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What can you really expect from executive search firms?

They’re often called headhunters. More accurately, they are executive search firms that typically fill senior-level positions at salaries ranging from $100,000 to more than $500,000. It’s a great job-placement concept whereby a recruiter finds a strong candidate to fill an open position at a company. There’s one caveat: Approach a recruiter the wrong way or field a call incorrectly, and you could kill an opportunity or a potential networking relationship.

First of all, it’s imperative to understand the relationship of the headhunter to the job hunter. “I can’t tell you how many job seekers call me and say, ‘I’d like to be your next client. I’m an executive looking for a job and I’d like you to conduct a search for me,’” relates Sharon Hall, managing director of the Atlanta office and co-leader of the Global Diversity Practice at SpencerStuart, one of the largest privately held executive search firms, with 52 offices in 25 countries. “What people don’t understand is that we find people for jobs, we don’t find jobs for people,” she says.

An executive search firm is focused on satisfying the client’s needs. But once you understand the working parameters, there are ways to get a recruiter to work for you. Hall offers tips that could increase your chances of getting noticed.

o Know the types of recruiters. There are basically two types: retained search firms and contingency search firms. A retained firm works closely with the employer, advising on all aspects of the hiring negotiations–even once a candidate is selected. Executive recruiters for retained firms seek out candidates earning a minimum of $100,000. Contingency search firms employ mid-level recruiters who fill positions in the $50,000—$100,000 range and are usually paid contingently on what they can produce. Mid-level recruiters usually juggle several projects and are less hands-on with the client and the candidate. They also tend to drop clients if a search takes longer than expected.

o Know the industry, function, and level at which the firm performs. A recruiter searches for those candidates whose profiles fit his client’s needs. Make sure your credentials match the search firm’s area of expertise. “For example, if you know that I work for a retained company in the consumer packaged goods industry, at senior levels in the marketing function, and that’s who you are–you’re golden,” says Hall.

Oftentimes, a recruiter will contact an unsuspecting candidate based on a lead from referrals or a database. Not responding appropriately could result in a lost opportunity. “Even if you’re happy with your job, you should always respond to a recruiter’s call,” advises Marjorie Brody, president of Brody Communications Ltd., a career enhancement company in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. “Headhunters become marketing agents for you and your career. Once they find you, it’s a relationship you should nurture. Besides, it never hurts to test your mettle and find out what’s out there and what you’re worth.”

Unfortunately, some candidates never return the call. Others don’t know how to respond. If you’re not familiar with the recruiting firm, it’s important that you quickly

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