Stephen Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said: “’Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I’m opening a small window into the lives of our recruiting partners in the hope that candidates will seek to understand us better before jumping to conclusions. Nothing is more important to someone out of work – or potentially looking for work – than landing a job. Ok, family is more important, but getting a job, or an even better one – may serve both those primary purposes. But even more frustrating and irritating is when you know you are perfect for that dream role, but that dastardly gatekeeper – that executive recruiter – is standing in your way!
Many candidates share this sentiment, and guess what? Me too! I’ve been on the other side, and as Bill Clinton once said: “I feel your pain” (please use a southern drawl for the full effect). I was The Man back in those days. Yeah, I travelled around the world doing deals, winning every award, landed hundreds of millions in new contracts – all by my lonesome – and had graduated from a leading business school to boot. Then one day I saw this perfect opportunity. Everything this company needed, I could provide – and I had zero doubt, zero upon zero. Normally, I’d just fax in my resume to the CEO, sit by the phone, and wait for my golden call to come in (think I allocated about 15 minutes – giving them plenty of time in case the CEO had other priorities that day, besides me, that is). But this time, I had one little problem. I didn’t know who was offering that dream opportunity, just that I had to talk to some retained recruiting firm to learn more.
So I dusted off my resume and cover letter, stuck it in an envelope, licked a $.24 cent stamp (this was back in the last century), and sent it on its way. When I heard nothing back, I repeated the process but spent the $7 on a FedEx package. My original mail copy MUST have been lost . . . that darn USPS, never getting anything right. I allocated exactly one day; time for arrival, and half day for their review, and then their immediate phone call to me, Superstar VIP! When the FedEx response didn’t happen either, I decided to call the recruiter directly. Yes, I know; an act of perceived desperation.
The recruiter (Mack, as we’ll call him for today) was a partner at a well-known firm, very professional, and nice. I couldn’t look up his personal info on LinkedIn or his website because none of that existed back then. So I decided to use my Charlie Rose interrogation skills, AKA “interviewing” techniques, to find out a little bit more about him. Mack was very forthcoming, and I was truly quite good at soliciting information from people. After about 15 minutes – voila – a realization hit me. This guy has been a recruiter for 25 years with only 10 previously in an operating role. In other words, what does he really know about qualifications for success given the bulk of his career was spent on the operating sidelines. Of course, I had quickly glanced over the fact that Mack had placed hundreds of incredible leaders into terrific companies and beat out every other search firm to sit beside his client CEO’s side as THE trusted Talent advisor.
I said: “Mack, why don’t I have a shot at this role; I have EVERYTHING you need . . . and an impeccable track record.” I had even provided him a reference from a Fortune 500 company Chairman who was a personal mentor. Well, Mack laid it out clearly and decisively for me: “Look, Tim. You have accomplished a lot in your career thus far, but I’m hired to find a hand that fits the glove perfectly (and this was prior to the O.J. trial). If I’m off one finger or two, then I get fired. My client will think I either don’t understand what he wants, or that I do not listen well. Even if you had graduated first in your class at, say, Harvard Business School, or you were recommended from the top brass at GE; I still couldn’t do it. The point is that it’s a big world, and there are many folks out there that fit the glove perfectly . . . and I’m looking at 10 of them as we speak.”
At that moment, my college term paper on Henry V fluttered by with those eternally, infamous words: “O hard condition.” And that was it. I was a big boy, and I was schooled that day on how executive recruiting works. Little did I know at the time that I would one day be sitting in his exact shoes, which brings us back to the present moment. A lot has changed since then, particularly around channels for candidate access. If I were trying to connect with Mack today, I’d likely get an email auto-response back, or, if lucky, a note from an assistant, researcher, or junior recruiter. There were some benefits back in a paper mail and land-line only society. One thing, however, has remained consistent for the past 20 years: “If the glove don’t fit, you have to quit.” At least from the recruiter’s perspective, we’re either on the money – a direct bulls eye – or we’re off the job. That’s OUR harsh reality!