Leveraging the Recruiter-Candidate Relationship

Understanding a Recruiter’s Function

I held a CFO level role at a publicly traded company as recently as 2011. As a result, I maintain an uncommon perspective of the candidate-recruiter relationship after having recently sat on both sides of the table. After meeting with hundreds of senior financial professionals this year, I perceive a meaningful number are confused regarding the role of recruiters in their search for a new position.

Search firms are eager to establish relationships with experienced, proven professionals. They invest significant resources to interview, test, check references, and verify the credentials of potential candidates. Maintaining a broad and growing network of talented professionals is critical to a search firm’s ability to deliver candidates who meet the needs of its clients.

Despite the importance of a developed ‘talent’ network to a recruiter’s success, it is the client who pays the placement fee(s) that remains the primary consideration. This is an aspect of the candidate-recruiter relationship prone to confusion. Frequently, I receive communications from candidates along the lines of “Are you close to finding something for me?”  The implication seems to be that they believe I am actively working to find them a new position.

While recruiters actively work to source candidates for (paying) clients, it is not financially viable to purposefully seek out opportunities for specific candidates. Search agents value relationships with talented professionals because it ultimately serves the best interest of their clients. The larger the talent pool, the better the chance a placement firm can fulfill the needs of its clients. If a recruiter conducts a search for a position which requires your skills and experience, then you will likely be considered for the role. However, recruiters cannot afford to dedicate resources to proactively search out opportunities for a given candidate without a reasonable expectation of compensation for their efforts.

The experience requirements for opportunities posted by recruiters are another area in which confusion sometimes exists. I periodically request assistance from those in my network to find candidates to fill openings. On occasion, we do send out detailed position summaries including specific requirements pertaining to a search. More often than not, there will be candidates who request consideration for the position even though they lack significant requirements outlined in the job requirements. Common responses include:

“While not meeting all the requirements, I learn quickly and am confident I can do the job.”

“While I have not had a position at this level, my prior experiences have prepared me and I am ready to step up.”

There are two important things to understand regarding searches being conducted by placement firms. First, the given job requirements of a position are generally inflexible. Clients, often with input from the recruiter, put a great deal of time and deliberation to reflect upon their needs. They have meticulously assessed what traits they believe will facilitate a candidate’s success in the role. Second, it is unlikely a candidate will receive consideration for a position which is clearly a promotion in responsibilities when compared to their previous experience(s).  Recruiters aim to deliver professionals who have ‘been there’ and ‘done that’ in similar roles. It would be reckless for a recruiter to consider a candidate for a job requiring a skillset which they have not sufficiently demonstrated in a prior position. Clients are equally risk adverse and shy away from prospects lacking requisite experience. If a client demands an Oil & Gas CFO with experience raising capital, they will not consider a highly seasoned and respected Oil & Gas CFO who has not raised capital. Nor would they consider a candidate who had the ability to raise billions in capital if their experience was in Oilfield Services.

A search firm’s reputation and viability depends upon successfully identifying client needs and delivering candidates who meet those needs. As a result, their ‘short list’ of candidates for a given opportunity will usually consist only of those who have a verifiable history of success in similar roles.

Given all the above, what is the value of networking with recruiters in the search for your next opportunity? These firms routinely engage in searches for positions not publicly advertised on employer websites or job boards. Developing relationships with search professionals can expand the number of opportunities for which you may be considered.


Engaging Recruiters in Your Search

A few months ago, I read a blog article written by a staffing industry professional which offered advice on working with recruiters. His summation was that it is important to carefully research the players in your respective targeted functions and industries and work with the one or two firms best suited to your needs. I found this advice a suspect and self-serving.

At best, an established executive recruitment firm is going to manage the search for 1% (at most) of all senior level positions in the market(s) it serves. Given all possible combinations of skills, industry experience, and certifications required for positions which become available, for what percentage of that 1% will you rank among the best qualified candidates? Not many. I have maintained relationships for years with recruiters who have never sent me on an interview.

Maintaining a relationship with a recruiter may never bear fruit, but that does not mean the exercise is not worthwhile.  All it takes is one successful interview to land a coveted position. When you apply for opportunities posted on company websites or job boards, do you remit applications to only one or two employers and hope for the best?  Certainly not. An active job search is somewhat of a numbers game. The more positions for which you are considered in a given time period, then the faster you will likely find a coveted opportunity. Working with search firms is no different. It is in your best interest to develop relationships with as many trustworthy recruiters as possible. This will serve to increase the number of opportunities for which you may be considered.

Those who suggest candidates should maintain relationships with only one or two recruiters are usually recruitment industry professionals looking out for their own interests. If a search firm can establish a large network containing talented professionals who are inaccessible by others, they gain a competitive advantage. While this is great for a recruiter, limiting your exposure to the clients of one or two search firms is not in your best interest.


