Job Hunting

When Opportunity Knocks: Dealing With Recruiters

Think calls from recruiters are a waste of time? Here’s how to make the most of these career connections.
Sandra BeckwithDecember 2, 2020
When Opportunity Knocks: Dealing With Recruiters

Executive recruiters looking to fill client C-suite positions in various industries are on the hunt for top talent, especially for CFO slots.

One day this summer, Mike Laureno, the new CFO of SiteSpect, a platform for web and mobile marketers, got six LinkedIn connection requests from recruiters. “Almost the minute I switched the recruiter button to ‘open’ on LinkedIn, my inbox started blowing up,” he says.

Whether you’re actively looking for a position or locked in where you are, it’s likely that executive recruiters (also called “head hunters”) will contact you. They say that it’s a numbers game as they search for the right fit, both culturally and skill-wise, for open C-suite and board of director jobs. “It’s the fit that’s the most important part of this process,” says Steve Mandell, executive relationship leader at Anchin Executive Network.

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Because CFOs are likely to continue to see a barrage of connection requests next year (see “A Seller’s Market in 2021?”, page 39), we gathered some bits of wisdom from recruiters and CFOs. Whether you’ve solicited the recruiter or not, and whether you’re happy in your job or not, these tips can help you make the most of contacts with and inquiries by recruitment firms.

1. Know who you are and where you want to go.

Without this self-awareness, conversations with recruiters will be less productive. “Recruiters need to know your motivations, what you’re looking for, who you are, and what you’ve done,” says finance chief Bernard Huger. Recruiters placed Huger, the CFO of access management software provider OneLogin, in two previous positions. “What size company do you want, what specifics are important, what do you need for compensation?” adds Laureno.

Alyse Bodine, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles, stresses the importance of the CFO understanding what kind of environment he or she needs to do their best work. “Part of our job is to assess not only technical capabilities but also culture compatibility. Where will the executive thrive? That’s when the magic happens.”

During the first conversation with a candidate, Ed Montoya, a partner at recruiting firm Calibre One, is more interested in learning about the executive’s background and aspirations than in talking about current projects.

“I’ll often ask, ‘Where do you sit today? Where do you want to be in three to five years?’ It’s more about getting to know if they’re intentional about their career, or so busy they don’t have time to think about it.”

When you have clarity about your career’s direction, you can work with a recruiter to identify gaps that need addressing. Sometimes, says Robert Bendetti, CFO of Life Cycle Engineering, the difference between top candidates for a position is so narrow that even the smallest differentiator matters. “A little change in education, experience, or exposure can be the tiebreaker,” he says.

2. Vet the recruiter.

As with any profession, some recruiters are more skilled than others. Whether they’re getting in touch simply to expand their network or filling a client position, many recruiters reach CFOs initially through email. For the CFO emailed out of the blue, that’s where the vetting process begins.

“Was it an automated email that went out to 150 people or one where the recruiter is familiar with the specific candidate’s background as well as the job requirements?” asks Calibre One’s Montoya. “A legitimate email is much shorter when it’s for a job tailored to my experience,” adds finance chief Bendetti. “They’ve dropped hints about the industry or my situational experience.”

In addition to stressing the importance of messages targeted to the specific candidate, Deepak Shukla, CFO and founder of search engine optimization agency Pearl Lemon, recommends examining the packaging of outreach email messages.

“Pay attention to the quality — how personalized is it, does it use a consistent font size and color, is there a professional email signature, and does the message come from a domain name address?” he asks.

If the email message passes the sniff test, most CFOs and experts recommend investigating the company further on LinkedIn and its website. “I look at the parent company and the type of work they do. For example, I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for my entire career, so it’s important that they do a lot of work there,” says Kevin Noel, CFO of Northeast Treatment Centers, a provider of rehab and mental health services.

For some executives, a favorable report on a recruiting firm, online or from an acquaintance, is enough. Others, though, want to vet the individual recruiter, too. Heidrick & Struggles’ Bodine recommends taking that extra step. “Make sure the recruiter would be working on assignments relevant to your background and career aspirations,” she says, noting that many specialize.

3. Take the call.

If you’re looking for a change, you already know that it’s wise to begin the conversation with recruiters, even if the specific position being floated isn’t the one you covet. But what if you’re not looking for a new role? Most agree there are good reasons to talk to a qualified recruiter anyway. It’s about long-term relationship-building.

“It’s short-sighted to say, ‘I don’t need a different position now, so there’s no value in talking to a recruiter,’” says CFO Shukla. That’s why he recommends scheduling time for 15-minute networking calls every week. “You can’t predict what’s going to happen down the line,” he adds.

Recruiter Bodine agrees, noting: “Companies get acquired all the time, leaving room for just one CFO, not two. If you have an established relationship with a firm that knows you, you have a head start.”

That willingness to talk when there’s no opportunity on the table applies to recruiters, too. “What differentiates a great recruiter is the time they invest when they don’t have an opportunity open,” says Mandell. In addition, while a position might not appeal to a particular CFO, it could be a good match for someone he or she knows. “There’s probably somebody in every network looking for a position,” says Bendetti of Life Cycle Engineering.

4. See yourself as a brand.

From the recruiter’s perspective, personal branding involves how an executive handles themselves in conversations and what information is discovered through online searches. “I’m astonished that some executives have no LinkedIn or social media presence,” says Montoya, adding that recruiters can help craft an appropriate LinkedIn profile.

