What to say (and not say) when a headhunter calls…

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How do you respond when an executive headhunter calls you unexpectedly about an opportunity?

It is an incredibly flattering endorsement, of course, but it is important to remember that it is also an informal assessment of your match for the potential role. As such, it is vital not to allow elation or the unanticipated nature of the call fluster you, as this acts to your disadvantage.

Be prepared for a call at any time by keeping in mind a few simple points:

1 – Make yourself available to speak freely

Only take a call if you have time to spare and are somewhere you can talk freely and give the call your full attention. We understand you may be at work or on a client site and will be happy to phone back or schedule for later. Rushed calls or whispered calls in train carriages are rarely conducive to a useful and productive conversation.

2 – Be honest
If the commute isn’t feasible or the remuneration doesn’t meet your expectations, say so. If there is room for flexibility on the salary or remote working, we can explore that. If we know it won’t be an option for that role, we will be open about this. If you are actively looking, we will still be happy to discuss your background and aspirations for other potential opportunities.

3 – Tell us about your journey
If we don’t already know you, we will ask about the journey you have been on in your most recent company. Tempting though it may be to detail your career chronologically, do keep to your recent employment history. If your early background is key to the role, we will ask about it specifically, but unnecessary detail dilutes – rather than enhances – your experience. A concise but rounded overview is best here.

It may perhaps be an idea to give a sentence on each of the following key points:

  • Situation when you joined the organisation – maturity / size / pain points
  • What you were brought in to do – consolidate / grow / programme / M&A
  • How you went about it – personal accountability / style of working / learns
  • Current situation – tracking / extent of success / challenge remaining

4 – Give a clear idea of where you sit in your organisation
This is simple on the face of it, but in my experience this is a question that trips people up, particularly in the case of complex matrix organisations. However, such a common question is well worth preparing a clear answer to. Give your direct and dotted reporting line(s), an idea of who your peers in the organisation are, and the number of your direct reports. Then you can detail any matrix setups/ additional projects.

5 – Get the balance right
If asked about a skill or experience, give a specific example. Each example should take no more than 2 minutes to explain. These are high-level overviews so that we can quickly tell whether you have the areas of experience critical to the role we are handling. If you can convey an example in a clear and concise manner, not only do you show your technical skillset, but also your communication skills and awareness of your audience. Individuals that can do this successfully set themselves above others. In my experience, individuals with the technical skillset are easy to find, it is this self-awareness which is much rarer.

6 – Be specific
It is equally important to be specific in your example, rather than speaking in generalisations. “I led the organisation through a series of programmes and business change strategies to release key benefits” doesn’t tell me much. What type of programmes? What type of benefits? What were you personally accountable for? What were the key challenges you faced and how did you overcome them? What are you most proud of? When you detail your experience, try to include these key elements.

7 – Terminology
Don’t assume knowledge of in-house or industry-specific terminology. If you use an acronym specific to your organisation or an industry-specific term, explain it and ask if I understand it. If I don’t, I will say so and I will be very grateful to you for having explained it and taught me something. In fact, these are often the candidates that leave me with the most long-lasting impression. Why? Because they have shown awareness of their audience and have tailored their explanations accordingly. This awareness tells me immediately that you have excellent stakeholder engagement skills and will be able to engage the business we are recruiting for.

8 – Ask questions
Firstly, this demonstrates your genuine interest in the opportunity. Secondly, this shows your track record of similar experiences and your knowledge of the common pitfalls and critical factors that will lead to your success in the role. Keep questions high-level at this stage. More detailed conversations will follow in due course.

On average, a Researcher can speak up to 50 candidates per week. Candidates I often retain the best impression of are those who have stood out in some manner. They may have come across as very genuine and warm, or very engaged and interested in the role, or had an impressive level of gravitas. These characteristics set these individuals apart. Don’t be afraid to draw on your unique personality and approach.

Such things make you memorable and if this opportunity doesn’t align, you will remain in mind for the next…