An Action Plan to Convert Your Corporate Recruiters into Headhunters

In normal economic times, search firms make a lot of money placing candidates corporations should be able to find on their own.

“How do they do it and what can be done to prevent them from doing it to us?” is a question many corporate recruiting leaders are asking. The underlying premise here is that if corporate recruiting departments could be organized and run like contingency recruiters and executive search firms, lots of money would be saved.

Despite the promise of the objective, very few companies have been able to successfully pull it off.

There are a variety of reasons for the this. Following are the most obvious:

  1. The hunter vs. farmer issue. External recruiters are more hunter-types, drawn to the challenge of commission sales. Corporate recruiters are farmer-like, cultivating relationships, seeking more security, and focusing on activity.
  2. Compensation vs. security. The best third-party recruiters make tons of money and the pretty good ones do OK. These recruiters are driven by the compensation, just like any top salesperson, so if the pay isn’t comparable, you’ll attract a different person with different motives and achieve different results.
  3. The ability to cherry-pick assignments. The best contingency recruiters select the jobs they want to work on, and the best always have enough assignments. They also can walk away from those that turn out to be too time-consuming. Executive search recruiters are known to be industry specialists and seek out assignments that match their interests and abilities. Corporate recruiters just can’t say no.
  4. The ability to select hiring managers. The best external recruiters develop long-term relationships with their hiring manager clients. This increases their influence, they hear about potential openings before the reqs are formalized, and they are more influential at every step in the process. This matching isn’t so easy for corporate recruiters who are assigned to work with hiring managers.
  5. Workload differences. It’s much easier to develop and maintain client and candidate relationships when a recruiter is working on fewer assignments. Most retained recruiters handle 3-4 assignments at any one time with the help of researchers. Most contingency recruiters handle 8-10 assignments, but only focus on the easiest three or four. This is far less than most corporate recruiters.
  6. Multi- vs. single-company focus. External recruiters — again I’m only referring to the best here — tend to be subject-matter experts and represent similar jobs with different companies. This is a real advantage to a candidate, since he or she can leverage her efforts by dealing with fewer recruiters and be exposed to more opportunities. This advantage doesn’t exist for a corporate recruiter who only represents one company and probably a smaller range of job opportunities.
  7. Continuous vs. long-term candidate relationships. Good external recruiters have access to more jobs in the short run, and are more likely to be someone whom the candidate will work with again in the future. Corporate recruiters tend to be more transactional, filling jobs and moving on. This is huge disadvantage for corporate recruiters, since they also lose the ability to network and get as many top referrals.
  8. Speed vs. bureaucracy. Good active candidates are easy to place. Just call up three to four companies and present your candidate, and bingo — a placement. It’s very likely that one of the companies called will have an instant need for a strong person. Corporate recruiters are tied to the pace of their company, which is usually slow and methodical.

Most of the differences noted above are organizational and compensation-based, and not easy for a large corporation to emulate, but all is not lost. Much of the competitive advantage external contingency recruiters have is speed of execution — finding the best first and getting them out on interviews quickly.

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With this in mind, here are some ideas on how corporate recruiters can close this time gap and get to the best people quicker:

  1. Be found first. Getting top people as soon as they enter the job-hunting marketing is a huge competitive advantage. A well-connected third-party contingency recruiter can present a top person to multiple clients within days. By the time a corporate recruiter finds this same candidate, it’s often too late. The person has either already accepted another position or is too involved to be interested. External recruiters work very hard at getting candidates to call them first, either through aggressive advertising or word-of-mouth networking. To offset this, corporations need to develop early-bird sourcing programs to compete on this level. This includes compelling advertising, search engine marketing programs, and the use of talent hubs.
  2. Leverage your employee referral program. While each individual corporate recruiter is unlikely to be able to develop a deep network of potential prospects, a company’s employees are. To get this going, have your employees reach out to every great person they’ve worked with in the past using LinkedIn or something equivalent to establish the connection. Make the program formal, with regular emails, having your employees tell their contacts to contact them first, whenever they want to consider leaving their current company. This way, you’ll increase your odds that you’ll have a crack at attracting the best before everyone else.
  3. Build a pipeline of prospects. Over many years, you should be able to build a huge prospect database filled with leads, business card info, and resumes. Some of the newest and more robust CRM systems can help you nurture this database and reach out with compelling emails when an opportunity arises. RSS feeds, agents, and Twitter job feeds are also good ways to stay in touch. The key is to be compelling and be regular. This is a great way to build your brand and attract good candidates before they’ve thought of looking on the open market.

As part of all this, you must provide prospects you find early in their job hunt an opportunity to learn more about the job on a non-committal, exploratory basis. Too many corporate recruiters, reinforced by their hiring systems, force candidates to commit before they’re ready. This means you need to allow these prospects to talk with or IM recruiters or managers, rather than send a resume or fill in an application. Finding candidates first is important, but if you push too hard you’ll turn the best off, so a balance is required during these initial discussions.

