Demystifying Executive Search, With Somer Hackley
Do you feel like you can do more in a higher position job but don’t know how to navigate your way to the top? Here to demystify executive search is Somer Hackley, the founder and CEO of retained executive search firm, Distinguished Search. Somer has been in recruiting for 20 years, including the last 13 years in executive search. In this episode, she cracks open the opaque black box that is the world of executive search. What are some misconceptions people have about recruiters and search firms? What is the relationship between the recruiter and the firm? How do you build that recruiter relationship and nurture it? What should a job searcher do to get themselves off to a great start? Somer answers these questions and more, bringing wisdom from her book, Search in Plain Sight: Demystifying Executive Search. Plus, she takes us behind the scenes of the search process, letting us in on what unfolds between the hiring and search firms. The executive table is no longer just the cool kids’ table that you can’t get in. With these tips and insights, you can put yourself in a position where even jobs come to you versus you having to find them. Join Somer in this conversation!
Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcast/somer-hackley
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Demystifying Executive Search, With Somer Hackley
CEO Of Distinguished Search And Author Of “Search In Plain Sight”
In this episode, my guest is Somer Hackley. Somer is an executive recruiter who runs her search firm and she is the author of Search in Plain Sight: Demystifying Executive Search. She has more than twenty years in the search business, having done both contingency and retained search work for several firms over that period. She started her business right before the pandemic, wrote her book during the pandemic, and finds herself quite busy with client work. She and her family live in the Austin, Texas area. Somer, thanks for joining me. It’s great to have you on the show.
It is so great to be here, J.R. Thank you for the invite. I’m excited about it.
Me too. I want to start by talking about the book that you wrote a couple of years back, Search in Plain Sight: Demystifying Executive Search. This was a COVID project of sorts but it built on your prior experience. How did the book come to be?
I had been recruiting for twenty years, took the plunge, started my firm, waited at my non-compete, readied to go, and launched in February 2020 and then March happened. I had all these conversations going on with potential clients and then they all halted. I didn’t feel right going up to clients and being like, “How is that pandemic going? Are you hiring yet?” I was like, “It’s going to stop. I’m not going to worry about it. Let me chat with people, catch up, and say, ‘I started my firm. Do you want me to keep you in mind when things pick back up again? How are you? How is COVID for you? What’s going on?'”
I found that when I approached people without pitching a role and just saying, “How are you,” they had lots of opinions and were all about executive search. They had those questions and I was answering questions. I started posting on LinkedIn, “There’s a book in here. I need to write it. All of you are saying and asking the same thing. Let’s get it out.” That’s where it came from.
Why does the world of executive search need to be demystified?
Why is it a secret? I don’t know. It’s not a secret. It’s this opaque black box that people don’t know, “Why am I getting the calls? Why am I not getting the calls from the big five firms?” I’m like, “Let’s tell everyone how it works.” For whatever reason, it’s not common knowledge or it’s something that people say, “It is common knowledge but I didn’t know all the little things that went into it.” For whatever reason, it’s smoke and mirrors.
I love how you described it in the book as the cool kids’ table. Everybody thinks there’s a cool kids’ table that they don’t get to sit at. That’s how they look at the world of search. They’re like, “Everybody else is plugged in and I’m not. They’re off at this table and I’m not.” It was a very good analogy.
Thank you. With the Creator Institute, I used to write the book. After I had written it very poorly, I wrote it again with the help of a hybrid publisher. They were very much on teaching through stories and analogies. There were lots of analogies but I’m glad you like it because that’s what people do think. There is a cool kids’ table and they want to be there, “How do I get the invite? Come on.”
It seemed like you had a dual purpose. One was to help people better understand how to be at that cool kids’ table and engage with recruiters and their firms but it was somewhat a call to action to the industry itself to perhaps address some of the shortcomings in it. Is that an accurate view of things?
It’s to help people so they can navigate this whole world and get the calls and the offers. It shouldn’t be opaque. It’s good for us recruiters to have an empathetic ear as to what job seekers are going through. Honestly, I also selfishly wanted a resource to send to people so that when people reach out to me like, “Can you help me get a job,” I’m like, “I can’t but here’s a book.” It has been helpful to tell people how it works without having to spend hours on end with every single person.
The people I’ve talked to who have written a book described it somewhat as their FAQs to save them from having to have the same conversation again and again. They’re like, “Read this and then we can talk.”
I need to figure out how to say that eloquently but I do say, “Read this.”
I can think of one person in particular who pretty much said it like that. You start by focusing in the book on some of the misconceptions that people have about recruiters and search firms. What are the biggest ones as it relates to the interrelationship between a candidate and the recruiter?
Hands down, number one is some people think that recruiters will help them get a job and it’s not how it works. When they reach out, they say, “I’m looking. How do we work together?” We don’t. It’s a tricky message to give to people but recruiters are hired by the hiring company to fill jobs versus serving as that candidate agent helping them get introduced to companies to land a job. It’s nuanced because as a recruiter, I care about the candidates who are in the process and everyone I’m talking to but I might not have anything for you for three years. It’s a tricky one. That’s a misconception of people. They kick off their search and then they’re expecting recruiters to help them land.
There is an element of that in the contingency recruiting space.
That’s what makes it confusing to people. In contingency, from what I’ve heard on other podcasts, we called it a hot candidate, which isn’t the best term. I hear MPC, Most Placeable Candidate. If someone is an MPC, then the whole team will rally around that person and get them interviews but that’s only if they’re that product for the agency. It’s less about helping you. It’s more about the agency saying, “I have this great person. Look at the types of people I have.” They’re trying to get in the door that way and place that person. It’s not for everybody.
