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As some of the greatest job opportunities are entrusted to executive search consulting firms, it is a good idea for senior professionals to learn how to best use such firms to advance their careers. A hiring organization will only retain an executive search firm under a consulting contract for its most critical senior appointments. Top executives, who are called by a search consultant for an assignment, can leave a positive impact and build a good and rewarding relationship with a search firm by following a few simple rules.
Everyone is busy, especially a highflying manager like you. Remember, it is the search consultant’s job to call. He or she is just doing his duty. Getting a call just as you are about to make an annual presentation to your most important client can be surely annoying. But when you can, return the call, as you would return a call from a close friend. Sometimes, it is appalling to encounter not so senior level managers who think that calling back a search consultant is the biggest favour they are doing. They could be light years from the truth! Search firms call you only because you are successful and they recognize your capabilities and your wisdom. 

They will call you for any of the following reasons:
•    For an assignment
•    To reference a candidate
•    Seeking general information about a company and industry if they know you well
•    To understand or update your profile
•    To get names and profiles of candidates who they are trying find for a particular search

Some candidates are wary of giving their profile, without knowing the assignment. Merely sharing your details does not mean you are interested in a change or in looking out today, but just being open to possibilities that could emerge in the future. Things change in everyone’s lives. Tomorrow, you might wish to be close to your parents in Chandigarh, for instance. This causes you no harm, because if the firm does not know you well, they will not call you, not at least until they have called people whom they know. By which time, it could be too late!!! Even if you are the marketing head of a Rs.5000 crore business, remember there are clients seeking marketing heads for Rs.20000 crore companies!
Most senior folks being very relationship oriented are extremely good listeners (that is one of the reasons why they become senior, in the first place!), and polite as well. If you are not interested in the assignment, simply decline, citing your reasons, or if you know the search firm well or have the time, offer to suggest names that you think could be relevant. Consultants are used to rejections (over 70% of candidates usually decline an assignment) but not rudeness. Search people (even relatively junior ones) are trained to look for subtle signals like haughtiness. As they are constantly calling candidates who are very successful, it is suggested that an executive behaves professionally with consultants. Like everyone else, even the search consultant has tough deadlines to meet and if you have evinced interest in an assignment and subsequently changed your mind, at least let them know. Expecting the consultant to constantly chase you is not a terribly good idea. It is accepted that candidates can change their mind and one is only suggesting elementary courtesy be accorded by communicating on time. On the flip side, some search consultants (especially very egoistical ones) sometimes refrain from calling senior candidates on their own, but use a circuitous route of using their secretaries and assistants, putting off senior candidates completely.

The search profession survives on nuggets of information on businesses, companies, likely movements of individuals. Usually, they rely on candidates for such knowledge and will not ask a candidate sensitive information about his current employers. An executive would do no harm in helping with benign information, after he or she has left his previous employer and should be willing to share details on structures, cultures and profiles. Many people however are uncomfortable and an experienced consultant knows where to draw the line and rightly do not push. On the other hand, at times, even very large firms have compromised on the level of discreetness they ought to have adhered to. Be wary of such executive search folks. Usually, you will be able to gauge the quality of the search consultant within a few minutes of hearing her or him. You will know if the one who has called you is worth talking to – a good consultant will always be prepared and flexible.

Finally, it is pertinent to remember that positions handled by executive search represent only a minority of the total executive job marketplace. So although getting on the radar screen of executive search firms and building a rapport with them is an important part of executive career management, it should be balanced with other strategies such as delivering on your job and networking.

The author, Diganta Barua runs Credence Consulting, an independent executive search firm in Mumbai. The firm speaks mainly to several score senior professionals in the course of its work.

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