren’t a fit

Let them know when the opportunity described is not a fit for you and explain why. Part of building your credibility is being strong about what you are and what you aren’t, what is a fit, and what isn’t. They respect that kind of candour. And you haven’t wasted their time.

4. Ask insightful questions about the opportunity

The headhunter will give you a brief description of the opportunity they werehired to fill. One of the best ways to capture their interest is to ask questions that cut to the heart of the job assignment and demonstrate that you get the industry / market and challenge / opportunity of this assignment.

5. Deliver tangible soundbites to earn trust and attract interest

The executive recruiter (if they are good) is not looking to make a hire on the first phone call. Their task is to determine if there is enough fit and mutual interest to take it to the next step. To do that, you are going to need to reveal things from your experience that are relevant to the search. Be as specific and tangible as you can without breaching confidentiality boundaries.

6. Appreciate their role in the hiring equation

I am going to let you in on a secret. Recruiters often don’t feel the love from their candidates and clients. It is the nature of the business. Show them that you think they do a pretty cool job in identifying and attracting just the right talent for key senior jobs. They will notice.

One tangible way of doing this is to respond to their message or return their call promptly.

7. Be a connector

How do you build relationships? You give. What can you give an executive recruiter who calls:

  • Perspective
  • Advice
  • Insight
  • And leads to names

It is the way the game is played at the senior level. Once you make contact with a reputable search person, close your conversation by offering to help on current or future searches. Sources, i.e. peer networks, are the primary means of finding quality talent. When the phone rings, go out of your way to assist, and bingo, you are in.

Remember that they aren’t asking you who is looking for a job. They are more interested in who would be the best candidate for this job. There is a difference. You can and should refer quality candidates to them. The key word is quality.

8. Have a flexible focus

In general, the firms like candidates who understand their value in the market. At the same time, they love candidates who aren’t too rigid about what opportunities they will consider. Search assignments come in all sizes, and they often need a candidate with an out-of-the-box openness to get them filled.

9. Make them look good in front of their clients

Short of being the successful candidate, the next best outcome is to be on the short-list. Search professionals love to revisit past candidates, providing they have been an asset in past assignments, and not an embarrassment. If you make the short-list, impress the client, but lose out to another candidate, then chances are, you have just made a friend with the search partner. You will be called again.

10. Cultivate the pyramid

The established search firms aren’t much different from law firm or accounting firms. A few partners are supported by a consultants, associates, researchers and assistants. The junior folks do most of the work of candidate generation. Each one of these folks can be your ally, or enemy.

11. Make them comfortable with tactful name-dropping

How do you make a search professional nervous? Be invisible. If they haven’t heard of you and more to the point, if their sources haven’t heard of you, then for the moment, they only have your word to go on. Get known in your industry or market. You don’t have to be famous, but the more people who can say, “Joe, yeah, Joe is fantastic” the better. Your LinkedIn profile and network yield important clues about your connectedness in the tribe.

12. Demonstrate polish and class

All things being equal, extra points will go to you as a candidate if you can:

  • articulate your story in a compelling way both informally and under pressure in interview situations
  • show finesse in your interactions, both verbally and in writing
  • and show a high level of professionalism throughout the process

Developing a relationship with recruiters is best looked at in the long-term. The real reward for nurturing those relationships is repeated access to information and opportunities over the course of your career. And, if you are lucky, relationships with interesting, connected players in your industry.