Career Journal from WSJ logo

October 5, 2001

Avoid These Blunders to Impress Recruiters

By Jim Leverette and Terry Boles

Recently, our firm conducted a search for a director of world-wide information-systems security for a Fortune 10 firm. After spending considerable time with a particular candidate, we thought we were on track for a successful placement. At the eleventh hour, however, the candidate belatedly let us know that he already had been presented to our client by another search firm for a different position some months previously. He therefore was no longer “our” candidate. By the rules of the game, he “belonged” to the other search firm and we couldn’t proceed. Had the candidate been more forthcoming at the front end, things might have gone differently. We found another qualified executive to fill the position.

The experience illustrates how not to work with an executive-search firm. Even in the best of economic times, it pays to have two or three retained executive-search consultants in your corner whom you can count on to forward your interests. Now that the economy is slowing down, it’s even more important to keep search professionals on your side. How can you avoid getting a black mark next to your name in a search consultant’s database? It’s really quite easy. Simply avoid a few surprisingly common behaviors that may spoil the impression you make and dampen a search firm’s enthusiasm for you.

Here’s a short list of things not to do:

Don’t be dismissive. Even if you’re happy in your current role, or just extremely busy, take a moment to speak to search consultants or to call them back. While you may not be interested in the position they’re seeking to fill, you may know someone who might be a good match. Search professionals appreciate getting references and practice the law of reciprocity. We’re also human and might be less than enthusiastic when executives who have dismissed us in the past come seeking an opportunity.

Don’t surprise us (see above). More importantly, don’t surprise our clients. If you have a blemish on your record, let’s hear your version first, before we learn it secondhand. One of the worst things you can do is allow a possible red flag to surface during the closing phase of the search, embarrassing us all in front of a client.

Don’t prevaricate. Even at the highest levels of executive search, some candidates can’t resist the urge to embellish their resumes. Sometimes they don’t get caught. In nine cases out of 10, however, they do. Of course, you’re welcome to put a positive spin on your record.

Don’t fail your own history test. It’s surprising how many candidates can’t recite their own professional histories in chronological order. Know exactly what you did and where and when you did it before meeting with a search consultant. And it’s a good tuneup for meeting with a prospective new employer.

Don’t neglect your homework. Some candidates will spend the first 10 minutes of an interview asking basic questions about the position and the company at issue, showing that they never bothered to read the search specification. Candidates who do independent research create a favorable impression and show their clear interest in the new opportunity.

Don’t dress down. A search consultant is looking for executive presence, which is hard to achieve in a golf shirt and chinos. A more casual look may be appropriate after the first interview if the casual look is the norm at the prospective employer.

Don’t forget your manners. When meeting with an executive-search consultant, remember that every word, gesture or inflection will be duly noted. If you wouldn’t make an off-color remark to the client, don’t make one to an executive-search consultant.

Don’t tell us what you “need.” Search consultants don’t want to hear that you “need” to make $200,000 a year. We do want to hear why you think you’re worth that amount.

Don’t use this phrase. After reviewing an executive-search specification, it’s not uncommon for candidates to say something like the following: “This position looks as if it were taken directly from my resume.” We refer to this comment as “the kiss of death.” For whatever reason, candidates who say this are invariably weeded out during the search process. Perhaps it’s because they appear too eager, or maybe even desperate, to change positions and come on too strong. For whatever reason, candidates who utter this phrase never seem to make the cut.

Don’t waffle. Search consultants generally are intrigued by candidates who appear at least somewhat hard to get. We prefer to speak with people who are happy and successful in their current role but who are open to the possibility that the position we’re looking to fill might represent the next step in their career. However, a time comes when you have to make a decision. Dragging the process out is an inconvenience to the search consultant and the client, and indicates indecisiveness.

How you conduct yourself during the process does matter and can go a long way toward building a positive reputation in the executive-search community.

— Messrs. Leverette and Boles are managing partners in The Broadmoor Group, a global executive-search firm headquartered in Dallas. They can be reached at