Shopping for Execs, American Way

AMERICAN WAY: Trends for the Modern Traveler
Monday, January 1, 2001


It's a plentiful market. And today's headhunters have new ways of finding you the right deal. Here's how to get your share of a cash-and-carry executive career.


It's a plentiful market. And today's headhunters have new ways of finding you the right deal. Here's how to get your share of a cash-and-carry executive career.

In the old days - say a decade ago - an executive search firm acted as a discreet, well-informed matchmaker. When a company called in a headhunter to fill a position, he would spend hours making phone calls and days traveling to meet with possible candidates.

In today's global economy, where everyone is wired, the function of the headhunter has changed. "Ten or 15 years ago, 70 percent of our job was finding candidates and gathering data," says James E. Boone, president of Korn/Ferry International's Americas division. "Now, when everyone knows who the potential CEOs or CFOs are, 70 percent of our job is to act as consultants." For example, headhunters may propose less-obvious candidates from other fields. Boone also often helps a company "search" within its own ranks. "Increasingly, we advise companies on how to make the best use of their most valuable assets: their human capital.," he says. "This can really make or break a company."

With talent at a premium these days, top headhunters have reached a new level of prominence. Many now serve on boards, according to Boone, something rarely seen years ago. And they've gained acceptance in areas not usually associated with executive search. For instance, Korn/Ferry recently searched for candidates for the cabinet of Mexico's president-elect Vicente Fox.

The game has changed for candidates, too. The strong economy has put them in the driver's seat. "There is an absolute shortage of top executives," says Boone. "Candidates are king, and executives are moving more than ever. Today, a candidate who would never have considered making a move five years ago, will explore the possibility of a better position." And part of the headhunter's job is to get him to consider making the change, finding the prospect's hot buttons, whether they be stock options, quality of life, or room for advancement. In a time when companies no longer promise 30-years-and-a-gold-watch careers, moving isn't necessarily a bad thing. "In this economy, executives must take charge and plot their own futures," says Boone. "It's important to know yourself, define the job that's right for you, and focus your energies upward." In other words, your best opportunities to advance may well be to go to another firm.

Even candidates who aren't considered a change sometimes raise the specter of the headhunter and greener pastures to negotiate a raise or promotion, says Stephen P. Viscusi, author of On the Job: How to Make it in the Real World of Work and host of the nationally syndicated radio show On the Job (Sundays noon-1 p.m. ET). "In some respects, employers are held hostage today," he says. "They don't want to lose valued employees, so they give the raise or the promotion. And often there are no hard feelings because both employer and employee get what they want."

The playing field has changed as well - thanks to the Internet and interactive job-search sites like,, and, which make it possible to view hundreds, even thousands of positions with the click of a mouse.

However, these sites are not in the same league as high-level recruiters, says Viscusi, who describes himself as the Dr. Ruth of careers, answering questions about the workplace on h is radio program. "They're simply electronic classified ads, with a difference - you can register with them. People are psychologically tired of newspaper classifieds, and they've moved on to technology. Electronic boards are most useful for entry-level or middle-management positions; only the smallest percentage of job seekers find anything [with a salary] above $80,000."

Viscusi ads a word of caution about registering with online services: "I've had more than one call from someone whose résumé ended up on his or her boss' desk," he says. "So if you're already employed, have them send you a list of employers instead of forwarding your résumé." However, one of Viscusi's call-ins was well-served when an online service sent his résumé to his boss. "He actually got a raise. Five years ago, he would have been fired, but employers can't afford to lose good people today."

A few years ago, electronic search was seen as a serious competitor - one that might even replace conventional executive search. "Yet we've seen a double-digit growth in executive search over the past five years," says Boone. "The dot-com arena represents a broadening of the ability to serve, rather than a competitor. The technology allows people to browse the market and chart their futures."

And in support of this position, industry leader Korn/Ferry, which has more than 70 offices in over 40 countries, recently acquired, an online college recruitment company. Added to, which provides middle-management services to clients, this newest product provides Korn/Ferry with a database of candidates from the beginning of their careers through their most senior positions.

While all this flow of information means more opportunities than ever before for the job-seeker, some opportutities are disasters waiting to happen, says Viscusi. "I get more calls from people who say they were lured away from jobs in Fortune 500 companies to go to dot-coms," he says. "More than half are sorry, because their new company went out of business. This is a real risk because hundreds of these dot-coms are going out of business every year."

Asked to predice the future of executive search in the new economy, Boone laughs and says, "If I'd been asked five years ago to predicet the role of the Internet, I couldn't have done it. But I believe that in the next five years, executive search will continue ot play a vital rode - and that we'll see an evolution in which key executives, like sports figures, will be represented by a third party."

While the prospect of a top manager call his agent, like an actor or football player, may sound like career utopia, it may not be open to one and all. Check the boards, Viscusi advises. "See what's out there, see what's hot and what's not. See where the jobs are and what not. See where the jobs are and what they're paying," he says. "But if you see only two jobs in your field - then be careful with the one you've go."

Always take the call, says Viscusi. "The headhunter is your friend. Even if you're not interested, send your résumé; that can be your ace-in-the-hole. Behave in a professional manner even if you don't like the recruiter, especially if you're in a specialized field that only a few headhunters handle. Refer a friend - the headhunter will remember you.

Be truthful, concise, candid, says Boone. If the opportunity isn't right, say so. If it's absolutely right, say so.

Discuss limitations, such as moving and compensation. If the position isn't a good fit, the recruiter will appreciate your candor and remember you the next time something comes along that might be right.

Log on to, Boone advises. Create your own file and join the Korn/Ferry database for free. It's kept in strictest confidence while making you available.

Focus. Use a rifle rather than a shotgun approach in plotting your career.

Become visible. Serve on committees, associations. Pen articles, be quoted. Attend meetings, give speeches.

Get the Kennedy Directory of Executive Recruiters says Viscusi. The "Big Red Book" is the bible of listings. It includes all headhunters worldwide, both retainer and contingency based. Find the ones that handle your field, do a mailing, and get into their databases.