How to Win Over Headhunters

Illustration by II

Illustration by II

Tip #1: “Don’t be a stalker.”

Ask any quality recruiter, and they’ll tell you that the best time to build relationships is before you need them.

But that advice glosses over the delicate mechanics: How does one actually get to know the all-important recruiters?

After all, these gatekeepers to the asset management C-suite are among the only industry players more in demand than the talent wanting their attention. Hedge fund portfolio managers and endowment chief investment officers are used to having their calls returned. But recruiters might not do that — either because they’re swamped or ignoring you on purpose.

You would think that investors masterfully running billions of dollars could easily spot receptive recruiters and forge casual ties. You would be wrong.

Finance pros tend to mess up in two places, headhunters say. Navigating this busy-versus-disinterested question is the first. The second magnet for unforced errors is the keeping-in-touch part, i.e. communication flows after initial contact.

Four of asset management’s most powerful headhunters — Korn Ferry’s Michael Kennedy, Charta Partners’s Tory Hyndman, and Elizabeth Havens and Nick Huggett of David Barrett Partners (DBP) — recently delved into the nitty-gritty of recruiter relations in a series of interviews with Institutional Investor. These are their top lessons.

Take the Call

The best time to build a recruiter relationship is before you need it, and the easiest time is when they’re reaching out to you — regardless of the role. “Take the call,” advised Hyndman. She co-founded London search boutique Charta last year after a decade at DBP, capped off with placing Cambridge University’s CIO Tilly Franklin. “You’ll be smart enough to know in 15 minutes if this is a recruiter you can trust. If they’re trying to headhunt you and the role’s not for you, be a good source,” Hyndman said. “That doesn’t mean you need to give them the keys to the castle and 10 good names. But return the call — even if it’s annoying. One day, you might need them.”

Of course, recruiters would say, “Be nice and helpful to recruiters.” But first impressions always matter, and blowing someone off until you want something from them is a bad look. It’s also a waste. Developing a quiver of headhunter relationships serves one’s career, sure, but studying for the CFA this is not. The good ones are deeply fun people to get to know. With one exception, asset management’s top recruiters are charming, personable, deeply in-the-know, and biased towards helping — and towards the helpful.

Try, Try Again. And Then Stop Trying.

It’s normal to make the first move, too. Many excellent investment types work in out-of-the-way places, such as secretive family offices, where headhunters just don’t come calling. Others are looking to change career tracks or locations, and so wouldn’t be on the call lists for roles they want.

Find which firms run searches in your (desired) niche, and make contact. Try a few avenues, because recruiters differ in their communication tastes.

“Start with an email,” Hyndman said. “If you don’t get a response in three days, follow up with a call and reference your email. And if that doesn’t get a call back, ping them on LinkedIn.” That’s how recruiters do it. “If you don’t hear back after three times, they’re probably sending you a message. Put that to one side and move on.”

LinkedIn is best for Korn Ferry’s Kennedy, the search master for California Public Employees’ Retirement System’s next CIO and almost any U.S. public pension role that matters. The social media platform puts resumes right in front of his face for quick review, whereas emails and attachments easily get buried.

It’s also a novelty. “I just joined LinkedIn about 2 months ago. The FBI would not allow me to be involved in social media because I was chairman of the Thrift board.” That’s the largest retirement plan in the U.S., with around $650 billion in defined contribution assets. “The FBI did not want any of the board members to be visible,” to avoid making them targets of bad actors. Kennedy recently wrapped up his term and stepped down, so he’s exploring social media afresh.

Recruiters typically reach out to search targets a couple of times and ways before backing off. Follow their lead. “Don’t be a stalker,” as DBP’s Havens put it. Clients come first. Paying customers drive how recruiters spend their time, and potential one-day candidates get whatever’s left, which is sometimes 15 minutes by phone 6 weeks later, and sometimes nothing. Ultimately, no one’s obligated to respond to a cold call.

“Remember,” Hyndman said, “people are busy. Some recruiters are really good at making time for job seekers or ‘write-ins,’ but some just don’t have the time. You can’t get offended. Put yourself in their shoes; be consistent with follow up; be patient. These things take time. It’s like a lot of relationships: when you a need a good one, you really need one. It’s a long-term thing. Build it.”

Warm Intro > Cold Call > Fluffed Mutual

Faking or inflating relationships to get recruiters’ attention happens all the time, and usually backfires. Checking references is literally their job. At David Barrett Partners, “We get a lot of emails with references to people suggesting that we talk to them,” said Havens. “But if I don’t know the person referenced, it’s not very helpful. I suspect they looked on LinkedIn, saw we have a mutual connection, and dropped their name. That doesn’t help. I’d rather a cold email than a fib.”

A warm intro from an authentic mutual contact is ideal: use it if you’ve got it. “I’d always prefer the referring person makes the introduction,” Havens said. “That’s the best route to go.”

Who Are You?

Define it. “If you are out of work and actively seeking to get on the headhunter radar, think very clearly about the messaging and what you want to do in the next role,” according to DBP’s Huggett, who’s based in London and runs searches as far afield as Australia. “We so often hear, ‘I’m open to doing anything.’ That’s asking the headhunter to be very creative, while clients are asking us for something very specific.” Trying to be anything to everyone makes one harder, not easier, to place in a job. Recruiters typically love candidates who have sharpened their pitch with an executive coach before delivering it to clients.

“If a candidate can come to us and say, ‘This is what I’m great at; this is what I’ve done; these are the two things I’m really interested in doing next’ — it’s incredibly helpful,” Huggett said. “That’s what we want.”

Actually Keep in Touch

As much as the initial reach-out phase can be fraught, investment professionals tend to start relationships better than they sustain them.

“Most people don’t follow up,” Kennedy marveled. “They will reach out to establish a relationship; we have a good conversation; and I encourage them to keep in touch. Give me a call every 6 months. Send me an email. Let me know if you change jobs. But they don’t. And then three years down the road, they need something and then call me up. I’m like, ‘I vaguely remember you from three years ago.’ How can you build a relationship with a recruiter if you don’t follow up?”

Just not too often.