How to prepare for a headhunter interview

This is an important conversation and will have impact on your career not only for the near-term, but also for the mid- to long-term future. Headhunters can be powerful allies for your career (some people call them king makers for a reason). Make the most of this opportunity and don’t just wing it. Spend an hour or so preparing for the interview. This will pay big dividends. The headhunter will know if you’re prepared or not and will assess you accordingly.

  • Be as professional as you would interviewing with a company. For example, don’t take the video call from your bed. This has happened to me before 😉
  • If it’s a video interview, read these tips to prepare.
  • Research the interviewer before the interview on LinkedIn. Maybe you have something in common?

Think about compensation:

  • Know your exact current annual salary (not just approximately). Don’t forget allowances/ pension plans that go beyond the standard government pension plan. Give the numbers in your local currency (don’t convert as exchange rates fluctuate).
  • Similarly, know your current target bonus (percentage or number ok) and last year actual bonus (give the actual number, not a percentage).
  • Have an answer ready for expected salary or ask the headhunter for guidance if you really struggle with this (e.g., if you are trying to relocate). Be ready to have a serious conversation around this topic. Your market value might not be what you think it is. Listen and don’t shoot the messenger.
  • If you are looking to relocate: do some research before on living costs, salaries and effective tax rates in the new location that you are applying for. If you have done that research, you’ll be able to have a much richer and deeper conversation with the headhunter. But be careful: do not just extrapolate from one or two data points. Particularly you have to be careful to make sure that the data points are comparable. Even minor differences can have an impact. E.g. certain language skills or biographical backgrounds can have an impact on salary. Ask the headhunter if the numbers you have researched would be applicable for you.
  • Keep in mind that compensation should only be one criteria and never the main one!

Think about your target job:

  • Describe your ideal role in terms of industry, function and other criteria like lifestyle or development possibilities.
  • Think about what trade-offs you’re willing to make, no job is perfect, e.g. are you willing to trade off a better lifestyle for a slightly lower compensation?
  • What are your target locations? Are you willing to relocate for a great job? Be honest with yourself. Also, have you discussed this with your spouse? If not, do it before the interview.
  • Develop your own decision matrix how will you choose a job, which criteria are important to you, how do you weigh these criteria, and which trade-offs are you willing to make. Be ready to explain this matrix. Stress test it: is it realistic?
  • Be open about your reasons for leaving. Only if the headhunter knows why you’re leaving,  he can match you with a suitable job that will address your pain points.
  • Think about why someone would hire you. Be realistic: you are not the only candidate in the market. What makes you unique? Try to see the perspective of the hiring manager,  not just your own. This will be invaluable for you to get a great job.

Present yourself well:

  • Have a hook: have something to be remembered for after in the interview (headhunters speak to many people per day, help them remember you three months from now), e.g. the Chinese who worked in Africa, the Englishwoman who speaks Indonesian.
  • For each job, give a quantitative breakdown what have you done e.g. 50% activity A, 30% activity B, 20% activity C.
  • For management consultants: give a quantitative breakdown of your projects in terms of industry, function, country (use % to summarize).
  • Be prepared to describe each bullet point on your CV in detail using the STAR method. Give a complete but concise answer (not more than two minutes). The interviewer can always ask more questions if she is interested. Don’t talk for too long but don’t be too high-level either.
  • Have answers ready for the most common behavioral interview questions.
  • Limit the jargon, only use acronyms if you’re very sure everyone understands this.  Remember you are talking with an outsider, someone who is not working at your current company. You will be surprised, most people will not know the acronyms that you’re using.

Advanced considerations:

  • Remember the interviewer is also a human being so she will appreciate it if you show some interest in her and build some rapport.
  • Have a spread sheet ready with the companies and exact positions and channels that you have applied for in the past (not just the last three  months). This is important because double dipping (=applying via multiple channels for the same job), it’s frowned upon by companies and backfires as it makes the candidate look desperate. If you have applied to the same job before (direct or via another headhunter) be open about it. Do not hide things. The return (MAYBE getting an interview with this one company) is much lower than the risk (DEFINITELY damaging and potentially ruining your relationship with this headhunter and ALL his clients forever because you ‘forgot’ or even went behind their back and approached the client directly).
  • If you were approached: remember this is an interview even if the headhunter has approached you initially! You have every right to be flattered and feel good about yourself but still take this seriously. The headhunter approached you because she thought you MIGHT be a good match. She is still assessing you. The approach does not mean that you already have the job in the bag. Don’t act arrogant. Act like the consummate professional that you are.

Ask the recruiter questions:

  • ‘How is the market’ is a bit boring but acceptable. But you should go beyond that. Use this unique chance to speak to a market expert. Use this opportunity to get some information that you can’t easily find on Google.
  • Probe the recruiter about her specialization. Ask her how long she has been recruiting in this space, how long she’s been with her current employer, how long she’s been working with this particular client… Be careful, there is nothing wrong if the client is new (contrary what you might have read in other articles). This might just mean that your headhunter is good with business development. But you must ask questions to make sure that the headhunter has had a proper briefing and ideally has a strong connection with hiring manager or at least HR.
  • You can ask about exclusivity but keep in mind that many clients always work with multiple search firms as a matter of policy (again contrary what you might have read elsewhere). Only in rare cases would a client give exclusivity to one search firm.
  • Feel free to ask about clients but don’t be pushy: a lot of clients insist on confidentiality so recruiters are not at liberty to disclose exact client names; just as management consulting firms are often not at liberty to discuss their clients. But you can ask questions about the types of clients, the types of jobs, locations, salaries, market trends, how to make yourself more employable, and so on.
  • Evaluate the headhunter:  based on the specialization and the professionalism you should either assess the headhunter as category A (strategic, build relationship) or category B  (treat more transactional). If the headhunter is category A, invest in the relationship and try to be useful to the headhunter. E.g. refer other candidates to him or give him market information. But even for category B headhunters, always respond quickly and always be open and honest. Do not hide things. Communicate clearly and honestly.
  • Ask the headhunter how she prefers to work together (e.g., don’t call every two weeks unless the headhunter explicitly encourages this behavior). Email is usually preferred, e.g., you can send over an updated CV when you have just finished a project or were recently promoted. That way you can stay on top of their inbox without being annoying.
  • Ask for feedback on your CV, on your interviewing skills, on your job search strategy, how you should position yourself in the market. Demonstrate a zest for self improvement. Also use this opportunity to evaluate the headhunter based on the quality of her advice. Say thank you for any feedback even if you don’t agree with it (you might not be able to evaluate it objectively in this moment; think about it later). Remember you’re speaking with a specialist who knows much more about job search can you do so consider the advice objectively.

Follow up:

  • If the headhunter asks you to rework/ customize your resume, turn around the resume asap and incorporate all the changes that were discussed. Take notes on paper so you remember everything. Same for any other to dos on your side (e.g., double confirming if you’ve been in touch with a company before).

If you follow this advice , the headhunter will remember you favorably and you will always be top of mind for any role that comes up even if you’re not a 100% match.

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