How to handle headhunters

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When you do, make sure you do your research first. It is crucial that you place the first call to someone who is appropriate, well respected and, above all, discreet. Call the wrong headhunter - a third-rate one in the field - and you could find your CV scattered everywhere. It may seem a mere faux pas, but it is a mistake that could damage your chances even before you have started looking.

"It can be very damaging and detrimental to your career if you are inappropriately presented in the small and incestuous financial community," says a veteran headhunter.

Most headhunters agree that the first rule of presentation involves the number of headhunters you use. You should not use more than three different firms if you are exploring the job market within financial services. One can be sufficient if they are doing their job properly, two is probably a desirable number and three is a maximum.

"You want to manage the mystery about yourself - you don't want to be all over the market," says one headhunter.

Helen Clifford, who runs the niche risk management headhunting firm Clifford & Co, says: "Mid-level people often get scared in a merger situation and make the big mistake of sending their CV to lots of headhunters at random. It can end up at two places at the same firm. The market is ferociously competitive and anything that hints of becoming a recruitment battle at mid-level will result in your being cast aside. "

There is also little point in indiscriminately sending your CV to as many headhunters as possible for the simple reason that they may hardly look at it. One niche executive search firm that acts almost entirely on a retained basis for clients estimates that it only keeps about 15% of unsolicited CVs.

In deciding which headhunter to approach, look for expertise and listen to the talk within your sector. Beyond that, it becomes a very individual question of instinct and how you get along with your headhunter. Good headhunters see themselves in part as institutional individual counsellors, and act accordingly.

Kirk Hill, a senior consultant at the financial services search firm Devonshire Executive, says: "We are here to help the candidates develop their career as well as being mandated to help the clients. The mark of a good headhunter is to accurately assess what you want and match the job to it."

Be direct with your headhunter, as the more you communicate to them the more effective they can be on your behalf, says Clifford.

Headhunters are often frustrated by the way potential job seekers choose to withhold information as being "irrelevant" to the task. While the instinct for privacy is understandable, you must be able to convey the bare facts of the amount of money you currently make, want to make, and your preferences on relocation.

A complex and potentially critical part of the process of using headhunters is how to manage the timing of a search. Again, good communication and trust between you and your headhunters is essential. "Use your headhunter effectively so you do not get stuck in a box with a job offer from, say, ABN Amro demanding a response when you really want to go to Morgan Stanley, which you have not heard from yet," says one headhunter.

Ultimately it is sensible to accept that the relationship between you and your headhunter is one that demands trust and even thrives on it. To enter the relationship in a half-hearted manner does not make sense. If you remain open-minded to their ideas on jobs on offer and how to negotiate a better package for yourself it gives you an opportunity to benchmark yourself against the rest of the market.

Remember, too, that although headhunters are often vilified and dismissed within the intellect and talent in the world of financial services, they remain an important part of what amounts to a very small circle. A headhunter is not going to presume to tell you to be gracious at an interview because you never know when your path and that of the person interviewing you may cross again.

For the same reason, it is common sense to be polite to your headhunter, in whose little black book everything about you goes.

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