6 Tips on networking with agency recruiters for career advancement

How to network for career advancement is a hot topic. However, people tend to under-estimate how headhunters / agency recruiters can be an important part of the network, even if you are not looking for a job.

As an ex-agency recruiter, I feel that I have some of the insights on this topic, less known by the common people. Here are my 6 tips on how to network effectively with headhunters for career opportunities and advancement.

It’s interesting how the name "headhunter" has been given to the modern agency recruiters. They hunt for headcounts, but are definitely not snatching your head from behind. Instead, nowadays the first thing they do is to say hello on LinkedIn, or ring you a catch-up call out of nowhere.

A perspective on networking for career

Think of your professional network as a network of nodes. Two important aspects of your network are the reach and the strength.

The reach is about how many people you are connected to at 2nd or 3rd degree level. Generally, the more connection you have, the more job opportunities you will have exposure to.

The strength is about how strong your relationship is with a particular node.

How to network for career advancement? You will need to work on both of the aspects. A headhunter is a weaker link but at the same time holding great potential in increasing your reach. Such weak links can often be a great addition to your network.

However, when talking about networking with headhunters, we usually think of them for job search. And questions come up.

“Should I use a recruiter in my job search?”

“Are recruiters even useful?”

The thought behind these come from the experience that headhunters don’t always respond and so the interaction hardly yields much results when we start looking for a job.

Understand how headhunters work

Let’s first understand how headhunters work.

Headhunters are often managing multiple (20-40) job assignments concurrently, depending on which seniority level they are working at. These job assignments are at different stages, some expire when getting closed or lost (filled by other recruiters), while some new ones emerge and join the queue.

The way a headhunter files a candidate is as such:

  • A. Immediately place-able
  • B. Highly place-able but not immediately
  • C. Rank and file (ok but nothing stands out)
  • D. Forward to other colleagues (your profile is not for the kind of roles this recruiter works on, but other colleagues might be interested. There the filing cycle restarts)
  • E. Blacklist (integrity issues, dodgy profile, etc)

What gets you into the “Immediately place-able”? Pure luck. It happens when it happens. I mean, if you happen to be looking for a job and a job this headhunter is trying to fill is right for you.

C ( Rank and file) is the most common scenario, if you do not turn up in E (Blacklisted) for whatever reason.

Here’s the secret: I want you to get in B – Highly place-able but not immediately.

How headhunters can help your job search

Every headhunter has a “Remembered-By-Heart” list of less than twenty people. These are the people they personally know, like, and trust.

If you are on their list, granted they will give you the first call the moment they received a new job order that makes sense for you. No database search, no filtering interview. You are getting in the VIP express passage at immigration without any queue. And we know time is everything in the recruitment game.

What’s more, your recruiter is even willing to put in the personal guarantee to request for an interview, and confident enough to counter client’s hesitation. All these because you are someone they personally know, like, and trust.

Headhunters should be an important part of your network, to help you get more opportunities and grow your career. This is not to replace your linkedin networking and direct job applications, but is on top of that.

The potential benefits if you know how to work with headhunters:

  • More job opportunities: companies are still using headhunters because recruitment is costly, some roles are urgent, niche roles are hard to hire, in-house team is always overwhelmed.
  • More information: about the job, the team and the company culture etc: headhunters are often briefed and they know a lot more.
  • Personalized interview preparation: With those information, you can ask them questions in your prep, a good headhunter can help you a lot and increase your chance of success
  • Extra recommendation: If they are convinced about you, they can convince hiring managers to meet you, or even influence them to give you an offer. Every headhunter has convinced hiring managers to meet people who they eventually offered.
  • Detailed feedback after interview: This is something inhouse recruiters have to be more cautious in doing. Because they don’t want to become a media headline. Not only headhunters can provide you interview feedback, they also may offer you some pointers on writing a good resume. Or how you can have an awesome profile after jobhopping.
  • A favorable Salary negotiation: Because your interests are aligned, headhunters charge a percentage of your salary as commission.
  • Free Counselling: They have seen many human issues which are similar to yours. These can be great data point for reference, on how you handle that career decision with family needs, health etc. Some headhunters can also help with your mind issues such as how to be more confident at interviews though they don’t always have the time. Or, if you are at a junction of career change, they may help you on finding the best career for you.

As headhunters have limited resources and time, they DON’T always give these benefits to every candidate. To reap more benefits mentioned above, first we need to understand How headhunters work.

Before we dive in, I want to highlight that Headhunters don’t tend to work with Fresh graduates as candidates. Here’s on how to let your resume stand out as a fresh graduate or with minimum work experience.

How does headhunter work

Headhunters primarily work for companies who pay, though they do need to align interests of both parties, to make a placement and grow their business.

