Return of the headhunters

March 31, 2011: 11:36 AM ET

After steep declines in recent years, executive recruiting is continuing to pick up. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are contacted by a search firm.

By Stephenie Overman, contributor

FORTUNE -- If you make six figures a year, or reasonably hope to move into that league, dust off your resume. Headhunters are calling again.

Senior executive recruiting has had a dramatic resurgence. Following a precipitous 32.5% decline in 2009, the industry grew by an average of 28.5% in 2010 and is on track to do well in 2011, according to the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC).

Retained search firms -- executive search firms that companies hire to recruit candidates -- are looking for "senior executive talent, people on the fast track," says Peter M. Felix, AESC president. "It's unlikely a firm will be searching [to fill a position] below $150,000 base salary or the equivalent. If you're earning less than $100,000, retained search is not for you."

It's worth remembering that a retained search firm represents the company, not the job candidate, and is paid regardless of the outcome of the search. So-called contingency firms often represent individuals seeking placement and are paid for whatever placements they make.

"It's not well understood," Felix says. "Many executives come to search firms, expecting us to be an employment agency. Absolutely not. There are firms who represent candidates, but not retained search firms." These retained search firms are the gatekeepers to 60,000 to 70,000 senior-level jobs worldwide every year, he adds.

"Whoever pays your fee is who you are representing. It's like real estate," says Iris Libby, who heads ILRC, a recruiting consulting firm that provides both retained and contingency searches.

While a contingency firm will sell you to a company, a retained firm will not, says Nancie Whitehouse, of Whitehouse Advisors LLC. "A retained firm won't clean up your resume. It won't help you figure out what you want to be when you grow up. If you can't articulate what you're looking for," a retained search firm won't be interested in you.

If you are ready to move up and you do know what you're looking for, how do you get the attention of a retained search firm?

Whitehouse, Libby and Felix all agree that it pays to build relationships with firms early in your career.

"Get on their radar. Keep in touch over a period of time," Felix says. Network and use social media to highlight your accomplishments. "You need to get yourself known; you have to have something of a track record. Perhaps get a referral" from a colleague.

While it is not out of line to contact a retained search firm directly, "it is bad form to harass recruiters. Some email me every week," Libby says.

And recruiters don't appreciate a scatter-shot approach. "There's no point sending out a resume to as many consultants as you can find. You need to be specific," Libby says. "You should get to know recruiters and search firms in your area" of specialty.

What do you do when a headhunter calls you unexpectedly?

First of all, "when you're employed and the search firm calls you, you should always take that call," Libby says, if only because it can be a good networking opportunity.

You don't need to have a discussion with the search consultant while you're at work. In fact, it's probably best not to.

"It's perfectly appropriate to ask to talk later," Whitehouse says. "A recruiter expects that. Recruiting is a 24-7 business."

When you do talk, the recruiter will likely ask you if you know of anyone who fits the profile of the position to be filled, or may ask you directly if you are interested, Whitehouse says.

If you signal an interest, the recruiter will take you through a preliminary series of questions about your professional background, asking for titles and specific dates for each position, according to Whitehouse. You should also be prepared to answer direct questions about your current compensation.

If it becomes clear that you aren't a good fit for the position but you know someone who might be, it's not only acceptable to offer a referral, it's usually appreciated.

On the other hand, if that initial screening does lead you to believe the position could be a good fit, it's time to do your due diligence on the company. Check out the corporate website. Do an online search. Contact people you know at the company.

The next step involves sitting down with the search consultant for an in-depth exploration of your background as well as your manner, Whitehouse says. "Some recruiters take people out to lunch to see how they manage talking and having a meal at the same time."

"Every search consultant operates with a finely tuned wish list of skills," says Whitehouse. "First is a strong record of accomplishments in a series of positions with increasing responsibility in a particular function or domain."

Be direct and honest and accurate about your background, Whitehouse advises. "If you've spent 20 years in a company, the recruiter should be able to see if you've had some kind of role transforming the business. Give real life examples of your accomplishments."

In this fast-paced economic environment, a recruiter is looking not only for leadership skills but "for an entrepreneur, someone who will treat the business as if it were their own."

Last but not least, a recruiter is looking for "a strong sense of values and ethics."

After the interview, the retained search firm decides whether to send a formal assessment of your candidacy on to the company. This is when the candidate's waiting game begins.

"The company is likely to see a slate of five candidates and decide who they want to meet" for further interviews, Whitehouse says. "The search process does take time. It's important when you're a candidate to remember that patience is a virtue."

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