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Cover Letters for Search Firms

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Search firms, temporary agencies and college career centers work with a variety of individuals, from seasoned executives to inexperienced high school and college students and they all have a common mission. Each matches qualified candidates to compatible job openings, and except for a few organizations that charge applicants a fee to place them, each tries to find the right people for employers, not vice versa.

Because of the diversity of candidates they serve, these employment brokers have varying preferences regarding cover letters and resumes. While retained executive recruiters have almost no interest in cover letters, college career centers strongly recommend them. Let's take a look at how these organizations work and how you can tailor your cover letters to meet their needs.

Executive Search Firms That Work on Retainer

When job seekers think of headhunters, they often picture a group of arrogant, somewhat mysterious professionals who know of many great opportunities, but guard them like proverbial dogs in a manger. This stereotype is particularly prevalent among job seekers who assume recruiters are in business to find candidates for jobs. If everyone understood the executive recruiter's true purpose-locating the best person to fill a search assignment-far fewer people would get angry and frustrated when their unsolicited resumes and calls go unanswered.

To learn more about how search firms on retainer operate, I spoke with three professionals in the field:
  1. David Westberry, managing partner in Dallas for Ward Howell International Inc., a New York-based search firm that conducts searches worldwide for executives earning salaries and bonuses of $75,000 or more.

  2. Jean McCain Marshall, overseer of Catterton Inc., a management search firm in Dallas that specializes in positions in the energy industry.

  3. Robert Morrison, overseer of Quetico, an HR consulting firm in Texas which concentrates on search assignments in the hospitality and food service industries.
Knowing how search firms find individuals who match the requirements of their corporate clients will help you understand why sending unsolicited cover letters and resumes to recruiters isn't likely to get you a job.

Corporate clients pay retainer search firms a fee even if they don't find a qualified candidate. This fee is typically one-third of the position's annual compensation (salary plus bonuses) and is paid in three installments: one upon signing the search contract, another a month or so later, and the third upon completion of the search regardless of its success or failure. For positions paying $75,000 or more, the fee is obviously substantial. As one search firm professional says, "When you have paid me one-third of my fee up front, you've got my time and attention. Your problem is my problem."

To find the best candidates, these firms initiate a sophisticated research project that often lasts several months and typically includes the following components: Organizational assessment, comprehensive study of the client company to understand its philosophy, management style and culture and learn the professional and personal attributes of its ideal candidate.

Preparation of a Position Specification: A document describing the organization's characteristics and mission, and the position's duties and responsibilities, including reporting relationships, education, experience and desired personality traits. This document is approved by the client company and used as a benchmark when interviewing candidates.

Search Strategy: A research process that determines which local, regional, national and international companies, organizations and professionals in the firm's database might yield an initial 75 to 100 potential candidates.

Recruitment: Phone calls to individuals in the candidate pool to ascertain their interest in the position or to get referrals. These calls usually yield about 10 to 15 professionals who are interested in and qualified for the position. They are asked to send a resume.

Candidate Interviews: In-depth personal interviews to gain an understanding of each candidate's background and determine his suitability for the position.

Presentation of Candidates: Detailed written biographical and interview summaries of approximately five people who are all interested in the position and fit its requirements. The search firm then arranges client-candidate meetings to identify the best person for the job.

Reference Check: Contacting the final candidate's managers, peers and subordinates at current and past employers to verify factual data and achievements, explore strengths and weaknesses and learn about his personal and professional style. This information is submitted to the client in a written report.

Given the time and effort search executives put into this process, you can understand why they aren't interested in the unsolicited calls, cover letters and resumes they're deluged with daily.

Three Cover-Letter Attention Getters

Most retained search professionals sift through their correspondence to ensure they don't overlook an interesting prospect. (This is especially true at new or small recruiting firms.) Your cover letter is more likely to capture a recruiter's attention if it includes one of these three items:
  1. The name of a familiar person who referred you. The main reason executive search firms are so effective is that they use networking extensively. Even high-powered search professionals feel more comfortable working with people they already know or who are recommended to them. If you have a contact who knows a recruiter you're writing to, use his name as soon as possible in your first paragraph.

  2. Experience that fits a current assignment. Unfortunately, when you first write to a search firm, you don't know its immediate needs (unless you were contacted as a potential candidate for a search). Consequently, the best approach when sending an unsolicited letter is to spotlight your most marketable achievements and experience and hope for the best. But if a recruiter asks you to mail a resume after a preliminary discussion, use the inside information she gave you to summarize the relevant skills and experience you'd bring to the position.

  3. An unusually strong background in the career or industry in which a recruiter specializes, or where there's a shortage of qualified candidates. For instance, if you have years of experience in developing managed health-care programs or consortiums, a health-care search firm probably would want you in its database.
Cover-Letter Components for Retained Search Firms

Cover letters for search firms don't follow the same format as those sent directly to employers. Certain components may be identical, but headhunters want information up front that you typically wouldn't reveal to a company. For instance, while you'd still include your referral's name in the first paragraph and your most relevant experience in the second, your third paragraph should contain your geographic preferences and current compensation. All recruiters want to know this information before they talk to you. Providing it in your cover letter makes their job easier and gives you a leg up on candidates who choose not to divulge it.

