What Do Headhunters Recommend to Their Friends?

27 May, 2021

Dr. Monika Becker is Business Unit Director of Hager Unternehmensberatung, a consultancy that specializes in executive search. She has more than 20 years of experience as a headhunter, especially in the IT industry. How do you optimally plan your career, and why is a management job overrated? A twelve-step guide

1. Networking Is Not a Private Pleasure

Many jobs are not even advertised, but rather filled within an existing network. Therefore, it is worth staying in contact with old colleagues and former bosses. Send a message every now and then, post a small comment or meet for lunch. Of course, it's all about give and take, this is not an ego show. Nevertheless, you are allowed to keep in touch for strategic reasons. The same applies to contacts with “selected personnel consultants of trust”. Of course, a good personnel consultant will thoroughly search the market and thus also come across the ‘socially passive’ candidates. However, a candidate who keeps their personnel consultants informed about changes is likely to be approached earlier and has a time advantage for an attractive position. I often see that people who are very busy chronically underestimate this social game. Networking is part of career planning and should therefore be understood as part of the job. You shouldn't have to explain to anyone anymore that well-maintained social media channels are also a part of it, where just posting pictures of your dog is not enough. Theoretically. In practice, such trivial advice is unfortunately still necessary.

2. Be One Step Ahead in Your Career

One of the most important principles in career planning is to have a sophisticated scenario in mind – and to think not only about the next step, but also the one after that. When you think about a potentially good move, you need to know how headhunters actually go about business. We ask ourselves: Where could someone who fits my profile work? And of course the companies at the top of the list are the ones seen as leaders or innovators in a market segment. Conversely, for your own career planning, this means: If I have the choice of starting as Head of Sales in a no-name company, which has uncertain finances, then I should be aware of the follow-up risk. A ‘simple’ sales role with perspectives in a company with a strong brand may be a better choice. Company wins over position.

3. More Movement, Please

Consistency and loyalty may be a good thing in other areas of life, but they may be a disadvantage in terms of career. If you stay too long in one job, you seem inflexible and anxious. Attributes with which one does not necessarily want to be associated. Sure, every change also means a certain risk and nobody likes job hoppers. But: No risk, no successful career.

4. Anything Goes? Watch Out!

Lateral thinkers have a much better image nowadays. But this does not mean that there is a place for them in every company, even if it claims to welcome them. This misleading assumption can be seen, for example, when the job description says that a lateral thinker and excellent team player is needed. The two do not really go together. Either I'm the one who supports a team in the best possible way or I'm the one who questions the status quo and sometimes crosses the line. I also find this ‘anything goes’ attitude problematic. You have to be able to plausibly explain what specific additional value you bring to the team. The broader your skills are, the more arbitrary your profile is – and arbitrary is not necessarily attractive.

5. The Required Profile is Relative

Of course, you do not have to meet all the criteria of a job advertisement. And anyway, the ads often draw a clear distinction between a must and a nice-to-have. I would even say that you don't have to meet all the ‘must’ requirements, but you should have a good reason for being considered despite this. For example, because you are so well positioned in other areas that you can easily learn this specific task. Not to mention that the ability to learn is one of the most important skills of all.

6. Red Flags: Let's Get Out of Here

There are a few situations where you should be suspicious. A few examples: You get the impression at the job interview that (critical) questions are not received positively? This does not indicate an open discussion culture. The interview partners are not prepared at all and have obviously not read your CV carefully? That indicates a lack of appreciation for the employees. Another red flag: An infinite number of interviews are taking place without any apparent purpose. Of course, it can sometimes be necessary to complete four, five or even six rounds. But if you always start from scratch, it may well mean that nobody is allowed to decide anything here. Of course, you can imagine that things will be similar in daily business. By the way, I would always listen to my gut feeling. A decision matrix is certainly useful. But when we talked with people who had problems with their new job, their gut feeling was wrong from the start.

7. The First Impression – And What Can Go Wrong

I always think it's a good thing that people worry about the dress code. As informal as it may be in some industries, you can be completely wrong in both cases, and show up either over- or underdressed. It's all about the famous first impression, there is often no second chance for that. And beyond outfit issues, there are also other stylistic faux pas: It is extremely unpleasant when interviewees sit there with an arrogant, laid-back attitude, like they're asking: "So, now explain to me why I should work with you”. That is not acceptable. It allows us to draw conclusions about how this person will approach tasks later on, and how they will interact with colleagues. Also, no matter how the contact was established, you should always have a good, convincing story about yourself and the decisive facts and figures of the company in your head.

8. The Eternal (And Miserable) Question of Salary

The target salary is a point where, in my experience, applicants put too much pressure on themselves. I would recommend not to bring this up on their own accord, but rather leave that to the company. As far as the increase is concerned, there is also no rule of thumb. It depends on the particular setting: At the beginning of one's career there are bigger jumps, above a certain level it might be more about tasks than money. An example: For an IT manager who earns 220,000 euros per year, an annual salary of 200,000 euros can be quite acceptable if the job appeals to them and the position is financially limited. Whether one earns 10,000 euros more or less net does not make a decisive difference. It would be a pity if you took yourself out of the race just because you have a certain amount in mind, even though you would have liked the job.

9. A Career Can Work Without a Management Job

There is this classic idea that a ‘real’ career must include a management position. This is a pity. It’s misleading, and above all not up to date – for several reasons. Not everyone has the talent and personal skills that are needed to lead a team. But maybe this person is a proven specialist in his or her job. Who says that an expert must necessarily lead a team? Why can't they concentrate on their professional work? How often have such people been promoted in the past, out of an automatism? And how many people have filled these positions against their own will and are even miserable about it! I think it is time to say goodbye to this conventional career concept. In the future, it will all be about making the composition of teams and the roles of the individual team members more flexible, by allowing them to switch roles from management to specialist and back. This comes much closer to our understanding of a modern, agile working world.

10. Do Well – And Let Others Talk About It

I think it is very important to actively manage your reputation. That means not hoping that others will see that you are doing a good job, but making sure that it is seen. That's why it's crucial to demand positive feedback from clients or superiors after projects that have gone great. It's about seeing these moments in your career and using them for your advantage.

11. How to Recognize Good Headhunters

The problem is that the job profile of personnel consultant is not protected. That is why there are a few black sheep in this industry. There are those who have no mandate and try to get hold of CVs, in order to build up a database. Or even worse, those who invent a vacancy to get a CV. That is why research is advisable: Ask colleagues who know the industry, search the Internet for evaluations, pay attention to how well the personnel consultant knows their client and how detailed the preliminary talks are. One red flag is when you suddenly don’t hear back from them anymore or the contact is suddenly out of reach. In that case, you should insist on the basis of the GDPR that your data is deleted and threaten legal action if necessary.

12. Do Not Wait Too Long

You shouldn't put off changing jobs until you're desperate. It's not the best psychological state to be applying for a new job. Of course, it can always happen that you get fired out of the blue. Or you want to leave, because you can't get along with a new supervisor. But as a rule, developments along the way point to the negative. And you should take these signs seriously and take action. The advantage is that you have the luxury of saying no. Pressure is a bad advisor. And one wrong decision can quickly lead to another one. Unfortunately, this creates an unfavorable dynamic.

This article is part of a content cooperation between FemaleOneZero (F10) and Hager Unternehmensberatung. The company, which specializes in executive search, has repeatedly been named one of the best personnel consultancies in Germany by the magazines WirtschaftsWoche and Focus. Hager Unternehmensberatung employs around 110 people and, in addition to its extensive know-how in the field of digitalization, is also considered a specialist in issues relating to diversity and innovation.

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