Headhunters: Curse or blessing – or simply wrong expectations?

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For many job seekers, the headhunters or executive searchers are an important contact point for reorientation. However, expectations are often difficult to meet. In addition, digitalization has greatly facilitated the sending of CVs and thus the number of CVs that are sent through the network. Becoming aware of the role of a headhunter and aligning one’s own actions accordingly can protect against disappointment.

Dr. Thomas A. Biland


Two scenes in everyday professional life:

First scene: After years of interesting work, a certain monotony returns and work becomes routine and a peer is promoted to boss, making the prospect of further career steps impossible for the time being. Second scene: Over the years, the manager has worked his way up the ladder with abandonment and great dedication, defending his position against all attacks and with tenacity and clever political action, thus earning himself respect. Then a new external boss arrives and suddenly nothing is good enough, the face is no longer pleasing and the unimposing ejection threatens or has already taken place.

Nowadays, employees in higher management levels are under particular pressure. The knowledge they learned many years ago at colleges and universities is largely out of date in times of digitalization. There was no or insufficient thought given to further training, because “there was no time for it” or because of its success it was not considered necessary.

And suddenly one wants or has to reorient oneself towards the labor market. Often the existing network is not very useful or was simply not maintained due to the lack of time or pure opportunism. Then the hectic hustle and bustle begins: send CVs, consult job portals and mobilize friends and acquaintances seeking help to find a job.

CVs are individually addressed to headhunters and recruiters or randomly scattered as “all-around letters”. And then nothing or little happens. A few acknowledgements of receipt, hardly any invitations to talks or simply “silence in the winter forest”. Then comes frustration, anger or helplessness; what happened? Why does nobody want to see me, I have something to offer, “they simply have no idea” etc.? And where you apply directly to the companies it is not any better. One has forgotten that the personnel market has changed in the meantime, that one is in competition with much younger, cheaper applicants or simply brings along competences that are no longer immediately relevant. This is very hard and may seem unfair, but it is reality and it dictates the course of life – whether we like it or not.

One could have planned ahead, further educated oneself in time, built up a safety net and maintained a network. The headhunter is only one person in this chain.

The task and activity of a headhunter is not to find a job for newly oriented managers. They work on a mandate basis for clients, exclusively and professionally and have the task of finding suitable profiles in the market: not the job seekers, of course, but the best candidates. Digitalization and portals such as LinkedIn or Xing make this search much easier at first glance but becomes even more complex on closer inspection. The number of available candidates seems infinite and yet the effort to find the pearl you are looking for is greater. On the other hand, the Internet allows jobseekers to send their dossiers en masse quickly and at the push of a button. But the number received also means “to be lost in the masses”. And this is exactly where the problem lies. This makes it nearly impossible for headhunters to deal with this influx of profiles and to fulfill both the jobseekers and mandates expectations, as pressure on costs and time makes it harder to fully vet every received CV. The pile of dossiers delivered is simply no longer tradable and the fast-paced nature of the business also means that databases as such quickly lose their value, as requirements are changing much faster than 15 years ago.

Serious headhunters usually confirm receipt and look at the documents, make phone calls or meet a few. Others, as candidates tell us, do not even confirm receipt and often the dossiers end up directly in the “Trash Folder”. On the other hand, it must be noted that it is not only CVs from Switzerland that a Zurich headhunter receives. No, they now come from all over Europe, but also from Asia, India and a little less the USA. To catch attention in this flood is not easy. Here are a few useful tips.

  1. do not send mass mails – address your message personally, get to the point, focus and attach a meaningful CV. There are only a few minutes that a headhunter can use for a review: He wants to see where you are strong, where your experiences lie and for which next career step you see yourself.
  2. a call in advance is not mandatory. If so, be brief: 2 minutes! You don’t have to tell the CV, because it’s not interesting at the moment.
  3. if you don’t have a personal recommendation, then go via website and upload the CV like this.
  4. if you don’t hear anything then follow up or let it go.
  5. don’t send a CV update every 4 weeks. This just shows that you didn’t work well enough at the beginning. You may call after a few months – but then stay concise. If the headhunter is serious, he will be happy to contact you if he has a mandate.
  6. stay focused in conversations and interviews, give clear answers to questions and don’t get into a ramble. “In a nutshell”, short and crisp is not a 20 minute monologue.
  7. prepare yourself. If you don’t find good arguments on the question “why”, where and why you are good for the job, why should the headhunter choose you? Where are your strengths, where are your weaknesses …. and, by the way, everyone is impatient!
  8. generally maintain your network – life is a give and take. A headhunter quickly senses whether you’re just taking and reporting because you need him or whether you’re interested in a longer-term relationship. Don’t just show an opportunistic side.
  9. also understand if you are stuck in a process. It is not always the headhunter who prevents you. Often customers also lack openness and you can hardly get arguments against their negative “gut feeling”.
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