Executive Recruiters: Good, Bad -- or Evil?

Last Updated Jun 4, 2010 2:44 PM EDT

PursuedThe other night I watched a movie called Pursued where Christian Slater plays an obsessed, neurotic, homicidal executive headhunter. Once he finds his target "recruit," he bugs his home, stalks his wife, and gives their kid a stuffed animal with a video camera, all to get some dirt on the guy to coerce him into taking the job he was hired to fill.

Pretty farfetched and over-the-top, right? Maybe not.

I've actually had some interesting and not entirely pleasant experiences with executive recruiters myself. Don't get me wrong, I've worked with some great folks from firms like Korn/Ferry, Heidrick & Struggles, and some independents. Mostly, they've been fine professionals. But others, not so much.

Here are a couple of stories that might get you to think twice about a headhunter call.
The call was for a VP job at a late-stage startup. The CEO meeting was a love-fest. So I spent two days meeting with the executive management team. Another green light. Then they set me up with the board of directors. Usually, when you meet with the board, you're in. CEO's don't want to waste the board's time interviewing candidates.

According to the headhunter, the stars were aligned. So I waited for the next step. And waited. And waited.

Nothing happened. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. No response to email or a phone call. He just plain stonewalled me. To this day, he never contacted me to say they'd gone in a different direction, to thank me for my time, nothing. I assume he simply found somebody else and kept me on the hook until the guy accepted. Nice.

Another time I got a call from an executive recruiter about the top marketing job at a big, publicly-traded tech company. Having had my share of "big company" experiences, I wasn't interested at first. But after some arm twisting, I gave in and decided to check it out.

The initial meeting was with the Sr. VP of marketing, which I thought was a little strange, but still, not out of the realm of possibilities. I just figured he was planning to move along and was tasked with finding his replacement. But about an hour into the meeting, I began to get the feeling that this guy wasn't going anywhere. So I asked him flat out.

Sure enough, he was planning to move into another function and the company was indeed looking for a top guy to shake things up. But initially, and through some "transition period," the function would report to him. Wow, that was awkward.

More than a little annoyed I'd been blindsided, I called the recruiter and asked why she didn't just tell me the truth.

She said, "If I had, would you have considered the position?"

"Hell no," I said emphatically, "Those transition jobs never turn out the way you expect them to."

"That's why."

You know, during a 23-year career and eight company transitions (a lot, I know, but that's high-tech for you), I was only placed by a headhunter once, and it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. The others were all word-of-mouth.

So, the next time the phone rings, make sure it isn't an evil headhunter like Christian Slater.

More importantly, my advice for CEOs and others looking for executive talent is this: before you pick up the phone and call an executive recruiter, do a little networking and try to find your star that way. Better still, make succession planning a priority and promote from within. The same goes for boards of directors.