Fast Company

Interview with a Headhunter

In the eat-or-be-eaten world of job hunting, if you misfire, you're dead. Here's how to hunt like a headhunter -- and turn your next job interview into a sure kill.

When Nick A. Corcodilos started out in the headhunting business, nearly 20 years ago, he had a keen eye for tracking talent, but he couldn't always make the kill. While he would succeed in his part of the hunt, the job hunters whom he located would often fail in theirs. From his base in Silicon Valley, he would send all-star performers to blue-chip companies like Xerox, IBM, GE, and Hewlett-Packard. Corcodilos, now 43, knew that these candidates were right for the job -- yet they weren't bagging their quarry. They were misfiring before, during, or after the do-or-die interview.

So, instead of simply scouting for talent, Corcodilos began advising talent as well. He helped job hunters improve their kill ratios -- by getting them to pursue fewer companies, by helping them make the right contacts, and by showing them how to deliver what companies are looking for in an interview. Eventually he went online, and later he wrote a myth-busting book titled "Ask the Headhunter" (Penguin/Plume, 1997). Since moving his base of operations to Lebanon, New Jersey, he has taught career development to high-flying employees at such companies as AT&T, Merrill Lynch, and Procter & Gamble.

To help you conclude your next job search with a sure kill, Fast Company has asked Corcodilos to map out a plan for reinventing the rules of the hunt. (And since many people must hunt not only for work but also for talent, we offer three sidebars on how to recruit like a headhunter.)

In the following interview, Corcodilos covers the basics of a successful hunt, from preparation to tactics to execution. Bottom line: He shows you how to deliver the one, surefire thing that every employer is looking for -- proof that you can do the job, and do it profitably.

1. Your résumé is meaningless.

Headhunters know that a résumé rarely gets you inside a company. A résumé can't defend you or answer questions about you. All that a résumé can do is outline your past, and your past is largely irrelevant, because it doesn't demonstrate that you can do the work that the hiring manager needs to get done.

"A résumé leaves it up to employers to figure out how you can add value to their organization," says Corcodilos. "That's no way to sell yourself."

Recalling the old marketing adage that a free product sample gives customers a reason to want more, Corcodilos suggests that you do the same with your résumé: Give prospective employers an example of what you can do for them.

"Create a new area in your résumé," he advises. "Call it 'Value Offered.' In two sentences, state the value that you would bring to the employer. Be specific: You will probably have to create a separate résumé for each company that you approach.

"If you include a summary of your value that targets the hiring manager's needs, you'll transform your résumé into a marketing tool that distinguishes you as someone whose goal is to help the employer, rather than as someone who's simply out to get a job."

2. Go to HR -- and get lost!

Headhunters deal with a company's human-resources department only when they're filling a highly visible position, such as president or CEO. Otherwise, they avoid HR whenever possible. So should you.

"Most HR departments," Corcodilos says, "create a Byzantine infrastructure that primarily involves processing paper. They package you, they organize you, they file you, they sort you. Then, if you haven't gotten lost in the shuffle, they might pass you on to a manager who actually knows what the work is all about."

Some HR professionals do excel at finding the right candidate for a job, but they are the exception, Corcodilos argues. As a rule, HR slows you down and forces you to compete against other candidates. A smart headhunter will short-circuit that process by going directly to the only person who counts: the manager who will ultimately make the hire.

"While the typical candidate is waiting to be interviewed by the HR department, the headhunter is on the phone, using a back channel to get to the hiring manager -- or talking to that person directly."

3. The real matchmaking takes place before the interview.

A headhunter never sends a candidate into an interview unless the candidate is clearly qualified for the job. In your own job hunt, you must make the same effort to ensure a good fit. But you won't make a good match unless you already know the parameters of the job when you walk into the interview. And that requires a lot of research on your part.

The best way to learn about a company is to talk to people who work there. Kenton Green, 28, a guest columnist for the Ask The Headhunter Web site, has been using this technique while he completes a PhD program in electrical engineering and optics at the University of Rochester: "I find an article published by someone in my field who works at one of the companies that I'm interested in. Then I call that person and ask to talk.

"During the conversation," Green continues, "I mention my employability and discuss the company's staffing needs. And one of two things usually happens: I get an interview, or I learn that we aren't such a good match after all -- and I'm glad that I didn't waste time sending a résumé to that company's HR department."

More often than not, as you drill down and investigate a company, you'll find that you and the company are not made for each other. "And that's a good thing," says Corcodilos, "because when you do find the right fit, you'll walk into an interview having already decided that this is a company that you want to work for. You won't go into the interview half-cocked."

4. Don't study for the interview -- practice doing the job.

Once you've researched a company -- you know its challenges and its goals, its culture and its competitors -- the next step is to practice doing the job. Prepare yourself, advises Corcodilos, to take on several "action tasks":

Show that you understand the job. "Ask what problem the manager hopes to solve by hiring you. And make sure that you also understand what goal the manager is working toward: higher sales? more profit? penetration of an account at any cost? Your task is to show how you can help the company achieve that goal."

Show that you can do the job. "Be prepared to highlight the steps that you would take to solve the employer's problem and to reach the employer's goal. Show the manager how you think and how you work."

Show how the company will profit from hiring you. "Be ready to tackle the issue of profitability: How is your way of doing this work going to reduce costs or increase revenues? Put a number on it. The number doesn't have to be right, but you should be prepared to defend it intelligently.

"These action tasks will help you take the interview where you want it to go -- straight to the job," Corcodilos concludes. "Just as important, they will help you take the employer along with you."