Even if you get the person first, the real work now begins. You’ll need to offer a compelling job that rivals everything else out there. As part of this, your corporate recruiters must be great negotiators and be able to fight off their external rivals who are aggressively trying to place your great catch before you make an offer. It’s important to think through the hiring process end-to-end including how job descriptions are written, the professionalism of the interviewing process, and how offers are presented and closed. It won’t much matter how soon you find these stars if the back-end falls apart.

It’s not possible to create an external search firm environment within a corporate structure. Regardless, there are things recruiting leaders can do to at least be in the hunt and minimize their reliance on external firms. But whatever you do, expect these external firms to do something better, different, and sooner, in response.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


14 Comments on “An Action Plan to Convert Your Corporate Recruiters into Headhunters

  1. Lou,

    Great article and very timely. We are in this process currently with our recruiter population and expect to see some positive results with predatory sorucing and conversion behavior.

    Bob Markey

  2. Corporate staffing has to realize that it’s not an ‘us vs them’ scenario. Third party recruiters, such as myself, are there to help identify, source and “sell” the best available candidate after the unqualified and uninterested have all been eliminated from consideration.

    Our clients call us when a) they have failed to source and attract the right talent or b) it is a critical need (or both). There are of course other reasons but those top the list.

    Instead of always pushing against us, try developing a relationship with a good recruiter that works with you, knows your talent marketplace, and who you can count on when you have a recruiting problem.

    Especially a good contingency firm – they do the work and don’t get paid unless you agree that you want to and actually hire the candidate they have presented – and you wouldn’t do that unless they were the best candidate for the position.

    Just like any other professional, a third party recruiter performs a necessary function when needed. You don’t call a mechanic to put fuel in your vehicle, you only call them when you have a problem you need solved!

  3. Lou,

    NetApp is one of the few companies that pulled it off in 2008. We hired nearly 300 field sales professions in the 1st six months of 2008 where only 3-4 (1%) of those hires carried a contingency fee. We paid our employee and contract recruiters really well and sent them to Vegas when they hit the number in June. They still could have qualified for the trip with up to 5% agency usage. We only headhunted for sales talent(very few job boards) and had dedicated sourcers for each recruiter plus a researcher who managed name gen. Most of the recruiters on this team could be quota carrying sales professionals for NetApp, able to convince top talent at our conmpetitors why NetApp wins against them in the market. The internal recruiters have key relationships with Sr. field executives, who carry a P&L and would prefer to source from inside the company for cost reasons. 50% of the hires were employee referrals and 60% of the hires were names that the hiring managers knew. This starts with executive field management driving managers to build internal pipelines where the recruiter co-owns the process and campaigns.

  4. Now this is what I call a “KICK ASS” article, from someone who trains both internal and external recruiters. I have attended both LIVE and WEBINAR’S with the Adler Group and they are the “REAL DEAL”.
    SECRET: If you want to make $, make 2x as many calls (targeted), stop complaining, prove to people you care, have passion, and get working…. (Energy goes where attention flows..)

  5. Leif – you’ve got a great model – this is what it takes – recruiters and line managers in partnership. Thanks for sharing this story.


  6. Lou – great article and very timely. Over the past two years, we have effectively in-sourced the entire recruitment function for our organization. This was accomplished by ensuring we provided the same level of expertise and professionalism internally that our line managers typically only experienced through the use of outside vendors. It took some time, solid relationship building, and some “big wins,” but we now have an internal search firm within the HR department. With the right attitude, objectives, and metrics and the advice you’ve offered, this is a plausible accomplishment for any organization.

    Semper Fi,


  7. Interesting article however very few Companies will ever be able to do what a HeadHunter/Recruiter can do. Having been on both sides of the equation Companies in all their infinite wisdom have made that a reality. In an effort to make their Recruiters more productive and spend less time answering what they called annoying calls from those Contingency Recruiters they created what is now being referred to by most unemployed people I speak to as “THE BLACK HOLE”. The dreaded online application that you spend 2 hours to complete and submit and you don’t know if anyone will ever see it or if they care. All you know is someone called “Auto Response” sends you an e-mail saying don’t apply again if a Recruiter reviews your profile and is interested they will contact you. I don’t know who this Auto Response person is but when most people can’t get 1 job this person had 101 jobs. Then when they think they have filled the position and the person backs out or they cannot come to an agreement and they re-post the position if you try to send an updated resume it tells you you’ve already applied for this job GO AWAY. So what happens if I am looking and seriously want to get a Job ASAP I am going to a Contingency Recruiter because 1)my chances of my resume getting out to more companies than I can do on my own is greater 2) I am not filling out applications for nothing and on average only 4-5 a day and lastly I am not supplying my Social Security number or DMV number which many ask for now to Companies who the only one who seems to have an interest is in my resume is AUTO RESPONSE.
    I enjoyed both sides of the business but without a doubt as long as Companies continue to hide behind those online applications and those recruiter@xyz e-mail addresses Contingency Recruiters will always make a living and if they are good should because while they are doing the company and the applicant a service.
    BTW if I can get in a plug for my new Job Board launching on May 6th… which is a Job Board for Corporate and Contingency Recruiters there is no candidate interaction. It will save Companies money who are still using Contingency Recruiters and Increase Contingency Recruiters Revenues. Interested parties can contact me at

    Thanks Lou

  8. I have discussed this issues at length with several principles at executive search companies. While it is possible to recruit at the lower levels it is far more difficult at either the higher levels or in sectors of industry where the disciplines are most specific. Here most of the executives are well placed and well compensated. It takes a special practice to source them out and lure them to another position. At this level, recruiting requires rigorous skills sets that have been honed over time and much experience.

