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How Do Executive Search Firms Find Candidates?

Executives often ask: “How do executive search firms find candidates?  What can an executive do to get on recruiter radars?”.  Having spoken to literally thousands of executive recruiters over the years (my firm provides technology and support services to headhunters), I felt it might be helpful to outline how C-Level and other senior executive jobs are filled.

An executive career is often likened to a ladder.  While there is a certain logic to this, the reality is that it is a flawed analogy.  While slight vertigo means I can’t claim to be an expert on ladders, those I’ve seen are generally as wide at the bottom as the top, and the steps are typically spaced equidistantly.  The executive career ladder, however, is triangular, with steps appearing less frequently as the candidate gets closer to the top. There are other differences too.  Not least, the fact that most ladders don’t have competitive climbers trying to get to the next rung before you do!

In reality, a successful executive career is not linear and doesn’t ‘just happen’.  For an executive to maximize his or her career potential requires many things, including an understanding of how executives search firms find candidates and what happens when the recruiter calls.

How does executive search work?

  • More senior roles (26% of them, according to our research) are filled by retained executive search consultants than by any other recruiting process
  • These recruiters work for the client – the company doing the hiring – and not for the executive. They are not motivated to find you a new job.
  • Opportunities are generally handled exclusively. This means that your relationship with recruiter Jane is of no value if recruiter Jill is managing the search.  Jill needs to be able to find you or you will not make the longlist.

This is a major difference to what an executive might experience earlier in her career.

Junior positions are typically filled by active job applicants.  For those roles, candidates searching for opportunities via job boards are the norm.  For the senior level executive, however, life is different.  The employer seeking to fill an executive job generally wants to find the very best candidate – and as a result wishes to work from the largest candidate pool possible.  Limiting the pool to candidates who are “actively seeking” jobs is not going to maximize that pool – and so a search firm is retained.  The job of the search firm is to go out and find the very best candidate for a role – and to persuade her to take the job.

It’s all about the timing – and it’s always the right time!

As an executive gets more senior, opportunities that might be considered attractive come along less and less frequently.  On average, only 11% of CEO positions open up every year.  That’s a small percentage of a relatively small number of positions.  The chances of an appropriate opportunity opening just as you decide you are ready for a new challenge – and of you being the successful candidate – are not high.  That’s why most recruiters encourage executives to be visible to recruiters constantly – you don’t want to miss out on the next opportunity because of a timing mismatch.

So how do executive search firms find candidates?

I mentioned above that executive search firms rarely run ads.  Instead, they hunt for the best candidates (hence the name “headhunters” – a phrase that excites candidates but many recruiters actively dislike).  To do this, they employ specialist researchers who will draw up a longlist of potential candidates for an opportunity.  The research process will vary from search to search.

In some cases, a search might involve targeting potential candidates in similar roles at a competitor – a “target company” driven search.  In many cases, however, a recruiter is tasked with identifying candidates based on more than tapping up the competition.  The client is hiring to solve a problem and, while in some cases the need is best met by hiring from the competition, in many cases it is not.  Indeed, many of the most successful searches in history involved hiring executives from beyond the industry sector of the client, based on perceived “transferable skills”.

How can an executive maximize the chance of a recruiter approach?

For “target company” based searches, an up to date profile on LinkedIn (or Xing, in German speaking countries) is often enough for a recruiter to find you – if you are currently employed in a relevant role with a relevant company.  However, for an executive between jobs, or one looking to make a change of industry, for example, being spotted for these types of searches can be more problematic.

Indeed, a simple ‘biographical’ LinkedIn profile may never be enough for a recruiter to find an executive based on a search for transferable skills.

A good example of this would be a CFO search for a fast-growing Internet company.  These types of firms may not have direct competitors as such, but sectorial knowledge may not be required by the successful executive anyway.  Instead, the primary requirement for this role is  likely to be experience of equity raising.  Previous completion of a successful IPO. Excellent relationships with institutional investors.  The name of the company where the candidate is working today is largely irrelevant, and much of the other information may not appear in a LinkedIn profile.

For an executive to be found for these types of positions she needs to do two things:

  • Identify the transferrable skills that she has and that might be relevant to the role that she is targeting
  • Ensure that recruiters can find her when retained to fill roles requiring those skills

How Executives use Linkedin to find jobs

An executive wishing to be found for the aforementioned CFO role might reasonably begin by adding the term “IPO” to his or her Linkedin profile.  Unfortunately, however, that alone will not be enough – a search on LinkedIn Recruiter for “IPO” turns up 285,000 potential candidates.  Narrowing the search to CEOs with IPO experience still brings up more than 50,000 profiles.

When you factor in that LinkedIn will only ever list the “top” 1,000 results – with the definition of “top” based on the LinkedIn algorithm – it is a statistical fact that the “average” executive may not be visible on these searches.

This is where LinkedIn profile optimization comes in.  A strategically optimized LinkedIn profile can position an executive profile to be found for the types of roles that he or she seeks.  It can increase the ‘relevant visibility’ associated with an executive significantly.  Seeding a profile with keywords based around how Linkedin “perceives” key skills for a job can cause an executive to appear far higher on a recruiter result list than might occur with a more generic profile.

However, even an optimized profile can only provide so much information to a recruiter.  A LinkedIn tagline is limited to 120 characters.  The summary is capped at 2,000.  Attached documents are not searchable (even if an executive felt able to attach supporting documentation in such a public platform).

LinkedIn has a further drawback for many senior executives.  It’s public.  Any changes made to attract the attention of a recruiter, may also be spotted by colleagues, employees, shareholders, competitors and – if they have one – the boss.  It’s a public platform and many executives cannot be seen to be looking.

Giving recruiters the full story

Profile optimization will improve your chances of being found significantly – but it may not be enough.  The sheer scale of the platform and the limitations as to what an executive can share means that to maximize her chance of being found, an executive must go further.

That’s where platforms like GatedTalent come in.  GatedTalent is a private network of executives, used by recruiters worldwide to find and engage with potential executive candidates.  A profile on GatedTalent – which is entirely free to create and maintain – allows an executive to share detailed information on achievements and aspirations with recruiters – safe in the knowledge that it will not be visible to the wider world.

Once created, updating such a profile regularly ensures that recruiters are always aware of the capabilities and aspirations of the executive and may dramatically increase the number of recruiter interactions she enjoys – in June 2019 alone, for example, executive search firms sent more than 130,000 connection requests to GatedTalent members through the platform.

Kickstarting your Executive Search – Next Steps

If you are an executive preparing for your next role, I’d offer the following advice.

  • Join us at an upcoming “Executive Careers” webinar. These webinars are free, and go into much more detail on some of the topic of how executive search firms find candidates – they are always “live” and so feature a Q+A session.  We host them every week and across multiple time zones.
  • Create your executive profile on GatedTalent. Again, it’s entirely free for you to do this and it will help you better share your achievements, aspirations and potential availability with the global executive search firms using the platform.
  • You might also want to consider having your LinkedIn profile optimized. This will help ensure that you maximize your chance of being found by recruiters on LinkedIn – our team includes a certified profile optimization specialist who would be happy to hear from you!

From the perspective of the hiring organization, a CEO search can take around three months.  From the executive perspective, the process can be considerably longer – often a year – and so my final piece of advice is this:  When you do receive a connection request, an email or a call from a recruiter, always accept and always listen to what they say.  Good luck in your search!

 

As an executive gets more senior, opportunities that might be considered attractive come along less and less frequently