From time to time, clients ask if I would consider introducing them to my friends who are still recruiting.
It's a logical question because we've usually just spent a solid 1-4 months aiming for an upcoming job search, whether imminent or a year from now—which may involve recruiters.
There's nothing I'd rather do than make those connections, but I've never made one that I can remember. Even when I was still in retained executive search and moonlighting as a résumé writer, I never crossed the two audiences.
My connections are in the retained executive search world, which means they are looking externally for ideal candidates. They generally don't announce positions, and if they do, it's usually after an exhaustive search has already been conducted and come up empty. They also don't list the client name. Retained executive search firms are hired to find people through their own sophisticated research and outbound headhunting efforts.
Retained executive search
Retained executive search consultants are looking for people who are happy in their current positions, and for whom something new might be of interest. In fact, those happy potential candidates are often so happy where they are, that they're not expecting the call, and the art of recruiting becomes essential in engaging them in the first place. As the retained search recruiter, you have to demonstrate the match because your candidate is likely not looking to move.
Retained executive search represents a fairly narrow band of recruiters, and frankly they're in a unique world. Their databases often contain their own research, that research is often generated anew for each search, and the engagements are exclusive with a premium client company for a very senior, well-pedigreed, and sometimes hard-to-find candidate.
Imagine filling the shoes of someone like Richard Branson, Janet Yellen, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Sergey Brin, Angela Ahrendts, Larry Page, Bill Gates, or Anna Wintour when they decide to move.
Who's going to replace them?
Those searches are complex, take a long time to complete, are often part of a known succession plan, and frequently require a highly specific blend of education, experience, and skills. You can imagine why it's unlikely that simple job postings would suffice in identifying the right candidate.
You can also move the lesson to lesser-known, but equally important leadership roles across the Fortune 500, and you see my point.
From there, it's helpful to know that by definition, an inbound résumé—no matter where it comes from and no matter how senior or experienced the person—represents someone who is potentially unhappy, and thus, not an ideal candidate.
Why? Because it's an overt expression of someone wanting a change, which means there could be a pain point somewhere and you (the search firm) don't know if that pain is coming from the company or the candidate, and in any event, you can't risk placing the wrong person.
The inbound résumé might not even be entered in the database. (This is changing slightly in recent years. Stay tuned.)
From every angle, an inbound executive résumé can have diminishing returns with the retained search firm colleagues I know.
But there's another side to the recruiting world called contingency recruiting. (Wikipedia has a great page on distinctions you'll want to know about.)
Contingency recruiting is a bit more knock-about by nature. It's faster. It's usually not exclusive, meaning that a company needing to find an employee can hire multiple contingency recruiters or firms to conduct a search. The firm that presents the right candidate gets the fee.
Real estate agent comes to mind as a good example of how this works. They don't get paid unless they sell the house, so they're trying to beat every other agent in making a match.
This means that contingency recruiters may be more willing to have a peek at your unsolicited résumé. Even if they simply add you to their database, at least you're there.
How to distinguish retained executive search from contingency recruiting firms
Retained search will often use the phrase "retained search" in their communications. Visit the firm's website. If it says "retained search," or some variation of the word "retained" and you'll know.
Contingency firms, however, won't generally mention the distinction, which may indicate that they're contingency, which means that they may be more open to receiving your inbound résumé.
I highly recommend subscribing to Nick Corcodilos' "Ask The Headhunter" newsletter. His straightforward style and insights about working with recruiters is superb, not only in his e-newsletter, but also in his book: "How to Work With Headhunters." (I don't know Nick, I'm just a fan.) Some time back, ExecuNet interviewed Nick and published this timeline advice: "Whose Side of the Table is the Recruiter On?"
As with everything, there are exceptions to the rule, and norms are ever-changing.
Take LinkedIn, for instance.
LinkedIn has become an ideal way to get on the radar of both retained and contingency search firms.
Build your LinkedIn summary (heck, the entire profile) around the keywords and phrases that a recruiter might input to find you, and you'll have a much better chance of being found passively. Present material as if you're happy where you are—in fact, use your profile to truly do business—and recruiters of all stripes should be able to translate and still view you as a possible target of acquisition. (They usually need only a handful of questions answered to decide if they should keep talking, so be flexible and kind, and avoid feeling like you're being used or not respected. They have a job to do, and there's little chance that you'll know or could even surmise the details of the spec or the motivations of the company, so don't try.)
Side note: some recruiters will be abrupt, some recruiters will ask why you haven't "placed your accomplishments" on your LinkedIn profile. Those folks don't understand that LinkedIn profiles might give away trade secrets, so don't try reasoning with them. Trust your decision not to place competitive information online and let them move on.
Never before has such a virtuous cycle existed: you put yourself there, you have a stronger chance that the right people will find you. If you look like a possible fit, they may reach out. Now, or in ten years. I've had more than one "purple squirrel" client who was found via LinkedIn, precisely because of the odd blend of education, experience, and skills they possessed. (And those stories were all told within the framework of their current jobs, so we didn't tip off their boards, bosses, employees, partners, etc.)
LinkedIn is among the best ways right now to be found passively by a recruiter. There are also a host of other important, career-related uses. These two concepts along represent the reason I've shifted from LinkedIn-phobic to cautious LinkedIn champion.
Retained executive search firms
For our purposes here, it's helpful to know that most of the big search firms, and many of the smaller ones, have a Twitter presence.
Here are a few you might start with:
I can't believe I'm writing this, since I was so Twitter-phobic for so long, but there are entire Twitter accounts dedicated to specific industries, their standards, and best practices, niche pockets of intelligence, and areas where you can get or give targeted advice. I follow several through my own Twitter account, @TheResumeStudio, and I'm amazed at how many opportunities (and how much good intelligence) flow through my Twitter feed.
Research and find your own opportunities, and develop careful strategies to reach your long-term goals. It takes some elbow grease. You'll also gain tremendous insights simply because you paid attention.