As you grow in your career, it's important to grow your network with you. By the time they're 45 or 50, most executives will benefit if they have positive relationships with two or three quality search consultants. While I encourage these relationships, I'm certainly not saying you should always be looking for a new job. That's the path to failure. Most executives, however, will benefit if they occasionally are in touch with the market for people like them. At senior levels, search consultants are the closest thing to that kind of market. The right search consultant can be more than a source of job opportunities. He or she also can react to what you're doing and provide detached but well-informed advice that may be hard to find anywhere else.
Mutually beneficial relationships are possible: Just like you need search firms, the search firms need you. While you're not their client, you may be a candidate for one of their client's jobs. Someday, you also may be in a position to recommend their services, to become their client on the hiring side.
Before you invest much time or effort in search relationships, build the record of professional success required to be on their radar. Nothing matters more than success in your work. That comes first. Otherwise, few consultants will be very interested.
Once you've established that record or are well down that path, take these four steps:
1. Develop search relationships before you need them. The time to return phone calls or to take the initiative to meet search consultants is when you're not in play. It's much harder when you've just been laid off, you're about to be, or you've just resigned. If the consultant already knows and respects you, then it may not feel risky to try to match you with new opportunities once you're out of work.
2. Be selective. Look for a search consultant in your field. Boutiques serve particular industries, functions, or regions. Large firms serve a broad clientele, but within the large firms, individuals often focus on an industry, function, or region.
Look for the right, relationship-oriented consultant. A first test is whether they're willing to talk to you in any depth. If all they're doing is trying to populate a candidate database or fill an immediate job, you may respond to their call, but be cautious about investing in them.
Then interview the consultant — much like if you were hiring him or her to advise you on your career. Ask questions like "What's your role in the firm and your practice focus?" or "What are examples of your past clients and positions filled?" Ask about their past experience placing someone similar to you. Their role is to interview you, so it might seem surprising to question them. Do this so you can decide whether investing in the relationship is worth your time. Moreover, questions like these show the right consultant that you're a serious and thoughtful person.
3. If you're interested in a job, help the consultant help you. Help the consultant imagine where you might fit with a strong resume that supports a compelling personal value proposition. Be straightforward about your strengths, and don't try to hide your gaps relative to a particular opportunity. Don't ask to be proposed for a position if you're not qualified. One consultant told me this: "If you shift to wanting the job, be authentic, transparent, and honest. You'll never fool the recruiters."
Finally, let the consultant manage your pursuit of an offer. "The number one mistake," the consultant continued, "is to try to go around the recruiter, pinging the CEO you met with emails. If you're not comfortable trusting the recruiter, don't work with that person."
4. If you're not interested in a job, add value. Be helpful, in much the same way as being helpful builds the rest of your professional network. Make the consultant's call worthwhile even if you're not interested in the job. Provide feedback on the job they're filling — perhaps reasons why you're not interested or how it might be more appealing. Provide feedback on the client's reputation. Help the consultant keep up with nonconfidential developments in the industry or function.
Suggest others to call, but not just anyone. Choose those you think are high quality and match the job spec. Another search consultant put it this way: "Anyone referred is a reflection on you. If not an 'A' player, it demeans your value."
Search consultant relationships can be part of your long-term career strategy once you're far enough along to get their attention. What have you done to find and build these relationships?
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