The Truth About Executive Search Firms

Last Updated May 18, 2009 1:15 PM EDT

Dear Stanley,

I'm a relatively senior person who was recently laid off. I've got a bit put by, but my savings are not enough to cover me for very long. I've got a few options I'm looking at, as well as some search companies that have reached out to me. Should I just put my faith in executive recruiting firms?

Out Looking

Dear Lookout,

I have frequently put my faith in executive recruiting firms. They are staffed by knowledgeable and helpful people, many of whom worked in corporate Human Resources before they decided to (or were forced to) go into the search world. They mean well. They work hard (sort of). And they make their living by putting jobs together with people who are right for them. I can also tell you that not once in my entire career have I ever been offered a suitable job by a recruiting firm, nor have I hired a candidate who came in through one. Perhaps other people's experience is different. They make their living somehow, and they have my admiration. I hope they get me a kick-ass job one day. But so far? Nope.

Perhaps the problem that applicants face with search firms is that we misunderstand their mission. Their job is NOT to get you a job. It is to fill a position for a company that has hired them. So you go in, all bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and give a great interview, and they like you, and everybody feels good. But at the same time, they're not really interested in finding YOU a job. They're looking at you and thinking, "Would this person be a good fit for the thing that Microsoft is talking with us about?" Or, "How would this individual fit in at Xerox?" It's a subtle difference, but a telling one. They're working for Microsoft or Xerox or Boeing or Bank of America; they're not working for you. So if you don't seem right for whatever they have on hand, you're out of luck. Nobody is running around thinking, "I wonder what we can do for Morris Schwenky today," or "You know, Sheila Magoo is a terrific woman. I wonder if there's a great job out there for her." That's just the way it is. So for sure, hit every executive search firm you can find. Interview like mad. Take them to lunch. Kiss their babies. But get out there and continue to do your own thing, too, because 99 times out of 100, it's going to be your own efforts that land you the assignment you want -- or possibly those of your Aunt Marcia. I say that because it was my Aunt Marcia who got me my first job a long time ago, the one that mutated into the position I now hold. Thanks, Marcia!