If you’re considering a job change, there’s a good chance you’ll work with a recruiter or executive search consultant. These professionals are often gateways to opportunities because they evaluate talent to recommend to their clients (who are the companies with job openings, not individual job seekers), and so they can be vital to your job search.
To ensure you stand out in the talent pool, we asked some leading executive search professionals to share their insights and expertise on what separates strong candidates from the weak ones.
A stand-out candidate shows how (and what) they led, as well as results and contributions with impact on their resume, LinkedIn profile and in-person. “It depends on the role, but demonstrating leadership is key, showing performance on projects, people management, opening up new markets etc.,” says Nicole Meyer, Founder & Managing Partner of The Meyer Partnership. Moreover, a resume that includes quantified measures of performance captures more attention than one that overlooks numbers. Adds Meyer, “Metrics (or lack thereof) are the #1 omission on resumes, in our opinion, and the most important as it’s a subjective example of performance.”
For senior-level roles, presenting a narrative of growth also helps a candidate to shine. Terry Gallagher, President of Battalia Winston, looks for a candidate who has, “A consistent record of being pulled into new positions of increasing responsibility by senior executives who have witnessed the candidate’s contributions and value add.”
During a job search, you’ll prepare extensively to make good impressions on hiring managers. While this is essential, don’t forget that vetting you as a candidate begins well before you’re introduced to a prospective employer. Every aspect of your personal brand -- particularly how you communicate and conduct yourself -- is open to evaluation. As Suzanne Coleman, Managing Partner and Principal of Coleman & Company, points out, “One less obvious thing is how a candidate interacts with the recruiter during the scheduling process. Are they responsive, clear, efficient and polite in their interactions with recruiters when scheduling? We can tell a lot about a candidate by the way they interact on scheduling.”
Even your initial phone conversation with a recruiter affects the impression you make and can impact your candidacy. Always be prompt, professional and positive (whether in-person, by phone or video). As Patricia Lenkov, President of Agility Executive Search, shares, “Many candidates do not realize that they sound weak or inarticulate on the phone.” Practice your pitch aloud so you sound confident, but not overly rehearsed.
If you're not interested in a particular job that's presented to you, call or email the recruiter back anyway and offer to help. As Lenkov suggests, it’s beneficial to “make a recommendation if you can if the job is not for you.” Providing a few names of people you know who’d be a good fit for the opportunity will leave the recruiter with a positive impression of you and increase the likelihood they’ll reach out to you for future roles. If you don’t respond at all (another common mistake), don’t expect that recruiter to contact you again.
While excessive follow-up is not beneficial, don’t neglect essential communications either, such as sending thank-you emails (both to recruiters and the people with whom you interview at a company). Gallagher shares that following an interview, stellar candidates offer, “Timely and succinct customized follow up letters highlighting a unique key discussion point for each client executive that the candidate was interviewed by.” Think about how to make a lasting impact with those you meet. Consider, as suggested by Meyer, “sharing relevant industry information, proactively, maybe as follow up to maintain some contact.”
When interviewing, listen carefully to questions to provide clear and complete responses. Gallagher notes that candidate interviews can go awry when, “[There's] too much talking (sometimes run on or not directly addressing the question) and not enough active listening to keep on point.” Answer questions directly with specific, relevant details. Meyer says what she looks for in strong candidates, “Being transparent versus cagey, giving very concrete examples when answering questions. Don’t be vague, that tells us you’re untrustworthy or untrusting; either way, it’s a turn off.”
Open and honest dialogue is key. While executive search consultants don’t expect perfection from a candidate, they expect truthfulness. “Accepting where s/he falls short of position requirements and being prepared to answer to that (being able to acknowledge one’s own strengths and weaknesses),” is essential, according to Meyer. She adds, “Tell the truth, don’t embellish or lie on your resume. Own any gaps you have in your employment history, don’t withhold information about those.” Intentionally misrepresenting yourself, your qualifications or work history, is a surefire way to get removed from a candidate list.
The best candidates also prepare to ask intelligent questions that impart their expertise. As Gallagher states, “Evidence of deep industry or functional knowledge from their research and competitive knowledge shown by the depth of their questions to the client can be the difference between winning and finishing second.” In other words, putting that extra bit of effort into research as part of your interview preparation may be the difference between whether or not you receive an offer.
Throughout all stages of the interviewing process, you should exude genuine confidence, interest and engagement. As Coleman warns, “[A] common mistake made by candidates is that they do not express enough enthusiasm, energy or desire for the role. A lackluster interview is never a winner.” Pay attention to how you conduct yourself as well. Gallagher points out that positive body language signals interest and cautions about, “Lacking a firm handshake and direct eye contact to connote confidence, commitment and conviction. Without that, all the verbal responses are not credible. This is basic, but I see it all too often and it is a knockout punch for serious candidates.”
Be mindful, however, of enthusiasm or self-confidence that goes too far. According to Coleman, “The other thing we see over and over that greatly impacts success with the client is overconfidence bordering on arrogance because the candidate is not sure if they are interested in the role.” Even if you’re uncertain that the role is right for you, maintain a respectful and responsive demeanor. Remember, when you forge good relationships with recruiters and they receive positive feedback on you from employers (even if you aren’t offered the job), they’re more willing to keep you in mind for other opportunities.
Recruiters play an important role as an intermediary between you and the company, but remember it's not their job to present with you an array of potential jobs to choose from; rather, it’s to fill the open roles of their clients. To maintain a positive and productive relationship, understand the hiring process and respect boundaries.
While pursuing a specific position may be your top priority, a recruiter works with multiple clients and candidates at any given time, so patience helps. Meyer cautions to avoid, “Seeming desperate: following up too often and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. This is the same as being overzealous in badgering us for answers, updates. We will let you know what’s going on, when we learn it.” Furthermore, Meyer warns not to contact the hiring manager or company directly. “This is a top pet peeve to recruiters and HR teams!”
Lastly, remember that recruiters are not career consultants or coaches. Lenkov says, “While we would love to have the time to spend providing career advice and feedback on resumes, we just cannot do this.” If you're not application-ready when a search professional approaches you about an opportunity and you find yourself under-prepared, consider seeking help from someone who can bring you (and your career materials) up to speed so you present yourself optimally. (Learn here how Point Road Group prepares executive job seekers.)
A great impression -- shaped by timely and honest communication, active engagement and respectful conduct -- will make you a more marketable and attractive candidate. This significantly impacts how a search professional will work on your behalf and recommend you for positions -- and in the end, help you to move forward in your career.