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Building your network when looking for a new job

Finding a new role can sometimes seem daunting, particularly when you haven’t needed to look for one in a while. As so often in life – it’s not just your talents that matter, it’s who knows about them.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider the mechanics of the job market. There are three main ways in which all new roles are filled – through an advertised role, through a recruiter, or through the hirer’s network.

Whilst advertising roles is a very common method for lower and mid-level roles, it’s not nearly as popular for filling more senior roles – which are more often fulfilled through recruiters, or through the network of the hirer.

This idea of “the network of the hirer” is deliberately broad. It could be an internal candidate, who is ready for promotion. It could be the person they worked with and rated at their last company. It might be someone the chairman recommended. There are endless possibilities.

Advertising roles doesn’t generally work well for senior hires, because a job advert is by its nature a blunt tool. Nearly every job advert attracts far too few candidates who have sufficiently relevant industry and functional experience, and too many who are way off the mark. More senior roles typically require some sort of specialist skillset – a CFO who knows how to manage an IPO process, a Sales Director who understands a particular product and client base and so forth. Adverts tend to work best if there is a broad, mainstream audience who can fulfil a need.

Recruiters fall into two main buckets – contingent recruiters (who work on a “no win no fee” basis, typically charging a percentage of salary on placement), and retained firms – who usually charge a combination of upfront fees (enabling them to research the market and proactively headhunt candidates) and fees based on placement and other milestones.

Contingent recruiters typically rely on a higher volume of candidates and placements. Because they tend to operate at the junior to mid-levels of the market (let’s say salaries of up to £100k), their fees are lower. Because of the contingent business model, they have a lot of financial risk on each project. They often rely on having a strong brand themselves in a sector to acquire candidates (supplementing this with advertising roles themselves), before distributing them to relevant clients. A contingent recruiter is very used to working with candidates to chase a placement fee – and so is much more likely to proactively champion an actively looking candidate.

It’s important to note that no recruiter wants to be your agent – even contingent recruiters will only engage you if they feel they have a good chance of placing you. If we believe you are a credible, marketable person who is relevant to our customer base, we will happily do what you can to help you. Outside of that, then unfortunately you are probably not the most productive use of our time, which is our most valuable commodity.

For retained search firms, this pressure to avoid noise is more acute. I’ve never heard a headhunter lament that they get too few people writing to them looking for a new role. At any point in time, a retained search firm’s main priority is successfully closing their roster of live projects. We will always happily receive an approach or CV from a looking candidate, but you won’t get a call or a meeting unless we think we really do have a chance of placing you.

You might be working in automotive manufacturing and have a sincere passion to become the CTO of a new online bank – but the reality is that you are unlikely to defeat a cherrypicked shortlist of candidates for such a search. For this reason, you won’t be seen as being very useful, and therefore worth spending much time on.

This is why it’s so important to be targeted when you reach out to recruiters. Key dimensions include:

  1. Level – If you earn £100k or over, it’s probably appropriate to reach out to retained search firms. If you earn £40k today, there is no way that Russell Reynolds is ever placing you, so don’t waste your time.
  1. Sector – Do they really specialise in the relevant sector? Many recruiters and search firms claim to work in every sector, but there are usually some standout boutique and larger search firms in each area. Ask friends in your industry for advice and recommendations. Also ask yourself – do I have a marketable background and track record in this area?
  1. Function – Whilst most headhunting firms tend to define themselves by sector rather than function, there are functional specialists for all roles, who often make excellent targets. Use tools like Linkedin to find them.
  1. Company stage – As a broad rule of thumb, large multisector search firms tend to work with more corporate clients, whereas earlier stage companies more typically choose boutique firms.

Now you need to package up your experience. Make it easy for the hirer (or recruiter) to understand your experience. A performance marketing oriented CMO looking for a CMO or general management role in an internet business is easy to understand and work with. We don’t have time to get to know all your nuances and create a role around you. If we can’t easily understand who you are, what you do, and what you’re looking for, we’ll probably conclude our time would be more efficiently spent elsewhere.

If you target a company, or recruiter directly to network, you must tailor your approach. You must make your audience feel special, and this requires some preparation. An internet focussed VC firm wants a different message to Google. Both might be good options for you, but require a different emphasis. If you must copy and paste email content, be very careful. People who send emails with three different fonts and sizes apparent within them don’t get many replies. I hope this goes without saying – never send a group email to say that you are looking.

But remember this: good candidates solve problems, and are the primary method through which all recruiters monetise. If you target the right recruiters – where they genuinely have the right focus, and where you can genuinely be placed, it can be a highly effective union.

When a hirer works with a recruiter, there is always a cost involved, often significant. This creates a strong incentive for hirers to hire candidates directly. If you have a good sense of what you want to do next, start targeting the relevant audience. In the context of internet and technology companies – that could mean networking with a combination of relevant venture capital and private equity investors, CEOs, Chairmen and NEDs, HR Directors / Heads of Talent, and others. If you can get intros, do ask, but remember that an intro to a senior person is not given lightly and don’t get offended if your contact doesn’t know you well enough to intro you. You should still reach out directly, as your candidacy might well help the hirer to solve a problem.

Write a short introductory email and package up your experience. Explain what you do and what you are looking for. Explain why you have reached out to them. Ask for an introductory coffee or call but don’t be too pushy. Send them your CV. This sort of activity is by its nature hit-and-miss, but will unearth market opportunities hidden to others and is an often-underappreciated tool.

Try to attend relevant networking events as much as possible. Eventbrite is great for finding networking events, and many of them are free. If you can meet people, and persuade them using your soft skills, you can create a dynamic where you impress people far beyond any CV or intro email.

So, in summary, it makes a lot of sense to:

  • Be targeted – don’t waste your time. Only play where you can win.
  • Network with relevant recruiters, packaging up your experience
  • Directly target potential hirers, getting access to the hidden job market.

You’ve built your skills – now it’s time to build your network.

Peter Franks is a partner with Neon River, a next generation executive search firm specialising in the internet, software, and technology sectors.