So You Want To Be a Headhunter?

Before you read this article, answer one question first. I’ll ask the same question again at the end. When you compare your two responses, you’ll learn a little about yourself. What’s the one single thing you need to do to become a better recruiter? Your first answer probably has something to do with finding stronger candidates, shortening the hiring cycle, being more influential with hiring managers, becoming a better interviewer, increasing your understanding of the job, improving your networking skills, or getting better at negotiating offers. All of these are important. And now is a very good time to focus on recruiting skills improvement: Once the economy strengthens, you’ll need to be better at what you do as you handle more assignments with even fewer easy-to-find candidates available. In our recruiter training program where we convert corporate recruiters into headhunters, we first classify recruiters into four broad categories, from beginner to advanced. Benchmark yourself as you read the descriptions below. They describe the skills, competencies, and typical results expected for each class of recruiter. When you evaluate yourself, first determine your class and how well you do within each class. Then consider if the class you’re in is appropriate for the candidates you’re attempting to hire. Each of the recruiter descriptions involve to varying degrees these key activities:

  • Sourcing different types of candidates, from active to passive
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  • Working with hiring managers to understand real job needs
  • The ability to accurately assess candidate competency and motivation
  • The ability to coach and advise hiring managers?? both in understanding the job and which candidate to select
  • The ability to influence candidates throughout the process, overcome key objections at every step, and then negotiate an equitable offer

All of these skills are important. But the key difference between the four recruiting classes below really depends upon whether the candidates you’re sourcing are active or passive. For example, finding and hiring active candidates requires different recruiting skills than finding and hiring a hard-to-find, passive, reluctant candidate. On the other hand, you don’t need great recruiting skills if you’re an employer of choice and top candidates apply through a simple ad. The type of candidates a recruiter needs to find and hire is the ultimate determinant of the recruiting skills required to be effective. So here they are, the four levels of recruiting: Level 1: Administrator The administrator is a recruiter who primarily posts ads and screens resumes. The targeted candidate pool is very active. These candidates are aggressively looking for a new job. Little influencing is required. Often candidates don’t have jobs, or their current jobs are unsatisfactory. It doesn’t take much to hire this type of person. Recruiters just need to administer the system. Knowledge of the job requires little more than reading the traditional skills-based job description. The assessment requires no more than a few simple behavioral-based questions, and some box checking. Making the offer is often no more than a quick phone call to review the comp plan and benefit package, which is followed up with a formal letter. There is little involvement with the hiring manager, either in determining true job needs or helping the hiring manager select the best candidate. One telling factor is that administrators spend a lot of time with their applicant tracking systems, looking for candidates who have applied. If you spend more than 50% of your time using your ATS, you’re probably an administrator. You’re a good administrator if you can keep your sendouts-per-hire ratio at around three. You’re a great administrator if you also write great ads and attract great active candidates. Level 2: Staffer Staffers have to reach out and find better candidates than those who simply apply through job postings. While these candidates tend to still be active, they’re not as easy to find. This requires effective use of more sourcing channels. Two words are key here: effective and more. More channels include events, managing the employee referral program, and some networking. Effective means maximizing the impact of an event to get more top active candidates to attend, improving the employee referral program by pre-qualifying candidates, and networking better by getting candidates and employees to refer more top candidates. Staffers need to have a better understanding of job needs; they work more closely with hiring managers throughout the assignment to influence the choice of candidates, and they are able to compete more effectively for the best active candidates. This requires the ability to more effectively position the job against other opportunities the candidate might have. Influencing candidates and hiring managers is one key difference between staffers and administrators. Another is reaching out for more channels to find candidates. Staffers spend less time on their ATS; however, they still spend most of their time working with active candidates. A ratio of three sendouts per hire is still a very good target, and the best staffers strive to achieve this goal with strong candidates. Level 3: Recruiter To become a recruiter, you need to be able to find and hire top passive candidates. Passive candidates are those candidates not actively looking for another job. However, there are two types of passive candidates: those who want a recruiter to call and offer them a chance to explore an opportunity, and those who are perfectly happy where they are. Recruiters go after these passive candidates who want to be found. Once you have a name, all you need to do is call and ask the candidate if they’d be open to exploring a new opportunity. It doesn’t take much to get a yes, but you still need to call and ask. However, even for passive candidates who are “open to consider other opportunities,” it’s not so easy to convince them they should pursue your opportunity or accept an offer if one is ever extended. This is where recruiters earn their stripes. First, they must have excellent insight into the real challenges and opportunities in the job. They need this in order to clearly demonstrate to the passive candidate that the position they’re representing is clearly superior to any other possible career move, including staying in their current job. Recruiters must work closely with hiring managers, and they must act together as a team in negotiating offers and getting top candidates hired. They can overcome most candidate objections and can lead the negotiations in putting an offer package together, even if the candidate has other opportunities or obtains a counter-offer. Recruiters know what good candidates look like, and they take great pride in representing and hiring the best. To be classified as a great recruiter, you first have to take responsibility for finding and hiring top candidates without making excuses. Recruiters don’t easily take no for an answer?? either from candidates or their hiring manager clients. One telling sign of a recruiter is that the phone is a more important tool for success than the ATS. Sendouts per hire are less important for a recruiter, with quality being the real determinant of success. Level 4: Headhunter Headhunters have the ability to find and hire those candidates who don’t want to be found or hired away. You know you’re a headhunter when you can convert a “no” from a passive candidate who has a great job into an enthusiastic “yes”?? despite a relocation, a poor company reputation, a bad title, and maybe even a weak comp plan?? or any other challenge you care to name. Even if they can’t convert every no into a yes, headhunters get just about every cold call returned; they obtain career profiles from even the most reluctant candidates; and they have a knack for obtaining great referrals from everyone. Recruiters know what the best candidates look like, and they home in on finding them through strong networking with candidates and employees. But headhunters recognize the importance of being on the phone calling candidates, influencing and counseling them, and networking with everyone. They recognize that the ATS is just a tool to manage data. Headhunters know the job as well as the hiring manager. In fact, they work closely with the hiring manager in defining the job?? often before the requisition is even approved. They are not pushy or single-minded, just diligent and extremely persuasive. They are true career management professionals, and as a result are completely trusted by the candidate and hiring manager alike. They can lead the most complex comp and benefit negotiations, ensuring a win-win for everyone. The bottom line difference is that headhunters won’t give up until they find the best candidate available, not the best available candidate. For this reason, sendouts per hire is not the goal, although three to five is typical. While these descriptions are not complete, they do paint a picture of the four broad classes of recruiters and the competencies within each class. In my opinion, next to being an employer of choice, the ability for a company to consistently hire top talent is a direct function of the quality of its recruiting team. So, if as a company you’re not hiring enough top people, look first to upgrading the skills of your recruiting team. First, rank each of your recruiters to determine if they’re in the right class, and then on how well they’re performing within that class. This assessment will reveal where you need some skills development. Don’t try to develop headhunters if a great administrator or staffer will suffice. Also, don’t try to convert an administrator into a recruiter or headhunter. The leap is too great. Instead, let them become great at what they do best. If you’re an individual recruiter, evaluate yourself the same way. Then, answer my opening question again: What’s the one single thing you need to do to become a better recruiter? Compare your opening and closing answers. Then send me an email ( I’d like to hear about the differences, and what they revealed to you.

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).


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