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What to ask recruiters, what they should be able to answer

Well-informed, inquisitive job candidates make good impressions and better decisions; but be wise about what you ask and when


Jan. 7, 2020
By William Ehart

Knowledge is power, says search consultant Leslie Hortum. And asking the right questions can mean the difference between landing the job or landing flat, or between finding the right opportunity and avoiding the wrong one.

With that in mind, CEO Update asked five prominent executive recruiters in the association sector to relay the questions that job candidates should consider asking them as the search begins or as it progresses through interviews with the search committee. (See Key Questions Checklist.)

“At the CEO level, it’s critical that a candidate understand as much as possible about the organization and its dynamics before engaging in a search process,” said Hortum, manager of Spencer Stuart’s Washington, D.C., office. “Most of the people we recruit are happily employed in their current role. So, to get them to consider a move, we have to help them understand the opportunity, and they have to convince themselves it’s worth exploring.”

Other recruiters participating in the project were Julian Ha, leader of the government, policy and association practices at Heidrick & Struggles, Lorraine Lavet, head of the national association practice at Korn Ferry, Stephanie Tomasso, leader of the trade and professional associations practice at Russell Reynolds Associates and Jim Zaniello, president and founder of Vetted Solutions. CEO Update compiled the list on the opposite page from their responses.

“It’s in everybody’s best interest to go into a potential partnership eyes wide open,” said Tomasso.

“I don’t think the job of a recruiter is to hide the ball. If I’m doing my job correctly, I’m being transparent,” said Ha. “I appreciate it when candidates ask hard questions. It makes them stand out in a good way, and shows that they’re interested.”

Recruiters should be helpful to candidates in understanding the job opportunity, Lavet said.

“The candidate should expect a knowledgeable consultant regarding the most significant challenges and opportunities that the next CEO will face,” she said. “What are the most important experiences and background the client desires? What are the expectations and definition of success in the first two years in the role?”

What to ask

Lavet suggested several questions revolving around the state of the organization.

“These are important to understand the type of leadership the organization needs to advance its strategic objectives,” Lavet said. “Whenever we do a CEO search there are a set of facts for that given situation that are unique and the candidate should understand both the strategic and tactical issues facing the organization to ensure it’s a good fit for their experience and leadership style.”

“By asking these kinds of questions, the candidates are showing that they are doing their homework on organization and what the board is looking for, and trying to seek a mutual fit,” said Tomasso.

What not to ask

It’s important to note that some of these questions only should be asked of the recruiter, not the search committee. Hortum said candidates should only ask search committee members substantive questions, not those about process or compensation: Those should be directed at the recruiter.

“In the association world, most compensation information is publicly available, so they should have some baseline knowledge before even starting that conversation,” Hortum said. “And most of us these days always ask, or should ask, ‘What are your compensation expectations?’ fairly early on.”

Use judgment

While the questions on this list are great to choose from, candidates should use judgment about how many to ask, and at what stage in the search. Some questions can be answered through your own research, and some are best reserved for the search committee during the interviews.

Going through a long laundry list of questions at your interview with the recruiter would be a turnoff.

“The more homework they can do and knowledge they can demonstrate in advance of the interview, the better,” said Hortum.

Recruiters told CEO Update a candidate can expect a one-hour initial in-person interview with the search consultant, with only about 15 minutes of that set aside for questions the candidate might have. The rest of the time, expect the recruiter to be quizzing you to assess your fit for the job.

Candidate concerns

But best practices are not always followed by executive recruiters. That’s why Zaniello suggested asking the recruiter what stage the search is in.

“You should ask, ‘Where are you in the process? I am curious as to whether you are reaching out early because you are really interested in me, or if you are contacting me late in the process because you are having trouble putting a together a slate of candidates, or trying to balance it in some way?’” Zaniello said.

CEO Update has heard concerns from job candidates that they are given scant information about some job opportunities and sometimes even pressured to participate in searches.

But sometimes, if a recruiter can’t answer a question, it’s because the board won’t answer it.

“Recruiters can’t answer every question but they should be willing to,” said Zaniello. “A search process is a time of discovery for everyone. If a recruiter can’t answer a question, it’s OK for them to gather the information and bring it back to the candidate. If the recruiter won’t answer the question, one should try to understand why.”

When information is scarce, Ha said that might be a signal that the opportunity is not right for you.

“That says something about the client,” he said. “Why is the client being so stingy? These are all signals” for a candidate to interpret.