Bendetti recommends improving your visibility by writing, speaking, and volunteering within your field or industry. LinkedIn’s publishing platform, for example, allows users to establish themselves as thought leaders.

Branding extends to one-on-one conversations, as well. One of the most undervalued pieces of advice? When talking to a recruiter, it’s essential to communicate enthusiasm, says Shukla. “How you say what you say will take you further than anything else.”

Be thoughtful about the reasons for career transitions, too. Recruiters want to know about professional challenges or why you are leaving a current position. However, “never get too personal about the reasons for leaving. Job opportunities should be about business decisions,” counsels Mandell of the Anchin Executive Network. For example, Mandell would prefer to hear, “From a cultural standpoint, it’s not where I envision myself in the future,” over complaints about a CEO’s difficult personality.

Finally, trust that recruiters can read between the lines. If you choose your words with diplomacy in mind, recruiters will recognize a challenging situation without you having to provide details, says Montoya.

5. Opt for honesty and transparency.

“The most important part of this whole process is the transparency,” says Mandell. In a recent conversation Mandell had with a finance chief, the candidate said it bothered him when he didn’t hear back after an initial discussion with a recruiter. Mandell advises recruiter colleagues, “Just be honest and say it’s not going to work out and why.”

A call with a recruiter is also not the time for CFOs to hide their shortcomings. “If there are weaknesses, it’s important to understand what they are” and talk about them, says Noel. An honest discussion allows both parties to evaluate whether the position is a good fit.

Laureno, SiteSpect’s CFO, says transparency saves everybody time. “If I have a minimum go, no-go [compensation] number, I put that out there right away. If they’re describing a position that requires a certain piece of experience, I’ll say I don’t have that.”

There’s still a question, though, of how much to share and with whom. Most experts agree that if a head hunter calls about an opportunity, you’ll want to adjust the honesty and transparency according to the situation. Do you have a relationship with the recruiter already, or is this the first time you’ve heard from the person?

Some recruiters advise being careful about disclosures. “It’s not always in the best interest of a CFO to disclose everything to a recruiter because my client pays my bill,” said Korn Ferry’s Barry Toren at the CFO Live conference in 2019. For example, Toren noted, “if you’re a candidate for another job or are talking with another recruiter, keep it to yourself.”

Be thoughtful about the level of detail you disclose, cautions CFO Huger. Don’t share anything confidential or controversial if it’s likely that the information will be shared within the recruiting firm or with potential employers, he says.

Invest the Time

Most experts encourage executives to take the time to build relationships with recruiters, whether or not they expect to work with them. “God forbid something happens, you have that fail-safe who knows you, your personality, what you’re looking for, and the types of companies you would and wouldn’t want to work for,” says Mandell.

But don’t always take. Give, too. Talk to recruiters when they’re looking for industry insights or trends and refer candidates to them. That’s what Montoya refers to as a “karma multiplier.” It will come back to you when you need it most.

Sandra Beckwith is a freelance business writer. 

CFO Job Seekers: A Seller’s Market in 2021?

Fortune 500 companies are having a tough time finding replacement CFOs.

According to two executives from recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, the challenge of finding experienced external CFO candidates may only increase in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, remote work arrangements might attract candidates not interested in relocating, but on the other, some CFOs may choose to “bow out following one of the most tumultuous years on record.”

There’s not a huge pool to draw from to run large companies.

Spencer Stuart research on the market found that only 61 of the Fortune 500 CFOs (12%) in 2019 previously held the position at another Fortune 500 company. One of the reasons is that only 4% of outgoing finance chiefs in 2019 took a CFO job at another Fortune 500 company.

According to a blog post by Tricia B. Clifford and Karen D. Quint of Spencer Stuart, “Looking Ahead to Your Next Fortune 500 CFO?,” a key reason the lateral move to another company is so rare is that successful CFOs are often looking upward for their next gig. An outside opportunity to be finance chief of another company has to offer something better, like a more strategic role, a path to being CEO, or a much larger finance organization in a larger company.

About 20% of the outgoing CFOs in the Fortune 500 in 2019 was promoted to CEO or general management when they left.

“Attractive and lucrative opportunities have also arisen in the past decade in private equity, where experienced CFOs can take a more operational position without the public scrutiny,” write Clifford and Quint.

From where are Fortune 500 companies drawing their externally sourced CFOs? Of those hired in 2019 with previous experience as a CFO, 76% moved to a larger company. About half (47%) had previously managed a company or division.

Candidates from traditional finance backgrounds like divisional and deputy finance, FP&A, accounting and control, and treasury constitute a large part of the CFO pool. But “it’s clear that strong CFO candidates have profiles that go much wider than mere finance acumen,” say Clifford and Quint.

As executive recruiters often make abundantly clear, skills are only a piece of the puzzle. Say Clifford and Quint: “An external candidate’s interest in and availability for a new CFO role ultimately may simply come down to individual factors that are difficult to pinpoint at a broad scale: a recent empty-nester who’s far from retirement but open to a relocation for the first time in years; a previous CFO who lost the job after a merger; an internal candidate for the CEO job who didn’t get it; or someone in semi-retirement who can’t resist the opportunity for one last challenge.”