Job Hunting

How to Use Headhunters and Find Finance Jobs

Don't cold-call recruiters, but return their cold calls and feed them information. Package your experience as a compelling story and build a big ne...
David McCannMarch 18, 2009


Going through executive recruiters may not be the only path to a top position. But you can’t afford not to make them part of your network, if there’s a chance you might, within the next year or two, find yourself entering the phase euphemistically known as a “transition.” Unfortunately, there’s a chance of that for just about everybody these days.

During a session at the CFO Rising conference in Orlando last week, three recruiters who specialize in financial officers offered some practical tips for working with them and advice for positioning yourself to potential employers. An edited version of the discussion follows.

How do I get on recruiters’ radar screens?

Electronically. Post your resume on their websites, and send an e-mail that clearly and concisely — preferably using bullet points — states your biggest accomplishments, areas of expertise, and what kind of career move you are interested in.

Be very specific. “Don’t worry about pigeon-holing yourself, because if you don’t, we will, just by looking at your résumé,” says Chuck Eldridge of Korn/Ferry International. If you’re ideally suited for, say, a CFO position at a $750 million public company, then say exactly that, and why it’s the case. “If you can at least capture those highlights, one of our people can act on it.”

Make sure to present your experience and interests as a compelling story. Everybody has one — even the analytical, sometimes-introverted types who have an affinity for finance, according to Russell Boyle of Egon Zehnder International. “You should be able to get somebody’s attention with something that distinguishes you from every other person on the job circuit,” he says.

Also, if you know people who have already been in contact with recruiting firms, ask them to refer you. That may grab a headhunter’s attention more quickly than a communication straight from you. Then be patient. “If you don’t get an immediate callback, don’t think you’re not in our database or that we’re not paying attention to you,” says Suzanne Kelly of Russell Reynolds.

Can I call on the phone?

You can try, but recruiters prefer an e-mail asking to schedule a discussion. Today a tremendous number of people are in the job market, and you’ll get more attention that way, says Kelly.

Is developing relationships with recruiters the best way to find a job?

“We wish we had every single finance-officer assignment that’s out there, but we don’t,” says Eldridge. “There are more opportunities through networking, so you’ve got to balance your time.”

Once I have made contact with a recruiter, how do I take the relationship to the next level?

Understand how their business works. The hiring organizations, and not you, are their clients. Help them succeed. If they call to ask for information on whether people you know would be right for a particular job, be receptive and tell them whatever you are able to. If you do, when a job comes along that may be right for you, “we’re going to call you first,” says Eldridge.

Is this really a good time to be looking for a job?

That depends on individual circumstances, but at the very least, return recruiters’ calls. It never hurts to take a look at an opportunity. “It always surprises me when people say they’re not interested, almost before I describe what I’m doing,” says Boyle.

What if I’m out of work? Is there a “taint” to having been laid off, even in this economic environment?

Not necessarily. Boyle notes that there are many reasons why people are in transition: high turnover among CEOs, with new ones often preferring to bring in their own top finance people; shifts in companies’ strategic directions; and, yes, the economic conditions. “We like to meet all kinds of new people,” he says.

How much of a factor is the length of my unemployment?

The longer you spend in transition, the worse off you are, says Eldridge. Resist the urge to take a long vacation. “You need to get going the next day,” he stresses. “I know it’s difficult, but creating your own marketing plan and getting into the market is first and foremost.” You can always negotiate a start date after you have secured an opportunity.

If I am laid off, what should I do when I’m still at my old job?

Hold your head high, comport yourself as a professional, and finish out the job. People who do that will always get stronger references and be the kind of person that companies will want to associate with, Boyle says.

How important are references?

Very important, and increasingly so. The days of providing three references are over. Recruiters will call at least six, and the hiring company may go further still. Eldridge tells of one client that makes a note of every name a candidate mentions during the evaluation process, and makes a point to contact each person.

Develop your network of references continuously, even if you think there is no chance you’re going to be out of work. “That’s more important today than it was even a year or two ago,” says Kelly. Written references, though, are considered mostly pointless.