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How And When To Use A Headhunter

The best time to get money from a bank is when you don't need it.  If you have cash and collateral, getting a loan is pretty straightforward, because there isn't much risk for the bank. 

The same is true of how a candidate uses a headhunter. Far too many jobseekers assume their first contact with a headhunter or recruiter is when they've exhausted their job-seeking efforts and are unemployed.  Talk about losing your leverage!

Imagine this conversation.  A recruiter interviews you and submits you to a manager, and the manager calls to talk about the candidate.
Manager: I see you submitted this guy named Joe for the job.  He has the right resume, but what can oyou tell me about him.
Recruiter:  Well, I met him for the first time this morning.  We talked about 30 minutes last night, and then he agreed to come in so I could submit him.  He lost his job three months ago, and his wife is starting to make his life miserable about his job hunt.  His mother-in-law is sending clippings from the newspaper, and his severance runs out next month.  So he looked me up on, sent his resume to me, and I was the first recruiter to call him, which is lucky, because two others called about the same job, but only after I met him.  
Manager:  Excellent paper shuffling.  You've sure earned your fee!
Far more of the employment world works just like this then we'd care to admit. The conversation above is subtext, but it's recognizable to every recruiter out there, both outside and inside. 
And it gets worse when you realize that at least Joe was responding to a job posting.  If he had called in randomly, what are the chances a job that fit him would be on the desk of the recruiter he called? 
So don't be the candidate calling headhunters expecting them to work for you to get a job.  You may get interviewed, yo umay get placed in a database, and even given some advice, but even that is a luxury most recruiters can't afford.
So how do you do it?
1) When employed, make it a habit to take calls from headhunters.  Not every one, and not when you're busy, but if you have time, take the call or respond to the email (prioritize the calls, because they actually matter).  High-level executives know that taking headhunter calls throughout their careers keeps them top of mind should something come up.  They build relationships over years with all the recruiters that call for that time when they do need a position.  That should be you.
This isn't a long, involved call. It is enough to be polite, tell them you're not hiring or not looking right now, but speak to the headhunter for a moment or two to assess how good they are.  If you're impressed, take their info down and tell them to call you once every year or two.It takes only a few minutes a year, and yet it pays dividends when the time comes to look. It also helps you identify what a good headhunter does, instead of trying to learn when you most need one.

Understand what you're doing. You're building relationships with someone that has regular knowledge of the hiring market.  Rather than allow yourself to be questioned as to what you do, learn to flip the script and get them to open up.  Good recruiters spend a lot of time listening.  Getting the chance to speak is rare, so we're likely to not be prepared when you ask us about salaries in the market.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say once you build a rolodex of recruiters, to be proactive in calling them and tapping their brain for knowledge to help you.  Some will be put off that you're using them for knowledge, but that's a sign of their lack of savvy.  Short, pleasant conversations create a business relationship that you both can tap in the future.  Isn't that the point of networking?

Does It Work?  
A friend of mine is a national president for an international firm, and he has been speaking with headhunters for years, discussing positions that were always one step above his current level.  He has interviewed a few times over the years, but has been in the same firm over 12 years.  Recently, he interviewed for a CEO position brought to him by a recruiter who first called him seven years ago, looking to make a placement.  Simply by staying in touch, he was submitted and was one of the top two candidates for a position (in the end, he turned it down, but he now know he is CEO material).  
Think about that for a moment.  He didn't work with the recruiter, but was polite and told him to stay in touch. When the CEO position came, who do you think the recruiter called first?