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by Perri Capell | March 10, 2009


Despite their having e-mail and interactive Web sites, headhunters may seem more impersonal and remote than ever. But you can increase the odds of being contacted for an interview.

Dennis Dugan, 57, who has been job hunting since January, says he receives good response to his e-mails from recruiters. He has been a finalist for two search-firm assignments in the past four months. Previously, he was president of Xcelecom Inc., a unit of UIL Holdings Inc. in New Haven, Conn. His secret: contacting search firms only when his skills match the requirements of their posted openings.

"When your skills are a good match to their needs, you get a whole lot of attention," says Mr. Dugan, who lives in Basking Ridge, N.J.

But many other senior-level job hunters are dismayed by the lack of response they get from leading search firms. Although this frustration is nothing new, nowadays it's more maddening to executives because search firms seem to invite contact by posting job openings and listing individual recruiters' e-mail addresses on their sites.

Jim Sherburne, a marketing executive from Scotts Valley, Calif., sends e-mails to the personal e-mailboxes of recruiters handling searches for jobs that fit his skills. But recruiters from large search firms don't respond, he says. Mr. Sherburne has been consulting since his last job as senior vice president of marketing for Parasoft Corp., a software company, ended in 2002. "My theory is that I should be an ideal candidate for the large firms," he says. "In practice, I have found them to be almost uniformly unresponsive."

One reason recruiters don't respond to candidates' e-mail is that most receive hundreds of messages daily. James Citrin, global practice leader for technology, communication and media for Spencer Stuart, notes that he received 1,700 e-mail messages in a six-week period recently. "I get several hundred a day," he says. "You could spend your entire day being helpful and responsive to people, but not doing the jobs that clients have paid you to do. That sets up the tension right there."

Retained recruiting firms -- so named because clients pay them monthly retainers to find candidates -- have some of the best brand names in the search industry, having held the top spots in annual industry rankings for the past decade. Typically, they receive plum assignments to find executives for chief-officer level and higher jobs, and most senior job seekers view getting on their radar screens as important to search success. To reduce your frustration and improve your chances of having a recruiter respond to your e-mail or phone calls, heed these tips:

  • Know what search firms are paid to do.
Job seekers should understand that recruiters work for client companies and don't have time to return calls to every job seeker, says David Hoffmann, chairman and chief executive officer of DHR International, a large retained firm based in Chicago. "It's just the nature of the beast," he says. Getting back to job seekers "isn't something the firms focus on, and if anyone tells you differently, it's because they want to look good," says Mr. Hoffmann.

  • Check your expectations.
  • The hiring craze of the late 1990s may have given candidates unrealistic expectations about their marketability, says Richard M. Kurkowsi, chief financial officer of Spencer Stuart. They may think recruiters are dying to talk with them, he says. "People all remember how easy it was to get a job," he says. "Because of that, they may have had the feeling that it would be an easy thing this time. But we hit the recession, and it isn't the case anymore."

    Top executives seeking new jobs typically are "consumed" by their searches and anxious about their futures, Mr. Citrin adds. "If people are ignoring them, or are rude and unhelpful, it has a really magnified negative effect," he says.

  • Approach search firms only when you are an exact fit with a position's requirements.
  • Hopkintown, Mass.-based executive John Rogers says he's "made it through the door" at several top recruiting firms since beginning his search for a CFO or chief operating officer job in March 2003. This is because he's been an almost exact match with a job's specifications, he says.

    Most recently he was senior vice president, CFO and treasurer at Celox Networks Inc., a technology company in Southborough, Mass., which closed. "These days, it's difficult to get past the recruiter if you don't hit all the key requirements," says the 46-year-old. "In the past, you could miss one or two, and they would still talk with you."

    Being placed in his last job by Korn/Ferry International, a top retained firm, and having a track record of accomplishments have helped him establish credibility with recruiters and become a finalist several times, he says.

    Mr. Dugan says he never makes cold calls or tries to network with search executives. Instead, he sends personal e-mails to headhunters when their assignments match his skills. "I respond to the specifics of what the job may be," he says. But he knows many job hunters who get annoyed when recruiters don't return their calls, "Many of us in transition view it as an insult, but it's because they looked at our resumes, and it isn't a good match," he says.

  • Gain an introduction.
  • As a courtesy, search executives often will speak with candidates who are referred by someone they know and respect. Mr. Hoffmann says he was recently asked to meet with three or four former senior executives with RR Donnelley, which was acquired by Moore Wallace Inc. The request came from Donnelley's retired CEO, who visited Mr. Hoffmann at his home to personally seek the favor. Says Mr. Hoffmann: "I'm going to set up the talks and write a letter to our global offices about these people."

    Mr. Citrin says he'll phone or meet with candidates he's never met if they are referred by someone he trusts or have been in senior positions at companies he knows. He says he tries to spend 10% to 15% of his time each week talking or meeting with such senior candidates who have contacted him but who don't necessarily fit any of his searches.

  • Treat your job hunt as a business-development campaign.
  • Too many senior executives aren't strategic about how they approach search firms, says James Seeto, senior associate and director of research in Summit, N.J., for Boyden, another retained search firm. He suggests they behave as presidents or marketers seeking new business for their companies.

    "They wouldn't approach a company they are looking to do business with by sending an e-mail and saying, 'I am CEO of XYZ Co. and looking for business. Will you speak with me?' " he says. "They would find out the name of the right person to speak with and create a strategy for setting up a dialogue. They must see their search as another project in their career, not as a job hunt."

  • Consider working with smaller or contingency search firms.
  • Of the 5,500 search firms in North America, 2,654 work on a retainer basis for their client companies, according to Kennedy Information, publisher of the "Executive Recruiter Directory." (Kennedy is a partner of The rest are contingency firms, which are paid only when a candidate they find is hired.

    Mr. Sherburne says he's been pleased with how smaller firms have responded after he's contacted them. "I have found them to be pretty responsive and professional," he says. "If there's not a fit with their jobs, at least there's a dialogue."

  • Don't invest too much in this activity.
  • The odds related to top search firms aren't in candidates' favor, notes Russ Jones, a former recruiter and now managing partner at First Transitions, a Chicago outplacement firm. At most, a top search executive might work on about 10 assignments at one time, and there's little likelihood that an unemployed executive might fit the parameters of one of those jobs, he says. "It's a shot in the dark," says Mr. Jones. "It's worthwhile to get your paper into someone's hands. Just don't expect anything from it."


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