Candidates are tier-ed for every headhunter roughly in such a way:

  • “hot” immediately placable (Always on my mind)
  • “Keep Close” (remember by heart)
  • Rank & File in the database
  • Blacklist (rude, unethical, dodgy)

You want to be that “Hot” candidate, and if not, “Keep Close” candidate. Because when a new job comes, every recruiter will first search in their memory, those they remember by heart will jump out in the first second.

There’s also one thing called “float” in the industry, basically they are sending these highly place-able candidates to employers. You will want to make sure they tell you where they plan to send you to, and ask you for consent.

Sadly, there are headhunters who don’t do this, and it is unethical. It may cause serious issues for both the employers and jobseekers. So I’m going to talk about how to engage with them, how to assess them, how to make sure you are working with the professional headhunters who will really help you.

How to assess a headhunter

Bottomline – Consent

they must seek consent before sending your CV to a client, which means you must know who this client is, and whether it is for a specific role. You have the rights to say no. This will also avoid Double representation: there’s a term in this industry called “Double Representation”: meaning two recruiters have sent in the same candidate profile to the same job. Because it causes confusion, creates inefficiency, and makes everyone, the recruiter, the headhunter and you look bad.

Does he know what he’s talking about

The company, the job. Can he/she answer some of your basic questions about the business? Or Is the headhunter only interested in getting your CV and send it out?

Does he or she listen to what you are saying

If you are indicating very clearly you won’t ever work for a tobacco or alcohol company because of personal values, and he still asks you to consider a role with BAT, then there’s a problem.

Good headhunters are great bridge of information, and if they demonstrate this, make sure you connect with them often, ask them many questions in the job briefing or interview processes. Don’t be shy and they will tell you everything except for what they can’t share.

Do they care about long term

If they only wants to make a placement, the behavior can be completely different. If you say you can do maximum 20% travelling, a good headhunter will check with you, eh, but the job may have a bit more traveling at times, are you open? A bad one might hide that information.

Find out if they are in retainer assignment

Senior roles can be in retainer assignments.

Who are the credible clients they usually work with

This is to establish whether they operate in a target sector you want to be in.

How to work with headhunters

Be nice: If they approach you – don’t treat them like credit card sales, even if that unsolicited call annoyed you. You don’t want to end up in a blacklist and miss a potentially good partner.

Communicate interest: Let them know that you r open or actively looking.

Assess them: Discussed in the earlier paragraph.

Make an impression: Try to get on the “Keep Close” list, you first need to make a stronger impression – and the best way is to meet them in person, not phone calls. In the current situation with COVID in place, you want to at least do a video call.

Keep in touch regularly: And once you made an impression, you still need to check in once in a while to reinforce the image and make the memory more recent.

Give them bullets to use: When you have established good trust with them, you need to support them about selling yourself. Feed them the best things about u, with bullets, write-up, your most recent media exposure etc. The idea is to help them understand the career capital you have. See my article on How to take stock of your career capital.

Utilize their information: If you are a “Hot” candidate working on an active role, make sure you ask a lot of questions, to get the information important for you, whether on interview prep or post-interview feedback.

Know where they do not align to your interest

Try to say less about the details of how the interview went. Because they will (likely) share it with other candidates. They learn about the company and interviewer style from such debriefs and tend to tell the other candidates.

Set your own expectation. They will manage your expectations, especially on salary. They want to push the salary higher, yes, but they would not want to risk losing the deal just by adding another 1k to your salary, because it’s going to be less impact on their commission.

Don’t tell them exactly where and what role you are interviewing with. This becomes an intelligence of industry movement and a lead for headhunters. You don’t want that to happen, unless you know that role is more or less filled.

Some back story on my trip to the headhunting village

The old man on the cover photo is a real headhunter. He is highly respected in his village because he has 6 shrunk enemy heads on his necklace. Now this has been symbolized so we didn’t see the real stuff.

This was in Nagaland, the North Eastern region in India. We joined a peace march between two headhunting villages – a symbolic ceremony of one village’s men to march to the opponent village. The marching men would be fully dressed as warriors and take their weapons. When they enter the village, they will shout and dance in an organized manner, just like in real war. Apparently, this was to remind their war-past (a bit strange logic), and then signify a cease-fire. Then they’d stop and enjoy the feast and dances that the host village had prepared beforehand. All these happened at a townhall, a central ceremonial space of the village. Just like corporate townhalls, everyone had to bear with the executive speeches. an extremely long and boring one by the village chairman, in their case.

And this old gentleman was sitting in a prominent place. Oh no he didn’t get to hunt any head actually, because the practice stopped like 200 years ago. His ancestors used to solve conflicts between all neighouring villages by hiding somewhere, and then snatch the passer-by from the enemy village, take his head, shrink it and then hang as a war trophy.

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 Yolanda is a certified transformational coach, entrepreneur, and multi-award-winning writer. She holds an MBA from INSEAD, served director/VP level BD roles in Fortune 500 MNCs and tech unicorns. 

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