Network With Your Competitors, Be More Attractive to Executive Recruiters

Network with your competitors, be more attractive to recruiters

What if I told you that one of the best ways to get noticed by executive recruiters is to network with your competition and let them be your advocates? And by your competition, I mean the other people in your profession who are 1) approximately at your level and 2) doing a job very similar to your own.

I know. It seems like bad advice. 

First, how would cozying up to your competitors actually help you? Aren't your professional colleagues trying to get noticed by the very same executive recruiters for the very same jobs that you have your sights set on?

They're the competition, after all.

Second, what's to stop you from reaching out directly to the recruiters who are the gatekeepers to your career advancement? Who needs your potential competitors in the mix anyway? They could potentially sabotage you if given the opportunity. That's a fairly dark vision for this blog, but you're probably thinking it. 

Fortunately, I don't think you need to be worrying about sabotage, and no, you generally shouldn't be reaching out to executive recruiters directly.


Executive recruiters like to reduce their risk

As risky as trusting your fate to your potential competitors might sound, it's often a better bet than reaching out to executive recruiters yourself. Unfortunately, reaching out directly to executive recruiters is exactly the first impulse of most people when they want to get on recruiters' radar screens.

Executive recruiters are a risk-averse bunch. That's mainly because many executive search firms guarantee their searches for a defined period of time after they place someone in a role. If the candidate they place doesn't work out, and it's not obviously the client's fault, then their firm is on the hook to redo the search — for free.

Having been obliged to redo a search for free myself, let me assure you that it's tough work that's best avoided.


Showing up without a referral makes you a risky bet

When you reach out to a recruiter directly, and that recruiter doesn't already know you, you're arriving on their doorstep without having been risk-reduced at all.

That's a problem for the recruiter. And it's a problem for you.

So how does a recruiter de-risk an unfamiliar potential candidate? I have two words for you: referrals and references. We can talk about references some other day. For now, let's talk referrals.

In a recruiter's mind, one of the best ways to reduce the risk related to an up-to-this-moment unknown candidate is to have that candidate referred to them by someone they already know and trust.

When you think about it, it's common sense and something that you'd probably do as a matter of course if you were placing a bet on someone who could have an impact on your business and quality of life, not to mention your reputation for having good judgment. You'd check them out first by asking around.

And it goes without saying that having someone the recruiter knows and trusts refer you as a candidate for their search is probably going to raise you up a few notches in the recruiter's eyes. Showing up on your own, on the other hand, without a word of support from any of your professional colleagues could look — well — a little desperate.

And then the recruiter, who wants to de-risk just about any situation, will end up having to dig around a little to check you out, all the while wondering why if you were such a good catch, someone hadn't already mentioned your name.


Why you probably can trust your competitition

Let's deal with that dark vision of sabotage that I evoked a little while ago.

Don't worry about it.

Unless you truly are a risky bet (and if you are, we should talk about why that's the case), your professional colleagues AKA your competitors are not going to say you are. Why not? Because if they do and they're lying and they're found out by the recruiter, then they've done their reputation and their career prospects some potentially permanent harm. In the recruiter's eyes at least.

It's just too risky a proposition, and therefore unlikely. Having worked for several years at a top 20 executive search firm, I can't remember one instance among thousands of conversations when I suspected that someone was questioning the work quality or reputation of a professional colleague out of self-interest.

On the contrary, when I was networking, the people I spoke with often built up and recommended their professional colleagues. And they did it, in part, out of self-interest.

Why would they do that?

Simple. They wanted to be helpful, and they weren't interested in the job I was recruiting for, for any of a variety of reasons. The most common reason was that they were happy in their current job and they weren't ready to move yet. The second most common reason was that they weren't interested in moving their home, or if the job didn't involve a move, a longer commute. So in the interest of being helpful and not wanting to send me away empty-handed, they would offer up a referral or two.


Set yourself up to be referred, and to be de-risked

Recruiters love referrals. It's the fuel for their networking efforts and a good part of the value they offer to their clients. And it helps to reduce the risk in their candidate pools. Want to make friends with a recruiter? Give them a few honest and helpful referrals.

So your goal in networking with your competitors is to be fresh in their minds when the recruiters call. Your colleagues, not interested in making a move at the very moment and not wanting to send a recruiter away empty-handed, will remember you and mention your name as a potential candidate. And they'll probably say a few good things about you.

In the eyes of the recruiter, you're now a prospect, and a partially de-risked one at that. All thanks to the helpful referral provided by your colleague.

If by chance your professional colleague and potential competitor is actually interested in the role the recruiter is calling about, then they probably won't mention your name at all. To account for the possibility, you should be networking with more than one person if you're looking to make a move. And you should make that networking a regular part of your routine before you actually need a job. Expanding your reach will increase the odds of your name being mentioned to the right recruiter at the right time.




If you're in the market for a new job and you think it's likely going to come through executive recruiters you don't already know, think twice before you reach out to them directly. Showing up without a referral could make you seem like a risky bet and therefore less than desirable. You could even come across as a little desperate, which is never a good look in the recruiting world. Take my word for it.

Instead, spend some time catching up with colleagues in the same industry and in roughly the same job as you are. Let them know what you're up to and what you might consider as a next step. Do them the favor of getting the same information in return.

When a recruiter ends up calling them, or you, then you can refer the recruiter to your colleague or they can refer the recruiter to you.

The recruiter will be grateful for the referral and the reduced risk for their search. And no one will need to be worrying about potential sabotage. 



Doug Lester is a career strategist and executive coach who has helped over a thousand people craft their work-life narratives and advance meaningful careers. A former Fortune 100 marketing executive and recruiter at a top 20 executive search firm, he is the founder of Career Narratives and has been on the coaching staff at the Harvard Business School for over 10 years. He also leads an executive coaching program for the corporate strategy group of a Fortune 100 company in Boston.

Advance your career. Get weekly insight and tips.

If you want to be among the first to find out about new posts like this one, and new career tools and resources, sign up today.


We won't share or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time. But we hope you won't.