Executive recruiters look for right match: Do you fit the puzzle?

According to top Canadian executive recruiters, while there is a shortage of talented senior executives in the marketplace, a call from a recruiter may or may not result in a dream assignment for you. It all depends on what questions you ask.

The most important question probably is whether the recruiter is working on a contingency basis or on retainer.

"There's thousands and thousands of so-called executive recruiters out there in the marketplace," said Jay Rosenzweig, of the Toronto-based executive recruiters Rosenzweig & Co. "It's not difficult to hang up your shingle but it's very difficult to break into the retainer world and establish the kind of credibility such that you're able to charge up front to do a particular assignment."

If the recruiter is working on a contingency basis, it's possible he or she is only on a fishing expedition.

"I know of someone who went through the entire exercise only to find there wasn't an actual job," said Jill Couillard, president of Staffing Strategists Alberta. "So the other question you want to ask the executive recruiter is the name of the client. The only time we would not be able to tell you that is when it is a confidential search."

A confidential search could arise when a company decides that a current senior executive needs to be replaced.

Executives often want to know the reason why a recruiter is contacting them for a particular job opening.

"More times than not, I'll be able to say that so and so suggested that I call you because of the following relevance you bring to the assignment," Rosenzweig said.

Sometimes, the executive is unfamiliar with the name of the recruiter or his company.

"Ask for references; I'm happy to do that any time," said David Kinley, CEO of Kinley & Connelly, a recruitment firm in Toronto and the Silicon Valley.

Of course, candidates want to know where the job is located and what their job title and compensation will be.

Although the amount of money has to be eventually negotiated, Kinley said it has assumed less importance in today's job market where many excellent opportunities are not being filled because of a lack of suitable candidates.

Most executive search firms prepare an extensive outline of the position and how it fits into the company. The more detailed and specific questions that a candidate needs to ask usually flow from that.

"In our firm that document may be easily 10 or more - likely 20 - pages, and so our hope is that the individual will read it carefully. ... By the time they finished reading it, they've really made a self-assessment as to whether they might be a suitable candidate," said Ron Robertson, managing partner of the Ottawa office of Ray & Berndtson, an international executive search firm.

"I respect that a great deal when a person does that," Robertson said.

"Some serious-minded and reasonable questions are: Why is this position available? What happened to the person who was in the role? What are the major challenges and opportunities facing the organization? Can you give me some sense of how the organization has performed in the past three years?"

"As the conversation gets a bit more detailed, I expect the person to go into the challenges of the role and of meeting those challenges. For example: 'Can you tell me about the team that will be reporting to this position?' "

A danger for the executive is to stop asking questions about the job and focus on the process of selling himself.

"If the person only spends his time selling himself when he's provided a document that suggests that at best he is only a sketchy fit for this role ... (this) can raise a question in the recruiter's mind," Robertson said.

The corollary to that is if the recruiter oversells the position.

"If the recruiter is not forthcoming and puts a rosy spin on the position and the challenges that go with it, and the person accepts the position under that scenario or under that set of beliefs, then he or she is more likely to be disillusioned early on, and a disillusioned feeling is exactly the opposite of what you want that person to experience when in the role," Robertson said.