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How to deal with a "checkbox recruiter"

An executive I've known for years reached out to me for advice. She said,

“Recruiters are check boxing, and they don’t understand the nuances of the role.”

She was looking for a COO role, but never held that title. She worked at startups and did all the things the role required, but she couldn’t get past the first phone conversation.

I get it. I used to be a checkbox recruiter.

When I was at CTPartners many of the Partners I worked with had deep expertise in their designated areas; they were specialists. The Partner I worked with who placed executives in legal and compliance began his career as a corporate attorney, and he had a JD. He understood what his clients needed because of his years of experience in executive search coupled with the fact that he had done the job before.

Then there I was, the Associate he chose to work with on this search, with years of technology recruiting expertise but no clue about lawyers. I was check boxing, asking candidates “Do you do 40 Act? Will you relocate? What are your comp expectations? Great, you’re in!" If you have no idea what 40 Act is, you’re right there with me. Candidates had to get past me to get to him, they had to get past him to get to the client, but I had no idea what I was talking about.

So what’s a candidate to do when they’re dealing with a “checkbox recruiter”?

Go “big to small”

Let me explain what I mean.

Picture sitting in front of a table with a bunch of puzzle pieces but no box top telling you what picture you’re working towards. You pull out one piece and place it on the table. You pick up another, realize it doesn’t fit with the first piece, so you put it back. You do this again and again and drive yourself nuts. Then you decide to look at the picture of what you’re working towards. You still have your first piece down on the table. Now you pull out your second piece and realize, no it doesn’t fit perfectly with the first piece, but it’s really close and worth placing down on the table too. It just needs a couple more pieces around it to make it fit perfectly, but it’s worth talking about.

Show the recruiter the puzzle box cover

The checkbox recruiter is sitting there randomly choosing puzzle pieces and trying to find a match. You’ll probably realize you’re talking to this person pretty early on, by the simple questions they ask or their lack of depth in what you’re talking about. Remember, they want to find a match, so help them out. Show the recruiter the box top, the picture of where you fit in overall. This way they can think strategically and also represent you accurately. Help the recruiter who is looking for keywords understand your whole self before they pull out their checklist. This is what I advised this executive to do. Checkbox recruiters kept telling her she wasn’t right, for reasons she didn’t agree with. I told her that in the beginning of the conversation there will be an opening to talk about herself. Take it, and proactively answer the questions before they’re asked. For example she could say, “In order for you to understand my role, let me first explain the structure of the executive team. We didn’t have a COO, but rather...” She could go on to explain the executive team, and who was responsible for what, clearly talking about her responsibilities, the people she had to influence, and the impact she made. It would be evident that she did all the things a COO did, and she could even say that before it came up. That’s a much better approach than being asked “Have you ever been a COO?”, saying no, and then playing defense. That person may come across as being combative, overselling, or overcompensating. It’s all about letting the recruiter lead the call, but during those moments when you’re speaking, you have all the power to decide what you say. If you get a feeling that the recruiter doesn’t understand your background, you can simply ask them. Speak with them how you’d speak with Board members or work peers. Invite them to learn more about you, and draw correlations between the position and your background, bringing it together for them. Be professional, assume they know a lot, and treat them as an equal.

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