Effectively using executive recruiters
Let's face it, no one likes to spend money to hire an executive recruiter. In our ideal world, job candidates call us. Skilled public relations practitioners want to work for our company. Resumes come in daily. All we need do is make the choice.
Unfortunately, few of us are lucky enough to exist in this employer's utopia. Most of us have to work very hard and spend considerable time to hire the right person for that very important position. And almost everyone who is in a position to interview and hire an employee has thought about and/or used an executive recruiter.
There are several common problems when working with recruiters. For one thing, their costs are high--usually 25 percent to 30 percent of the first-year salary. Second, it's not always easy to pick the right recruiter(s) to work with. If you haven't done your homework, you can waste a lot of time. Relationships often cause problems, too. You don't have to socialize with your recruiter, but it helps if you like each other. Finally, recruiters can be annoyingly persistent. Sometimes that's good; sometimes it's more trouble and bother than you'd like.
The right recruiter, however, can often become an indispensable part of your management team and provide a service worth every penny you have to pay. But, whether recruiters are management assets or budget deficits often depends on you and:
* How you view the recruiter's role;
* How you select the recruiter; and
* how much time you're willing to spend on the search.
Role of the recruiter
It's critical to understand the proper role of the executive recruiter vis-a-vis your company or firm. Too often, it's one of supplier and vendor. Think about how you treat your recruiters. Now, think about how you'd like to be treated by your clients or by the company's senior executives. I'll bet you want to be viewed as a partner; so do recruiters.
The first rule of a productive relationship is to treat your recruiter like a member of your staff. This means sharing information, taking the recruiter into your confidence and engaging in regular communication.
I doubt that anyone uses executive recruiters for every job search. Economically, it's not really feasible. And for mid-or low-level jobs, they won't be as effective as classified advertisements, word of mouth or networking.
At our firm, we have had considerable experience in working with recruiters. We have engaged recruiters to search for high-leel specialists or for someone to fill a position that requires broad, senior-management skills. Often, we'll get calls from headhunters touting a candidate or asking if we know someone who might be interested in a certain position.
When we hire a recruiter, we want the individual working on our search to screen applicants carefully before my associates and I ever see them. We also think it's esier for the recruiter to tap those public relations practitioners who are currently working and not necessarily looking to change jobs. Normally, recruiters have a wider network of contacts than we do, and they often have a much better feel for the job market.
Selecting a recruiter
Most people know the names of several executive recruiters. Associates can tell you the names of others. PRSA's national Information Center maintains a list of recruiters around the country. Your local chapter may also have a list.
Finding the names of recruiters is not the real problem. The problem is picking the one or two who are right for you. Here are some tips:
Research the field
Select two or three executive search firms and ask them for letters describing their business. These letters should include whetehr they work on retainer or contingency basis, a fee schedule, client references, their search procedures, operating philosophy and relevant experience in the particular discipline or industry in which you are interested.
Meet the personnel
Interview the principal(s) of the organizations with which you are interested in working. Also meet with the person who will conduct the search. In the meeting, evaluate the firm's experience, how it works, its sensitivity to your assignment and the chemistry of the people in the room. Remember, the recruiter is an extension of your staff, and it's important to get along well with your staff members.
Verify a firm's business record
Finally, check references. Talk to other companies that have worked with the recruiter, both successfully and unsuccessfully. Try to talk to executives the recruiter has placed, as well as people the recruiter has failed to place. Find out the reasons behind the recruiter's reputation.
Beware of the "characters"
If you've done your homework, you experience with a professional recruiter can be a very satisfactory one. However, even among the good ones, you might encounter a few "characters."
There's the "hard sell" recruiter who tries to pressure you into making a quick decision. There's the "one in a million" recruiter who tries to convince you that a candidate is a gem who will never come again. You could also run into the "hurry, don't lose this one" recruiter who plays the competitive offer game, or the "innundator," who tries to impress you with sheer volume.
Sidestepping these common recruiting annoyances comes back to selection and relationship. But, if the recruiter you've picked displays some of these characteristics, don't be afraid to say what you don't like.
Assigning the search
A question that often comes up is whether you should assign a search to a recruiter on an exclusive basis or hire more than one firm. I have no hard-and-fast rule, but I prefer to give an exclusive for 30 days, providing I've had success with the recruiter in the past. The exclusive helps me focus my efforts and, I believe, builds a better relationship with the recruiter. Sometimes, though, I've used more than two firms on a nonexclusive basis if I believe the search will be particularly difficult or take a considerable amount of time.
Once you have selected the recruiter, arrange a second meeting to discuss the assignment. Don't give the assignment by telephone. In advance of the meeting, prepare a tight draft of the job description. It will be time well spent.