5. The shocking truth: The employer wants to hire you.

"A company holds interviews so it can hire the best person for the job," says Corcodilos. "The hiring manager will be ecstatic if that person turns out to be you -- because then he can stop interviewing and get back to work."

So give yourself an attitude adjustment. "If you convince yourself that the hiring manager wants to hire you, then you'll have a positive attitude when you walk into the interview," says Corcodilos. "And who knows: Your attitude might influence the manager to feel good about you."

6. It's not an interview -- it's your first day at work.

Most people treat an interview as if it were an interrogation. The employer asks questions, and the candidate gives answers. Headhunters go out of their way to avoid that scenario.

"Think of the interview as your first day on the job," says Corcodilos. "Your attitude should be that of an employee who's there to talk about a new project -- rather than the more obsequious attitude of a candidate who's hoping to get an offer.

"Candidates who think of themselves as employees immediately tip the scales of power in their favor, because they come across as people who understand the job and who are prepared to do it. Doing the job causes the most rapid shift in control that I know of. It turns a question-and-answer session into an exciting engagement between two people who have seized an opportunity to take a fresh look at their work."

7. To win an offer, do the job.

How do you do the job during the interview? Consider how Corcodilos coached Gerry Zagorski, now the manager of business development at AT&T Wireless, when Zagorski was pursuing an opening at AT&T. The vice president who was handling the interview told Zagorski that the meeting could last no more than 20 minutes.

Zagorski, now 40, walked over to the VP's whiteboard and outlined the company's challenges, as well as the steps that he would take to increase its profits. Fifteen minutes later, as Zagorski wrote down his estimate of what he would add to the bottom line, he looked up at his interviewer.

"The guy's jaw was on the floor," says Corcodilos. "He told Zagorski that an interview wouldn't be necessary. Instead, the VP brought in the rest of his team, and the meeting lasted for two hours. There was no standard interview nonsense: Zagorski's demonstration changed the whole tone."

8. Got an offer? Interview the company.

When a company makes an offer, it does more than deliver a title and a compensation package -- it cedes part of its control over the hiring process.

"At the outset of the interview, the employer controls the offer and the power that comes with it," says Corcodilos. "But upon making an offer, the employer transfers that power to the candidate. This is a power that few people in that situation even realize that they have."

Corcodilos suggests that you separate winning the offer from negotiating the terms of your acceptance. "Now it's time for you to explore changing the offer to suit your goals. It's time for you to interview the company," he says.

Ask to meet members of the team that you've been invited to join. Ask to see the tools and resources that would be at your disposal. Ask to interview managers and important staff members who would affect your ability to do your job. Ask for more money -- but only if you think you truly deserve it. And don't fret about how the employer might react to these requests.

"As long as you present your requests professionally, and not as demands," says Corcodilos, "a good company will consider the things that are important to you."

Just remember, once you get an offer, the relationship between you and the employer turns upside down. Now you are the interviewer, and the hiring manager is the candidate: "You have the power," says Corcodilos, "to decide whether, and on what terms, you want to hire that company."

Coordinates: $14.95. "Ask the Headhunter: Reinventing the Interview to Win the Job," Penguin/Plume, 800-788-6262, www.penguinputnam.com; Ask The Headhunter, www.asktheheadhunter.com; Nick A. Corcodilos, nbgroup@aol.com

Action Item: Job Hunter's Guidebook

The Search Bulletin is one of those rare job lists that does more than provide "insider" openings -- it also gives contact information for the headhunters who are working to fill those openings.

Published twice a month by the Beacon Group Inc., the Bulletin lists between 400 and 500 openings per issue. The newsletter is targeted to mid-level and senior managers in such industries as finance, sales and marketing, human resources, general management, and information systems. Salaries for the posted jobs range from $70,000 to $500,000. Later this month, the Beacon Group will launch a revamped Search Bulletin Web site, which will allow subscribers to check daily for new job listings.

But the Bulletin's key added value resides in its extensive headhunter listings -- which offer a great way to connect with the people who are wired into the best jobs in your field. "By networking with several key headhunters," says Nancy Schretter, 43, president of the Beacon Group, "you become more of a three-dimensional person to them -- instead of a hit-and-run job hunter."

Shannon Spring

Coordinates: $115 for 6 issues; $187 for 12 issues. The Search Bulletin, 800-486-9220, www.searchbulletin.com

Sidebar: Anti-Interview

In his 18 years of hiring salespeople at four separate companies, Michael Freilich has been snookered into bringing on more than a few reps who aced their interviews but then turned out to be lame sellers. That's why Freilich, 44, vice president of Advanced Computer Communications Technologies Inc., an Internet-consulting company, has devised an interviewing regimen that makes it almost impossible for candidates to hide behind their game faces. Here are three of his hard-won lessons.

Do a stealth interview. "I get candidates to call me at home in the evening. They have no idea that this casual exchange is the first round of interviewing. Six out of ten people never get to the next level."

Get them to show you the money. "I ask salespeople how much they earned in commissions over the past two years. If they say that last year was an off year, I know that there's a problem. If I decide to meet with them, I tell them to bring their W-2 forms."

Let them do the talking. "When a candidate arrives for our meeting, I announce that I already did my interview -- over the phone. 'Now you have my time,' I say. 'What do you want to talk about?' People don't expect this tactic, so I get a chance to see how they handle a curve ball."

Coordinates: Michael Freilich, mfreil54@erols.com

Bill Breen (bbreen@fastcompany.com) is a senior editor at Fast Company. Michael Kaplan (mkap@interport.net), a freelancer based in New York City, contributed three of the sidebars.

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