Reaching Out

Despite the advantages of developing relationships with numerous search firms, I do not recommend googling “executive recruiters” and immediately firing off your resume to every company which pops up. There are a few factors to consider prior to making initial contact with a recruiter.

Some firms are generalists specializing in all functions, industries, and areas of the country, while others may specialize in niche industries or distinct geographic markets. Take time to learn about a firm’s focus. Do not call or forward your resume to those which serve industries outside your area of expertise or focus on locales outside your consideration. This will avoid wasting their time and yours.

Are you employed while engaging in your search? If so, use caution before forwarding an unsolicited resume. Most recruitment firms are reputable and can be trusted to competently maintain the confidentiality of your search and personal history. Regardless, the consequences of an overly aggressive or reckless recruiter can be significant. Speaking to a representative by phone usually provides additional validation regarding whether or not to trust a firm. When in doubt about the capability or trustworthiness of a recruiter, trust your instincts and stay away.


Getting the Most Out of the Candidate-Recruiter Relationship


Mind the Key Words

Search firms engage in various methods to accumulate candidate information. Some grant public access via their websites to enter profile information or submit resumes, while others require a preliminary screening by a company representative prior to accepting your information. Regardless of the method employed, there are a few general rules that can help maximize your consideration for qualified opportunities.

As client engagements are initiated, most recruiters do not manually sift through their voluminous talent databases to generate an initial list prospects for a position. Manual processes generally prove too costly and time intensive. Most firms engage in key word searches of candidate details contained in proprietary and professionally subscribed databases. Consequently, it is crucial that your resume/profile include an exhaustive list of commonly used key words relative to your experience and targeted position(s).  Remember: search firms are not tasked with providing their clients with candidates who merely meet the minimum qualifications of the job. Their mission is to provide the client a short list of the best possible prospects available. Omit a few relevant key words and you can easily find yourself excluded from consideration for positions to which you are well qualified.

Inserting key words into the areas of the resume which detail your responsibilities and accomplishments in previous roles held with prior employers is a wise idea. For added assurance, I suggest including a summary list of functional and leadership capabilities at the top of your resume. A complete list in one place allows recruiters and potential employers to quickly assess your experience and fit for a particular position. Furthermore, it reduces the chance you will overlook incorporating important keys words into your resume. It can be difficult to account for all key words when they are scattered throughout a resume.

Use Google to help find key words relevant to your past positions and targeted job(s). Referencing salary surveys for various roles will provide ‘canned’ generic position descriptions which are rick in key words. Online job postings are an additional useful source for accumulating key words. If you seek a CFO role at a small market company, review several job postings for CFO opportunities at small market companies. Then identify the technical proficiencies, skills, credentials, and behavioral traits commonly required in a CFO by small market businesses.

Lastly, there is a list of key words on LinkedIn which will prove helpful. You can access the list by pulling up your LinkedIn ‘Profile’ and looking under the ‘Skills & Expertise’ section. I find their list particularly helpful because it includes key words related to leadership, general management, and cross functional skills. These are skills often possessed, yet overlooked, by senior financial professionals. Former CFOs are unlikely to omit key words such as “financial reporting” or “strategic planning” because they are core responsibilities. However, terms such as “Development of Employees” are more apt to slip under the radar. Reviewing LinkedIn’s list of key words will help avoid such oversights.

On occasion, a candidate takes an overly generous assessment of their abilities by including skills or keywords in their resume which they have not demonstrated in a prior role. The justification for this is typically “Well, I know I have the ability to perform that task” or “I have experience in Task A, which is basically the same as Task B demanded by the position”. It is important to be as succinct and honest as possible when communicating your experience.


Communicating Your Preferences

What would be the ideal title, responsibilities, location, type of company, and compensation in your next opportunity? Communicating these details to search professionals will save them time and improve your odds of being considered for a coveted position. If you are not willing to relocate to another state or travel extensively, then be sure to communicate that upfront. It also never hurts to specify a salary floor at which you are unable to go beneath.  Candidates often try to avoid providing too much detail regarding their immediate goals and expectations. The rationale seems to be that appearing flexible will increase the number of opportunities for which a candidate will be considered. There is some validity to this strategy, as overly stringent requirements will reduce a candidate’s opportunities. However, providing  insufficient detail will also result in the same consequence. The following are common examples of exchanges between recruiters and candidates:

Recruiter: What is your current base compensation?

Candidate: $150,000 per year

R: Can you provide me some type of broad range you would expect in your next job?

C: I’m flexible. I would like to have $160+, but would also be willing to accept lower than my current base for the right opportunity. I really have no set range.

R: Well, what type of position or employer are you seeking?

C: I am flexible and willing to consider anything commensurate with my background.

R: Are you willing to relocate?

C: Ideally, no. However, I would for the right opportunity.

