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Job Magician Cultivating Relationships With
Retained Search Firms

  • Retained search firms are the entre for many of the best jobs. However, they rarely are working on the perfect for you when you desperately need one.
  • The way to get introduced to these highly desirable jobs via a retained recruiter is to develop a relationship with her long before she lands the assignment to fill your dream job.

A few times on this site, I’ve suggested that you not invest a huge amount of time on retained search firms, because they are not usually great tickets for getting you a new job right away. Retained firms are rarely going to produce quick results for you.

However, some people seem to move from one peach job to the next, with retained search firms providing all of their transitions.

The reason these people are successful is that they are not actively looking for a job in the short term. Instead, they have cultivated relationships with retained search firms over the long term, sometimes over a period of ten to twenty years.

Retained search firms are engaged for some of the best positions on the market, especially the senior positions. Most positions reporting to an external board of directors are filled by retained search firms, in part because the board members want to cover themselves (if the new president is a disaster, the board can point out that they retained a top search firm to fill the position, so they did their due diligence).  The same can be said for many private equity firms – they have investors to please, often large pension funds, university endowment managers and other institutional investors.

For the most part, if you want to become the star candidate for these positions, you can’t be in a rush. The chance that any single retained recruiter that you connect with happens to working on a position right now that is the perfect next step for you is infinitesimally small. The chance that some retained recruiter somewhere will be working on the perfect position for you some time in the future is high.

You need the luxury of time. If you have it, you need to begin cultivating relationships with retained recruiters now – and with many recruiters. Don’t try to connect with just one, and think that she will be your agent. Since only one firm is retained for each job, she may never be working on anything that fits you, and if she does, it will require a move to Portland, Oregon, which won’t be quite right for a died-in-wool Atlanta boy like you.

One Chief Marketing Officer of a brand name software firm that I know had lost his job, but was staying busy for the short term via consulting. I asked him if he had contacted all of the retained search firms. “I let the three biggest in the Chicago area who work in my industry know I’m available,” he told me. Doing that is a little better than mailing three resumes to major companies and expecting a job offer, but not much.

So how do you cultivate relationships with these recruiters?

Start by simply returning all calls from retained search firms. How do you cultivate these contacts? Perhaps the easiest way is to call back the ones who call you. You get calls regularly, and probably ignore the calls for jobs that are unattractive in one way or another. Call these recruiters back and suggest candidates (refer only good ones, because most referred candidates are duds, and referring duds will hurt your reputation at that firm). Don’t call the recruiter back, tell him you’re not interested in his position, and then bore him to death with 15 minutes about your background and the kind of position that you would just love. Quite simply, he doesn’t care. He’s focused on his present assignments. Spending 30 seconds to tell him about what you would like is OK, after you’ve suggested someone else. Once you get noted as a good source in a recruiter’s database, you’ll find that other recruiters at that firm will also call you for suggestions and occasionally, for actual jobs.

Networking, too. You can also network your way in front of retained search firms. Not only are your industry friends likely to know some retained recruiters, but recruiters also tend to show up at industry events. When you meet Edna Effervescent from Korn Ferry at a trade show, once again, don’t spend eons of her time telling her about yourself. Ask what her specialty is, what she’s working on, and if you can refer candidates.

The best way into a recruiter’s heart is to refer work. Just like any business, the hardest part of retained search is getting a client to commit to giving the search firm money. You’ll have your best chance to become a future candidate if you connect them to a client who doesn’t also happen to be your employer, because you will be off limits to the search firm that your company uses (for two years from their last search, anyway). However, it’s possible that you just might not be with your current employer forever, and if these firms remember you fondly from the times when they conducted assignments at your old employer, they could very well be good contacts for you in the future.

If you can’t get connected with a search firm any other way, try direct mail or email. This is a lower batting average method, but relatively cheap and easy, especially if you use RiteSite. Getting meetings via cold calls after mailing your resume is tough, unless you match a search, but if you’re senior enough, some search firms will see you if you call after sending your resume, in part because they’re hoping that when you land somewhere new, you’ll remember them for your new department’s search work.

Do recruiters within the same retained search firms share candidates? Yes and no. Every candidate they meet that is deemed to be a possible future candidate or source is entered into the firm’s database with comments. But your friend Edna at Korn Ferry works on only 10 to maybe 25 searches a year . You know that Edna’s firm is working on over a thousand searches at any given time. Is she going to call you when another recruiter at the firm is working on your dream job? Highly unlikely. She’s busy enough with the stuff on her plate. Unlike a contingent firm, where any recruiter in the firm can pop a candidate they know into any of the jobs listed with the firm and get a fee, Edna is unaware of most of the positions her colleagues are working on, other than the handful that her closest compadres mention in the hallways.


Does that mean that you should get to know every recruiter at Korn Ferry? No, and lots of luck trying to do so, anyway. Can’t hurt to try to connect with more than one there, but if you become really close with Edna and look superior in her eyes, which means that you have regularly referred candidates and work to her over the years, have a stellar track record and eat all of your vegetables, Edna may be a real help to you. If you become really close, she might just check the firm’s master list and connect you with the search consultant within Korn Ferry who is working on the job that really is a good fit for you.  But that relationship will have taken you years to cultivate.


The time to start cultivating for 15 years from now is now.



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