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Pros and Cons of Contacting Executive Search Firms

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Contingency firms can give you lots of exposure and their approach usually works well for junior, middle and unemployed executives. If you're in senior management, the method can still work if the listing is legitimate and if it offers an excellent opportunity with an organization you wouldn't otherwise have contacted. Contingency firms sometimes have "exclusives" with a client, but more often they don't. So be careful about offering them permission to use your resume.

Contingency search differs from retained search because contingency firms don't have contracts or expenses paid by the client. Site surveys, extensive candidate screening and follow-through are impossible under this system. Of course, this doesn't mean that the process is any less effective; it's just different.

If you get a call from a contingency recruiter, you can expect a brief description of the opportunity but usually no exact identification of the position. This is because the contingency recruiter has to protect the listing from candidates who may try to go directly to the employer or from having the opening fed to other agencies.



Once the contingency recruiter has your resume, you'll hear as much information as possible under the circumstances. But you'll probably need to look out for yourself in researching the employer and evaluating whether your qualifications fit the opportunity.

The contingency recruiter typically guarantees candidates for only 90 days, so there's a tendency to take a chance and send your resume out to many employers.

If you're local, the recruiter may want to help market your candidacy. Al-though you might be offered numerous interviews, take care to invest your time only in strong opportunities. Contingency recruiters are enthusiastic advocates and often their motto is, "When in doubt, send out!" It's up to you to look after your interests and avoid being cajoled into a string of dead-end meetings.

If you find a listing that interests you, keep in mind that you may be on your own during the interviewing process and in final negotiations. It will be far more challenging to feel at ease with your potential employer than if you were working through retained search.

The best way to qualify a recruiter is to ask these questions:
  1. Do you have an exclusive?
  2. Can you reveal the full information on the client?
  3. Will I be notified before my resume is sent to your client?
  4. Do you operate on a contingency fee or retainer basis?
  5. What is your screening process-interviews, references, etc.?
Asking these questions will help you determine what kind of recruiter you're dealing with. At that point, you can tailor your expectations and act accordingly.

Healthcare executives can easily confuse executive search firms with outplacement/career counseling firms. Outplacement firms are in business to coach you on getting a job. Although they don't guarantee job placement, these firms have an important role in the job search process. For a fee that's typically 15 percent of your compensation, they help you develop a resume, practice interviewing on videotape, identify career goals through vocational testing and build a network of contacts. If you haven't been in the job market for many years or if you left your last employer under traumatic circumstances, you might be a good candidate for outplacement counseling.

Your first and best line of action in career development is your own network. The majority of positions are still filled through personal contacts well before any search firm has made a proposal. You don't necessarily need representation or advocacy from search firms. A high profile in the profession, a strong track record of accomplishments and an extensive network of industry contacts will make you desirable and accessible to employers and search firms. Rest assured: Your head will be hunted. Just keep in mind that search firms augment your own efforts; they don't replace them.

If you haven't been exposed to executive search firms and don't know where to seek them out, you might want to take a look at the classified sections of trade publications. Another excellent source is The Directory of Executive Recruiters from Publications.

When other types of agencies don't pay off, every job-hunter pricks up his or her ears upon hearing that there are actually firms which are retained by employers to find people for them. Naturally, these agencies/firms/organizations know about vacancies.

They're being paid to fill them! Incidentally, the very existence of this thriving industry testifies to the fact that employers are as baffled by our country's Neanderthal job-hunting "system" as we are. Employers don't know how to find decent employees, any more than job-hunters know how to find decent employers.

Small problem: are these firms looking for unemployed job-hunters? No, no, no. Unhappily (from the job-hunter's point of view) the mission these firms have been given by employers is to hire away from other firms or employers, workers who are already employed, and rising-executives, salespeople, technicians, or whatever. (In the old days, these firms searched only for executives, hence their now-outdated title.)

Well, let's do our usual rundown:

Names: Executive search firms, executive recruiters, executive recruitment consultants, executive development specialists, management consultants, recruiters.

Nicknames: Headhunters, body snatchers, flesh peddlers, talent scouts.

Number: More than 2,000 firms, with over 12,000 employees.

Volume of business: They have combined billings of more than two and a half billion dollars a year.

Number of vacancies handled by a firm: As a rule, each staff member can only handle 6 to 8 searches at a time; so, multiply number of staff that a firm has (if known) times 6. Majority of firms have 1 to 2 staff (hence, are handling 6 to 12 current openings); a few have 4 to 5 staff (24 to 30 openings are being searched for); and the largest have staffs handling 80 to 100 openings.

The question is: do you want these lists, i.e., are they going to do you any good?

Well, let's say you decide to send recruiters your resume (unsolicited they didn't ask you to send it, you just sent it uninvited). The average Executive Search firm will get as many as 1,000 such unsolicited resumes, or "broadcast letters," a week. Your chances of surviving? Well, if you currently make $75,000 or more per year, and //your resume and cover letter look thoroughly professional and well thought out, and //you send your resume to one of the larger executive search firms in this country, experts say you have a one in ten chance that they will contact you. On the other hand, the first to be eliminated will be those who a) are not presently on the level being looked for, or b) are not presently employed even if they are on that level, or c) are not presently rising in their firm. That's why many experts say to the unemployed, in general: Forget it!

I do think it is necessary, however, to point out that things are changing in the Recruiting field. For one thing, onetime employment agencies now prefer to call themselves Recruiters or Executive Search firms. (Employment agencies typically have to operate under more stringent state or federal regulations, hence the appeal of a different, less supervised, genre such as Executive Search.)

Whatever they call themselves, these new Recruiters/old employment agencies now represent employers; but are hungry for the names of job hunters, and in many cases will interview a job-hunter who comes into the office unannounced or mails them a resume. I have known so called Recruiters in some of the smaller firms who truly extended themselves on behalf of very inexperienced job hunters. So, was I job hunting this year, I think I would get one of the aforementioned Directories, look up the firms that specialize in my particular kind of job or field, and go take a crack at them? As long as you don't put all your eggs or hopes in this one basket, you really have nothing to lose except some stationery and stamps.
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