The most important thing to remember when engaging with an executive search firm (or a recruiter), is that they do not work for you. Their client is the organization that engages them to find someone to fill a specific position. There are usually specific skills and experiences listed in the job specification worked out with the client and unless a person has "all 15 of the 10 specs," the job hunter will not be considered by the search firm or recruiter.

If the organization that engages them is the client, then who are you, the candidate? In a word: Inventory.

Remember also that a very small percentage of available positions are filled in this manner. Here are some ways you can break through the barrier.

  1. If a firm has contacted you in the past, begin with them—they at least know about you. It is always a good idea to have a record of which firms have called you, the person in the firm who reached out to you, and the position he or she was calling about. Your conversation might go like this: "About two years ago you called me about a CFO position in East Overshoe, Minnesota. After some conversation we agreed that this probably was not a good 'fit.' Now I'd like to bring you up to date about my situation."
  2. After having offered your 'narrative' ending with your focus ("What I'm looking for now is…"), ask the consultant: "What is the best way to become visible in your database?" If he/she says something like: "Send me your resume." Respond with "How would you like to receive it?" One does not know if email or Priority Mail is the best method in a particular situation.
  3. After receiving this information, continue with: "If something comes to your attention for which I am not exactly the best fit, please contact me anyhow. I may be able to suggest someone who might be more suitable than I am." This step is important because many search firms will then label your information "Friend of the Firm." This means that when your name comes up in a search of their database, you will get a "first look."
  4. It is OK to circle back to your contact in the firm every three to six weeks in order to bring them up to date about your situation, e.g., who you have been talking with and about the kinds of positions under consideration.
  5. If there are no search firms with whom you have had prior conversations, use your network to identify them. The strongest connection is probably through someone who has used them for a search in their company, but a connection through one of your other networking contacts can also work.

Still unsure how to approach a search firm the right way? Make an appointment with a HBS Career Coach or browse our Executive Search Firms resources.