Recruiters do there best to extract information form candidates, but there are those who refuse to be nailed down on specific expectations and preferences regarding their targeted position(s). If a professional would consider relocating for $250,000+/year when the average comp for their skill set is $160,000/year, then their answer to the relocation question should be “no”. Is the candidate willing to consider a position for $140k per year? $150,000? $200,00? What exactly is ‘the right opportunity’? Is it based on compensation, upward mobility, quality of life factors, or something else? I often ask this follow-up question and commonly receive responses akin to “I am not sure specifically what a ‘right opportunity’ would be. It could involve a number of factors. I would have to look at each opportunity to decide.”

Despite our best efforts, some candidates refuse to give up specifics pertaining to their needs. There seems to be a belief that vague responses will push a recruiter to pick up the phone and call them as opportunities arise which are in reasonable proximity to their current compensation and responsibilities. In reality, the opposite is likely to occur. Recruiters have thousands of top performing candidates in their networks. There is simply not time to reach out to every professional who may have a general interest in an available job. Search professionals build preliminary lists of prospects for an opportunity from memory and key word searches of talent databases. Databases are searched not only for the requisite skills, experience, and traits, but also factors such as compensation, geographical preferences, and career desires. Failure to sufficiently clarify your preferences in these areas can move you to the bottom of the list or knock you off completely. This is most likely to occur when a recruiter has a sizable group of potential candidates.

Recruiters grill candidates about their future needs and desires for a reason.  These factors are just as important as experince and technical expertise in properly matching professionals with client needs.   Consider what it is you wish to accomplish, what you hope to earn, and where you prefer to live before engaging search professionals. Then clearly communicate this information. When a firm requests applicants to complete online profiles, include these details there as well. When recruiters ask you to forward a resume instead of completing a profile, include information regarding your preferences in your cover letter.


Clarify Industry and Employer Experience

More often than not, search professionals are unfamiliar with at least one company contained in a candidate’s resume. Consequently, it can be difficult to determine whether your prior industry experience is relevant or not to a particular position. Some candidates summarize the industry’s in which they have worked in the top section of their resume. This is a good idea and lessens the chance a recruiter will overlook key industry experience. However, this often falls short in conveying critical information that recruiters need. For example, a resume may reference experience in “manufacturing” and “distribution”. While helpful to know, additional specificity is needed to gauge an applicant’s amount of experience in each industry in which they have worked. I commonly find that candidates do not provide the industry associated with each employment experience detailed within their resume. When unfamiliar with a candidate’s current or former employer, I have no clue which is the manufacturing company and which is a distributor.  It also makes a tremendous difference regarding what a firm manufactured.  Did they engage in complex, long term equipment manufacturing projects or low cost items for retail sale such as window blinds. While both are ‘manufacturing’ companies, the characteristics and needs of the underlying business can differ dramatically.

In order to provide the clearest insight into your experience, I suggest adding two or three sentences immediately before listing the responsibilities and accomplishments for each position held by the applicant. For example, “Joe Blows is a (publicly/privately) traded manufacturing company with annual revenues approaching $XXXXX. It primary business is XXXXX (add enough detail so the primary business can be understood by an uniformed reader) and its target market is XXX. “ It is also helpful to know whether former employers operated in one geographic area, nationally, or internationally. When meeting with a recruiter, they will certainly ask these questions when exploring your background. However, it is also important the details be included in your resume and profiles maintained by search professionals. While recruiters tend to maintain thorough notes on candidates, they deal with hundreds of professionals per year.  Notes are typically maintained in a file, but they do not always make it into talent databases and memories do fail after a certain point. Improve your odds of being considered for an opportunity by providing sufficient details about your previous employers’ businesses.


Network for the Long Term

Once establishing a relationship with a recruiter, maintain regular contact. While they may not be the source of your next opportunity, you will have access to a ready network when the time comes to initiate your next search. I suggest touching base every 60 to 90 days. Your contact will begin to remember you, but it is infrequent enough as not to be considered a pest.

It is also wise to update your profile or resume every 90 days. Even if you delete a resume on file and repost the exact information, it may improve your familiarity with recruiters. Search professionals often perform cursory reviews of new candidates or changes to the profiles of existing candidates in their databases. A periodic profile revision may earn a candidate periodic fresh looks from recruiters, particularly from those who are not their primary contact. Alternatively, a resume/profile which I see that has not been updated for a year or longer is of questionable value.  Every ninety days is a reasonable period for making updates. More than that and you will become very familiar to the search firm’s staff in a way that is not positive.

My rules of thumb for checking in and updating your profile do not apply to long term interim professionals. It is quite important interim candidates keep their contacts up to date in regard to previous engagements which have concluded and new assignments they have started. Recruiters greatly appreciate it when interim professionals let them know when they are available or unavailable for assignment.



Hopefully, I have conveyed a few thoughts which will assist candidates in maximizing the effectiveness of interactions with recruiters in current and future job searches.  In the next issue, we will discuss engaging personal networks in the hunt for your next great opportunity.

Happy Holidays!

Christopher Tiesman

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