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Top Job Search Lessons from an Executive Recruiter

An image of Paul D. Smith
By Paul D. Smith, President at Collegial Consulting
August 29, 2017
An image of a female recruiter.

In my career in higher education and a related not-for-profit sector, I have been involved with more executive searches than you might typically expect. I have been the executive candidate, served on hiring committees, and been a curious bystander in many more. The nature of my work has brought me into close contact with recruiters, in-house and third party, from multiple sectors, entry-level to executive. My experiences have taught me four lessons about recruiting that I’d like to share:

  • Recruiting is about information management
  • Recruiters are risk averse
  • Recruiters rely on proxies
  • Your network matters more than you know

I’ll expand on the list, but first some context. Recruitment is always a complex activity that involves risk, reward and human relationships. Executive searches are usually more so, and the higher education environment just adds more complexity. Experienced recruiters have told me they find campus contracts confounding and confusing compared to other sectors. Confounded and confused is not how recruiters like to operate – they much prefer certainty and understanding. As a candidate, if you can help them find their comfort zone you will be rewarded. On to the lessons.


Information Management

At it’s core, recruitment is about information management. Filling a position requires that the recruiter sort through masses of data (candidate applications) to find a reasonable selection of talent suitable for interviewing, en route to finding the candidate that meets the institution’s needs. As a candidate, you want to help the recruiter manage the task. Organize your application so that your relevant information is easy to find:

The posting will tell you what you need to know to be a strong candidate. Use it as a guide, paying particular attention to language. Look for keywords in the posting. Echo them in your application. The recruiter may use word scanning software for initial screening. Keyword hits keep your application in play.

  • Highlight information that speaks to the areas of greatest need / highest priority. Don’t make anyone dig for it.
    • Put yourself in their place. If you are seeking an executive position, you have likely hired people before. Remember what factors impressed you, and integrate them.
  • Do your research. Whenever possible, connect with someone from the institution to collect background on the position and / or process. I like to ask questions like:
  • What problem do you want this position to solve?
  • Do you have an ideal candidate profile in mind?
  • Is there anyone else I should speak with?


Risk Aversion

Recruiters are a bridge between candidates and the institution, connecting teams with sourced talent. Fairly or unfairly, the quality of candidates they source affects their reputation. With the average cost to fill a position exceeding ten thousand dollars, and considerably more than that for an executive role, the stakes are considerable. If a hire works out, everyone wins. But when a hire misses the mark, the cost is considerable. Recruiters take great pains to avoid sourcing risky candidates, and to minimize their accountability if something goes awry.

I used to believe that recruiters played to win, that they set out to find perfect candidate and would accept nothing less. That premise put a lot of pressure on the young people I coached - perfection is a difficult standard. After a while, however, I learned I was wrong. I socialized with recruiters, and listened to their gripes. They decried the decline in the quality of candidates, and they compared their conversion and retention rates. And when they were really relaxed, they talked about the bullets they dodged. They thrilled each other with tales about the time they nearly hired the wrong candidate, and they recalled absent colleagues who did. I heard about falsified documents, bizarre interview behaviours, and new hires who failed miserably. I heard cautionary tales about avoiding risk. What I didn’t hear was tales of victory - celebrations of reward. ‘Safe’ was more important than ‘stellar.’

I have learned that recruiters play not to lose. They are not driven by the desire to hire the perfect candidate, but by the fear they will hire the wrong one. The goal is minimized risk, and an acceptable, if rarely exceptionable, reward. It follows then that applicants need not aspire to perfection, but to a more reasonable standard.

Be low-risk; be the most suited candidate available to fill the vacant position at the time, but don’t overshoot. Your challenge is to understand the recruiter’s need well enough to create a candidate profile that makes you appear safe and steady. You do that by helping them check off boxes.


Proxies Matter

As a candidate, you are an unknown to the recruiter, and the unknown is risky. Risk is to be averted, so recruiters will seek to make the unknown better known. They don’t want to interview hundreds of candidates, so they use a check list of proxies to screen the candidate pool, hoping to get to a manageable number for interviews. The more boxes they check, the less risky you are. The most commonly used proxies are:

  • References are the primary proxy used by recruiters. The quality of information collected is questionable, but the profile of the referee is important.
  • Publications / Grants / Achievements prove your competence. Has a major periodical published your work? Have you received grants? Have your colleagues awarded your performance? Recruiters will want to know.
  • Academic Record is more about where you studied, than the grades you achieved, although recent grads may find they matter.
  • Other proxies:
  • Evaluations / assessments in the form of standardized tests are used to measure performance or character against established benchmarks. They are an inoculation against bias.
  • Criminal record checks / Security clearances prove you are trustworthy. Can you work in highly secure or confidential environments?


Your Network Matters

Your network is your greatest asset when you are an executive search candidate, and before you become one. The people you have encountered in your career and in your life form a web across which travels information vital to your career. Emerging opportunities my become known through the ‘grapevine’ before they are formally posted by the institution, and foreknowledge is an asset. The more extensive your network, the greater your access to inside information, and the greater your potential as a candidate and prospect employee.

· Inside information – your network can let you know about opportunities before they are published, or provide valuable insight. The members of your network may also advocate for you informally, even if you aren’t listing them as active references.

  • References – when providing references, choose them strategically. Anyone acting as a reference should speak well of you, but some references may also prove valuable by virtue of their own profile or reputation.
  • Referrals – employee referrals are a proven recruitment tactic. Demonstrating to a recruiter that you have access to an impressive network will enhance their estimation of your value as an employee and as a source of future candidates.


And so now we have come to the final lesson. Recruiting is a fundamentally human enterprise. True, it is subject to evolution and susceptible to trends as new tactics and technology emerge. But it will always require a human moment In every hire there comes a time when the candidate and the recruiter must look each other in the eye and come to an agreement. Remember that, and you are well along.


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Paul D. Smith, President of Collegial Consulting, offers services in higher education, employment, communications and governance. Paul is an acknowledged leader in career development for youth, and he is a proven communicator with an impressive record as a published writer, public speaker and conference presenter. Before launching Collegial Consulting this year, he served as the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE). Before that, he held leadership roles at Queen’s UniversityMemorial University and College of the North Atlantic.

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