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11 Tips for Dealing With Headhunters

Written by: Heather Joslyn
Published on: Feb 5, 2020

Few people in the nonprofit world, especially in senior positions, get their jobs without some sort of personal introduction or referral. Leadership and top fundraising roles are often filled with the help of executive recruiters.

Even if you’re not looking for a new job now, building a good relationship with a headhunter might bear fruit for a search in the future or present a surprise opportunity to vie for your dream job.

But keep your expectations reasonable, warns Susan Egmont, a recruiter for nonprofit clients in Boston. “A search firm is not going to be a highly likely source of a new job for most people,” she says. “Recruiters work for the employer, not the job seeker, and are not interested in helping people who are in the general market for a job.” At any given time, she says, people like her are looking for a very specific type of candidate for a very specific job.

Three veteran recruiters who specialize in filling nonprofit positions offer the following tips for getting on their good side — and getting the career you want.

1. Do your homework.

Research the organization you’re applying to, but also the recruiter, says Isaac Schild, managing partner at Scion Executive Search, which has offices in San Francisco and Portland, Ore. “You need to know who you’re speaking with,” he says.

2. Don’t cold-call.

Informational interviews with nonprofit professionals can help build contacts and shed light on what it takes to rise in fundraising, or into the executive director chair. But most recruiters are unlikely to have, or make, time for such chats.

“It’s 1:30, and I’ve already been invited to coffee three times today,” says Ms. Egmont. “As much as I love coffee, I just can’t do it.”

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check in periodically with a headhunter once you’ve established a relationship.

“I always admire the people who ping me every six months,” asking what’s new, says Molly Brennan, founding partner at Koya Leadership Partners, which works in Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Boston area. When opportunities pop up, she says, “they’re the ones who come to mind.”

3. Always respond to a recruiter.

Many professionals have gotten a call from a headhunter asking if they “know anyone” who is interested in a particular job. Pick up the phone — and that signal — say experts.

“If any recruiter reaches out to ‘network,’ they want to know if you’re interested,” says Mr. Schild.

If you’re not interested in a particular opportunity, referring other people can help you establish a relationship with the headhunter. “If you offer that courtesy to your search consultant, they will keep you in their contact list, and you will likely hear from them again,” says Ms. Egmont.

Giving referrals can also help strengthen your ties to your professional network, Ms. Brennan suggests. When she reaches out to people who have been referred to her, “no one I’ve talked to has not been happy that someone was thinking of them.”

4. Make time to talk.

Whether you are a candidate or just referring one, make yourself available for a phone conversation during business hours, Ms. Egmont says. “Your search consultant probably doesn’t want to work on Saturday or evenings.”

5. Spiff up your online profile.

You may have taken care to keep your image professional, grown-up, and classy on Facebook or Twitter. But did you ever get around to adding a photo to your LinkedIn profile? Google and LinkedIn will be a recruiter’s first stop when he or she gets your application for an open position, says Mr. Schild. “Organizations want to find people who are not afraid of the medium, who are out there publicly.”

Employers are looking for other signs of tech savvy, he says, right down to an applicant’s email address. “If you apply with an AOL, Hotmail, or Yahoo address, people will stereotype: Is this someone who adapts to technology as well as someone who uses a Gmail address?” Even a Comcast address, he says, looks outdated now.

6. Write a cover letter.

A thoughtful cover letter tailored to the job you want can help you stand out, especially if the new position isn’t a slam dunk.

“If you’re not in the role you’re currently applying for, you need to show that you have the skills to do the job,” says Mr. Schild. “Writing a really thorough letter is a powerful statement. The ones that send two to three paragraphs don’t show much effort.”

Most effective, says Mr. Schild: Letters that start by facing the worst assumption people might make of you. For instance, he suggests, if you’re worried that recruiters will assume that an older job candidate might want to ease into retirement soon, write something like “I am looking for a position where I can lead, and retire from the organization in 15 years.”

Be aware that some human-resources departments routinely forward resumes to hiring managers and search committees without their accompanying cover letters. Mr. Schild suggests a workaround: Send the resume and cover letter together, in one unalterable PDF.

7. Tailor your resume to the job ad.

Like many companies these days, nonprofit employers often cull resumes using software that screens for keywords related to the job requirements. Mr. Schild suggests a hack for foiling that gatekeeper: Look at the job ad, and determine the top three main things the organization is seeking. Then rewrite your resume so that you flag your experience in those three areas up top.

When you’re ready to send your resume, says Mr. Schild, give it a title specific to that job and date it with that day’s date. Boilerplate resumes bearing a version number or an old date, he warns, signal that the candidate couldn’t be bothered to make an effort.

8. Don’t worry about resume length.

Especially for more senior positions, it’s not necessary to boil down your life’s work to a single page. Two- or even three-page resumes are fine, say recruiters, who report that more people offer too little information about their previous employment and skills than too much.

9. Ask for the recruiter’s advice.

Once you’ve made it to the stage of interviewing with a nonprofit employer, seek the headhunter’s help. “We know the employer. We could help you be really great, really shine and stand out,” says Ms. Brennan.

For instance, she says, a recruiter can help a candidate practice answering some likely questions, or offer tips on handling a job interview with a committee rather than one-on-one — a common experience for CEO finalists.

Especially among candidates for executive-level jobs, she’s noticed, “a lot of people haven’t really interviewed in their career. They moved up at their organization, one thing led to another, a contact got them into a new organization. So there may be some basic skills that aren’t as sharp as they could be.”

Recruiters can even help you craft a resume to submit to the employer, says Mr. Schild. He advises, “Don’t be afraid to ask which positions to include, where you should list years and not months.” For example, it may be best to group several short-term consulting assignments together, he says.

10. Spell out what you want.

That includes salary needs. “I think the biggest mistake people make is being vague,” says Ms. Brennan.

If a job ad asks for salary information, applicants need to include that in their cover letter, say experts. Otherwise, they may be wasting time — theirs, the recruiter’s, and the nonprofit’s — on a position that’s a hopeless mismatch for them.

It’s fine to ask the recruiter — but not the employer — if salary information is available, in that first conversation, headhunters say. Be clear what the minimum is. “Don’t say, ‘I’m flexible,’” says Mr. Schild, and don’t use ranges. “If I say, he’s looking for 50 to 55, what number do you hear? 50.”

Sometimes, he says, the problem is that candidates “want to hide what they currently make, because they’re probably underpaid.” In such a situation, he recommends saying something like “I’m interviewing for director of development jobs in the 90-to-100 range though I’m currently making 60.”

Or maybe you’re seeking a job less senior and also lower paid — less stressful than your current role, or more aligned with your passions. Be careful how you frame that, Ms. Brennan advises: “Nobody wants to hear that their job is sort of a ‘dial-back’ job.”

11. Follow up, but sit tight.

After sending in your resume, wait at least a week. An email or phone call — but not both — to check on status is appropriate. If you don’t hear back in a month, send a thank-you note.

Remember, if you apply early in the search process, it may take longer to hear back, while the recruiter vets applicants and winnows the field for the interviewing round, says Ms. Egmont. Searches for jobs at large organizations, including universities and hospitals, may take longer, she adds, due to the need for more people to be consulted: “There’s always a search committee — and it’s usually a big committee.”