Wouldn’t it be great if you were happily working away at a job you love when a headhunter / recruiter calls you out of the blue with an opportunity at the company you always dreamed of, doing a role you always wanted and at a compensation way higher than what you’re making right now? This scenario may sound like a fantasy, but being unexpectedly hunted from a job to join another company happens more frequently than you might think.
In my 10-plus years as a headhunter, most of my senior-level searches were populated by candidates who were not actively looking for a new job. Instead, I identified these prospects, approached them with opportunities out of the blue and they joined the hiring process alongside the other candidates.
So how do you prepare to be hunted by the headhunter? How do you become the candidate that headhunters introduce to plum opportunities? You need to understand how headhunters find potential hires, and then make yourself discoverable and desirable to the headhunters looking for what you do. Here are 5 ways to become the job candidate headhunters want to hunt.
1. Be a target—you have to have the talent to be discovered.
Becoming a target in recruiting isn’t about inviting trouble. It’s about setting a specific-enough skill set or industry expertise that you are known for something. If you’re early in your career, this means you want to select projects and roles that can build up a body of knowledge. If you’re later in your career, this means that you want your resume, online profile, networking pitch and what people say when they mention you to focus on your specific talent.
This skill set or expertise also has to be valuable in the job market. If you are an expert in an outdated programming language, then you might get known, but for being out of date. You need to pay attention to what the market values (job postings are a good indicator) and continually upgrade and update your talent accordingly.
2. Be seen—people have to know you to refer you.
When you have specific expertise, you're more likely to come to mind when a headhunter asks, “Whom do you know who can do X?” Sourcing, or asking around for referrals, is how many headhunters find candidates. This means that you need to be someone who gets referred—i.e., you have an active network that is plugged into Headhunters, and this network thinks of you when they get those calls. Ideally, you also have your own recruiter relationships in your network so you can refer yourself if the Headhunter has forgotten what you do!
In order to develop this network, you need to be at conferences and other professional events. You need to follow up and stay in touch with former colleagues, even as you change jobs. You need to be out in front as a thought leader. This doesn’t mean you have to be a keynote speaker at the top conference in your field, though that would be very effective—you could be leading your professional association chapter, serving as a guest lecturer at a local college or simply being active in your community. This 50-year-old went from layoff to career change by building up a strong network in her community over time and then getting referred to a director role working with that community.
3. Be searchable—headhunters have to be able to find you.
Another important way that headhunters find candidates is by searching online platforms such as LinkedIn, Jobsdb, Jobthai as well as candidate databases built over time from other searches. If you ever applied for a job, you may still be in that company’s database, long after the search is over and even if you didn’t land that job. If your profile or resume has keywords that a headhunter is searching for, then you will likely end up on that headhunter’s radar. Keywords might include specific skills, industries, and functional areas, as well as the names of brands and top-tier schools.
If you want your profile to come up in a search, you need to include keywords that are searchable and relevant to the job you want. If you're changing careers and your current skills and expertise don't fit with the types of roles you're targeting, you need to find some way of gaining experience in your desired field. It doesn't need to be professional, paid work experience—skills or expertise gained from volunteer work, for example, can be listed in the volunteer, summary or status sections of your LinkedIn profile and will still come up in a search.
4. Be responsive—it won’t matter if a headhunter calls if you don’t call back.
Once headhunters find you, whether, by referral or research, they will get in touch to gauge your interest and your potential match. You might have a key software skill that comes up in a search but it turns out you don’t have that much experience in it or you don’t have experience using it in the way the prospective employer needs. Referrals and research are helpful, but not sufficient, so the headhunter needs to talk to you to know for sure. This means you need to respond to their outreach in order to get to the next step.
I use LinkedIn heavily in my research and outreach, and the vast majority of candidates don’t respond. You will never hear about a plum opportunity or start a relationship with a headhunter or get a sense of your market value if you don’t respond. Make sure that the contact info attached to your online profile is updated. Make sure that you set your notifications so you are flagged when new messages arrive. Take the time to return unsolicited inquiries. Even if you aren’t right for that particular opportunity, headhunters remember responsive candidates, and you’ll be more likely to get that next call. Furthermore, after talking to the headhunter, she or he will know more about you and make a better match in the future.
5. Be prepared—you still need to interview and close that offer.
Just as you need to respond to an inquiry to get on a headhunter’s radar, you also need to go through the hiring process to land the job. Even the most highly referred candidates need to interview. Once the interview process starts, you are alongside every other candidate—hunted or otherwise. I’ve never been at the decision table where we compare two candidates, and the hunted candidate gets an extra point for being passive. In fact, sometimes employers worry you aren’t really interested in the job!
The benefit of being hunted is that you actually land a better job. Getting calls is flattering, but not as tangible a payoff as getting a better-paying, higher title, more interesting, more challenging and/or more fulfilling job. Furthermore, even if you don’t land the job, if you do well in the interview process, you will impress all the people you meet along the way, including the headhunter. You are more likely to stay top of mind for the next opportunity, if not this one.
It is not easy to be the type of candidate that headhunters want to hunt. You have to have a skill or expertise that is valued. People have to know you enough to refer you, or Headhunters need to find you in some other way. Once contact is made, you have to maintain these relationships and present well in the hiring process. Of course, you could also just fall into a career in a very tight market—e.g., data science, AI—where expertise is so coveted you might start attracting interest even with just a little experience under your belt. For the most part, however, you need to put in time and effort and prepare to be hunted.