  9. Gordon – while I agree that recruiting at lower levels is less difficult and that executives are well placed and well compensated, I’m not sure that I fully agree with your statement that the experience of the search practice is the primary driver that allows the luring of an executive to one position over another. The more critical driver is the value proposition the organization presents for potential candidates at all levels. If this is not well defined and attractive to candidates, all firms (regardless of experience), including internal recruiters, will have a much more difficult time luring the best to the organization. I do agree, however, with your point about sourcing. Specialized, targeted, and experienced practices have a much deeper and broader network of relevant contacts than the typical internal recruitment function. Specialization allows for that. Conversely, internal recruiters are more generalized because we are required to recruit for positions across all major functional areas.

    You do bring up a good point about the seniority of the position. As an “internal headhunter,” I’ve had to earn the credibility of my CXO’s through wins both big and small. This was a difficult endeavor, especially for an organization who’s default search strategy was to call a retained firm. My point is that if you can isolate someone that has the “rigorous skill sets that have been honed over time and much experience,” this transformation Lou mentions is very do-able.

  10. Brendan-You are quite right that about need for the the value proposition to be attractive to the candidates. It is of course the primary consideration. Most of my insights comes mainly from living with someone who conducts retained searches on the executive levels, as the well as the input of her friends and partners. So I am largely going by what I hear on a daily basis. The more demanding aspects of her responsibilities are the research and sourcing and the knowledge of the specialty. It is the reality that these searches are so difficult that causes companies to retain them. As for me, as the Co-Founder of Corra Group, out task is conducting the preemployment background checks, once a candidate is selected. As I work with recruiters and HR people on a daily basis, I read this forum with a great deal of interest. Provides a lot of insights to the process.

  11. Paul Paris gets it!!! Corporate recruiters need to know their limits and create relationships with external vendors and not be part of the problem.

    Lou, unfortunately sitting back writing books and contributing theory do not make companies run. It is all about delivery!! Something most corporate HR depts just cannot do. They do not have the commitment nor passion as Brian is eluding. I know I sound scorned but everyday for 15 years managers at all levels constantly complain about corporate HR.

  12. This is the greatest thread in the “history of ERE.” (My view)

    Were all on the same team, and I firmly believe what is happening globally now is a “Blessing in Disguise”…. (There are CRAP Third party recruiters and CRAP internal recruiters)

    Were all going to come out on top, because what the universe is telling us (MY VIEW), is that if you don’t take your job/career serious, with PASSION, Vigor, and Transparency, you will be FORCED to the sidelines…
    Because what this world needs are “PEOPLE WHO COME ALIVE!”

    LOVE and GRACE,

  13. If a company wants the “Headhunter Mentality”, here’s an idea: Hire headhunters instead of those that have only served as Internal Recruiters. Instead of trying to find an Internal Recruiter from an ‘Recruiting Excellence’ or ‘Award-Winning’ company, open your horizons to headhunters (that would like to go internal).

    In the military world, you can’t always make a special forces operator out of the average infantryman – that’s why the indoctrinations are so tough. The core of the person has to be well-fit or they’ll give up at the first sign of mental, emotional, or physical difficulty. We weren’t looking for guys that thought all missions could be accomplished by just showing up . . . likewise, I’d recommend looking for headhunters that don’t believe all jobs can be filled through a job board or a new profile on LinkedIn. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes, and this all starts with the core of the person.

    To make this strategy happen, first and foremost, you need a Recruiting Manager (or Director) that appreciates and embraces the third-party side of the fence. Because if they don’t, they likely have zero desire to make ‘headhunters’ out of their ‘internal recruiters’ anyway, right?

    The problem with this strategy, however, is that the best headhunters aren’t going internal . . . because there is too much money (and much less corporate quicksand) in headhunting.

    IMHO: If you’re a superstar, it’s simply too profitable and professionally fulfilling being on the outside as a critical go-to partner.

  14. JOSH tells the 100% truth here…

    “IMHO: If you’re a superstar, it’s simply too profitable and professionally fulfilling being on the outside as a critical go-to partner.”

    I am unable to even comprehend, why a talented internal recruiter would give up there “list/rolodex”, and build someone else’s business/dreams/passions.. (CORP.)

    The top TPR I know are doing great/fine currently, and are positioned to “print money”, when the market turns, because there will be no one in HR to fulfill the need.

    Take care,

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