While most cover letters should state your intention to follow up with a phone call, search firms are the exception to this rule. Retained headhunters don't welcome calls, unless you're a bona fide candidate for a specific search. If they aren't pursuing you, your call will be viewed as a waste of time. They will neither take nor return it.

Many Ask, Few Receive

Executive recruiters in the U.S. receive a record number of unsolicited resumes from job seekers in, according to a Workplace America survey. Although the 1,129 recruiters polled at 104 search firms were sent 1,632,280 resumes during the 12-month period, they filled only 11,900 jobs. As you can see from this disparity, the importance of getting referrals to recruiters, then sending them distinctive cover letters can't be underestimated.

Listed alphabetically, the 20 U.S. search firms receiving the most resumes are:

Example Cover Letters to Retained Search Firms

These cover letters were sent to search firms that do assignments on retainer, the first, by George Kloppenburg, show how to write an unsolicited letter to attract a headhunter's attention. Larry Frantz wrote the other to Heidrick and Struggles after he was asked for a resume for a CFO slot.


6123 Green Manor Drive 502-387-6857 (H)

Louisville, KY 40219 502-481 -0777x242 (W)

November 1 7, 199X

Mr. David Roser

Availability of Hartford

566 New Britain Avenue

Newington, CT 06111

Dear Mr. Roser:

Vince Vascati, who served me well as an Engineering Manager, suggested I write to you. Until recently, I was Division Manager with $10 million annual sales P&L responsibility at Lindstrom Manufacturing in Pohatan, New York. This major precision sheet metal contract fabricator lost its primary customer and has downsized rapidly to survive. I am in "outplacement" and hoping to transition to a much smaller operation.

Please review my resume in light of your current assignments. The following profile may be helpful:

1. Desired Positions

President, Vice President or General/Division/Plant Manager of a small (50 to 200 employees) manufacturing company in a "low-tech" industry such as sheet metal, wood, wire, or related products.

2. Location

Willing to relocate. Preference is for New England or Mid-Atlantic area, coastal Mid-South or Chicago.

3. Compensation

$75-$100,000 base plus performance bonus and applicable package. My resume is enclosed. I am seeking a challenging leadership position where my open, participatory management style, coupled with the ability to make significant operational and financial improvements, will be welcomed. Thank you for considering my situation.


George C. Kloppenberg


6535 Northpoint Drive

Dallas, TX 75248

July 1, 199X

Mr. Charles Leman

Heidrick & Struggles

2000 Seascape Drive

Boca Raton, FL 33427

Dear Charles:

Thanks for the call on Tuesday about the CFO assignment you are working on for Triple Drilling. They are a direct competitor, especially in deep drilling, to one of Hope Energy's subsidiaries, Hope Drilling, so I am very familiar with them. Though they are smaller than Hope Energy, I would be very interested in this opportunity, because I am a believer in the return to profitability for the domestic drilling business. Also, my experience fits in well with what they require.
  1. I have been through a recent IPO so I know what to expect.

  2. I have dealt with the situation of a majority owner (Muswalt, 51%) and minority (49%) public ownership.

  3. I know not only the land and offshore drilling business, but also their customers' business (through Hope Energy's E&P businesses and ownership of HOMCO).

  4. I handled not only the CFO duties, but also the investor relations activities, and that experience is very important to newly public companies.
I am looking forward to talking further with you and the company about this opportunity. Meanwhile, say hello to David for me.


Lawrence G. Frantz

Words of Wisdom from the Experts

Along with their advice on cover letters, Messrs. Westberry and Morrison and Ms, Marshall volunteered these observations about retained search firms and their preferences. Some of their insights may surprise you.

Mr. Westberry:

"Don't spend a lot of your job search courting headhunters. Unsolicited resumes have about as much chance of getting someone a job as unsolicited manuscripts have of being published."

"Don't start trying to get my attention when you begin your job search. It's too late by then. To increase your visibility to search firms, excel in your position and be actively involved in professional organizations and/or your community,"

"Tell me the truth when I ask you about your salary, experience, personality traits and skills. No one is perfect, so I don't expect you to be. However, if I find out you've embellished upon your accomplishments, etc., I can't recommend you to my client."

Mr. Morrison:

"I work with both employed and unemployed candidates, as long as they are qualified to do the job. Most search professionals realize there are many unemployed persons who are out of work through no fault of their own. In fact, I often call outplacement firms looking for good candidates for current search assignments. However, there are still some recruiters in business a long time who discriminate against people without jobs."

Ms. Marshall:

"Age is no barrier. I find the best person for the job, whatever his age."

"Specialized skills are important, but I also consider a candidate's personality traits, management style and philosophy in determining the best match for a position."

"Don't look to me for job-search salvation. Rely on networking to find the position you want."
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