The meeting should be a candid exchange of views about the position and potential candidates, using the job description as a guide. If it's a position at a firm, be specific about which clients the employee will handle. If it's a corporate position, make sure the recruiter knows with which departments the person will be dealing.
Title is always an important consideration. Normally, the job title is established. Sometimes, however, you're filling a new position or one where you have some flexibility in title. Discuss your concerns and attitudes regarding title with the recruiter in advance.
Review the approximate percentage of time the person will spend writing, dealing with clients and the media, traveling, and on other duties. Discuss the reporting relationships, noting any potential sensitivities.
You should be as specific as possible about salary and benefits. Tell the recruiter what you want to pay, but ask for advice on market norms. If you can't be flexible on salary, say so! Don't let the recruiter assume you can go higher when you cannot. Tell the recruiter if the job merits a bonus, stock options or other perks.
One of the toughest areas to discuss is growth potential, yet this is usually among the most important factors the candidate will consider. Talk to the recruiter about future career opportunities. Discuss approximate timing. Think about potential horizontal career paths that might be attractive. And, by all means, tell the recruiter how performance will be measured.
Another important topic is company culture. This is an area usually not discussed with a recruiter. Company attitudes, dress and appearance codes, management's expectations of people and the personality of the person the position reports to are key criteria for the recruiter to consider in recommending candidates.
Finally, think about the nature of the work environment. Is it a pressure-packed office? Is productivity under pressure a prerequisite? Are long hours the rule or the exception? What kind of office will the person have? The recruiter must know all these facts to be able to conduct the search efficiently.
Agree on communication procedures
Successful searches often depend on your ability to keep up regular and productive communication. You should speak to your recruiter at least once a week to monitor progress. Probe for any problems or gaps in understanding of the assignment.
Agree on procedures to be followed during the search period. For example, if you want to see resumes prior to the recruiter's screening, say so. If you want to hear abotu potential candidates, let the recruiter know.
Some recruiters provide formal reports; they all should do reference checks. Some recruiters write backgrounders on their senior applicants. If you want written backgrounders, tell the recruiter. Finally, it's important to let the recruiter know how many candidates you want presented.
There's another very important reason for maintaining regular communiations with the recruiter. During a long or difficult assignment, it gives you a chance to talk about new ideas you may have, or, more importantly, any department or company changes that could affect the search.
Flexibility and an open mind are absolute musts in dealing with good recruiters. They often have access to or find candidates who on the surface just don't seem right. But, if the recruiter says, "See her!" then you owe it to yourself to interview the candidate, even if her resume suggests she is overqualified.
This happened to us recently in our search for a senior account manager. A candidate was brought to my attention who had all the right skills, the right background and loads of experience in the client's industry. There was just one problem: I knew the person would never take the job.
Yet, my recruiter persuaded me that I should see the individual--if not for now, then for the future. When I did interview him, I was very impressed. But I was even surer that he'd never take the job I was offering.
There was only one viable solution if I wanted to hire the candidate. I couldn't change the job description, so I had to create a defined short-term career path that would include broadened and increased responsibilities. In short, I had to excite the candidate about opportunities that went well beyond the immediate job I was offering. But, in addition, I had to map out a new organizational structure that wouldn't happen for quite a while.
The candidate accepted the job and has begun a new career. But the byproduct, our thinking about and planning for the future, could ultimately prove to be even more important to our company.
Measuring the success of a search
In one sense, measuring the success of a recruiter is much easier than measuring the impact of a public relations program. If you hire a candidate the recruiter found, then the search was successful; if you don't, it was a flop.
However, that's too simplistic a view. What if you hire a candidate who leaves after six months? Successful search or not? Probably not, yet so many factors influence on-the-job success that it's often hard to determine if the recruiter made a mistaken, if you erred or if both of you used bad judgment.
If you're ready to condemn a search firm for not finding the right candidate, make sure youhre not part of the problem. Have you rejected applicants for intangible reasons that you can't pinpoint? Were you really ready to make a decision? Did you really want to pay the high salary? A recruiter is not responsible for your doubts about any of these questions.
There will also be occasions where the recruiter finds the right applicant, but he or she turns you down. This could be a case of short-term failure, but long-term success, if you keep in contact with the recruiter and applicant for a possible future hire.
If you believe the search was handled professionally, keeping up the relationship with the recruiter is important. You might want to use that recruiter again. In addition, recruiters are constantly talking to prospective applicants, and can often be a valuable source of referrals. And finally, how you work with a recruiter says something about you as a professional and about your company.
Building a relationship with several good recruiters can be an invaluable way of helping to plan for the future. They are good sounding boards for human resources planning, something most public relations practitioners are not very experienced at.
George A. Rosenberg is president of the Atlanta office of the public relations firm Cohn & Wolfe.…