I’ve never worked with a recruiter in that capacity. I’ve felt sometimes on the flip side as a hiring manager or a potential hiring manager that it can work against you because as soon as that person brings you a candidate, then they’ve got a claim to say, “I introduced the two of you.” If your intent is not to pay a recruiting fee on that particular hire, that potentially excludes that person. I’ve had companies I worked for in the past where that was a bit of a knockout factor.
I’ve had it happen when I was in contingency years ago. I sent a candidate in. They loved the candidate but they couldn’t pay a fee and then hire the candidate. The candidate is like, “What do I do?” I was a lot younger and I didn’t know what to say. We’re not going to go after the candidate. Maybe recruiters would or the company but it can be a nightmare. I wonder if it’s changed. Back in the day, we wouldn’t get a contract signed until almost the final round in contingency. I’m hoping that contracts are signed earlier and there’s a relationship with HR.
Talk about the relationship between the recruiter and the hiring firm because that’s part of the equation that most people don’t see unless they’re in the hiring firm and they’re part of the search process.
That’s why I dedicated a whole chapter to it. I was thinking, “How do I explain what recruiters do without soapboxing and being like, ‘I’m the best,’ or saying all recruiters are terrible or the other side, ‘We’re all great.’ I’m going to tell my story. It is what it is. Here’s what I grew up with.” I gave some examples of business development meetings and those relationships. I do think that the initial relationship when the recruiter is trying to win the work or they’re handed the work from a hiring company sets the foundation for every single thing that happens.
If the recruiter is trying to win the work and says, “No problem. We can find you candidates from all the major tech companies at this comp who will relocate,” then here you are as a candidate, perfect for this role but you’re not the promise that was made. You might not be able to go ahead. It comes down to a recruiter having the authority and the confidence to be that consultant from the beginning even from when they win the work because that dynamic or setup can determine what candidates get to go forward and those sorts of conversations that happen later. There’s that trust factor. That’s part of it.
That’s one thing I did find interesting having been in multiple roles in the past and having some visibility into how this works between the hiring firm and the recruiting firm. Talk about how the relationships can vary a lot. The relationship between the recruiter and the hiring firm, the hiring manager, or the hiring firm’s HR can vary a lot. That will have an impact on you as a candidate. I hadn’t ever thought about that before.
A lot of the complaints I would get from candidates or job seekers when I was doing my how-are-you catch-ups were usually things along those lines, “I’m not getting feedback. What is happening? I’m getting strung along for three weeks. I’m sending emails and calling. It’s crickets.” People are so frustrated. I spent all this time explaining all these dynamics that could be going on if the recruiter doesn’t have access to information and they’re throwing stones at the window of the hiring manager, “How did that go?” It’s not always this tight-knit relationship people are expecting.
It might have nothing to do with the candidate, zero. If the recruiter is like, “I text with my hiring managers and HR folks all the time. I know they’re at this conference. No big deal,” all those things can go into it. That’s where all that came from. I was explaining the mental gymnastics that people are going through a lot of the time and how it has to do with that relationship and those dynamics that you have no idea or you’re not privy to.
I’ve had experiences personally where the recruiter will say they’re taking a step back and rethinking what they want. There’s a bit of frustration there. I wonder how much throwing the hiring company under the bus is buying time for some other reason or whether it’s what’s going on. You never know when you’re the job seeker what’s going on behind the scenes.
There could very well be a number one candidate that they’re all focused on while you’re sitting around waiting. In those situations, I would say to the candidate to ask. Ask a direct question and be like, “How many other candidates are in play? Am I number one or not?” It’s a question you don’t want to know the answer to but you will probably get an answer.
You have a whole section on engaging with search firms and recruiters individually. How should you go about that? It shouldn’t be first when you need a job.
First of all, don’t ignore recruiters when they reach out to you when you’re not looking because you can reignite those so quickly once you are. I can’t tell you how many people don’t respond to my outreach or they respond, “I’m not interested.” Honestly, the more junior the role, the more it’s an issue. The more senior the role, the more responses you get, which is interesting. The more senior the role, the easier it is to get people on the phone because you would think those people are busier. They’re more senior but they value the recruiter relationship more and they get how it works.
It’s interesting. The more junior the role, they’re getting inundated with recruiters and usually with the wrong roles, which I get. I empathize that people’s inboxes are blown up with inappropriate jobs but if there’s a good one in there, respond because you might need that person later. My other bit of advice on that is to be memorable because it’s not about today. If you can leave that recruiter with, “Here’s what I’m known for. Here’s the type of things that I’ve done in the past,” in a way that they can remember you in 3 months or 5 years, they will call you next time.
Your point about taking the call and responding to the email is consistent with the advice I’ve always given people. You get on the radar. It’s an opportunity to build a relationship with at least one person in the industry. That’s more the reactive side. What about the proactive side? How should you proactively introduce yourself to recruiters, build your network, engage with them, and nurture it?
It’s all about finding the right recruiters. You can spend all day doing internet research, going on all the big websites, randomly emailing every single person you find with the same email, praying, and seeing what happens. You will likely hit your head against the wall and be like, “Recruiters are the worst. They don’t email you back.” Instead, I would spend more time with fewer people.
Let’s say you’re a head of data or a chief data officer. I would find the other chief data officers, heads of data, or something tangential at analytics that you respect, know, and trust and say, “Who got you that job? What recruiter helped place you there? What recruiter sent you on interviews that you liked?” Ask if they can refer you to that recruiter because it’s not just the firm. It’s the specific person. I would even ask not just for the partner. I would ask for the associate or the director and even a researcher.
Those junior people don’t get as many emails as the senior people. The junior people are the ones who do that initial outreach to find candidates. A lot of the time, people will reach out to the most senior person on the team and think they have checked the box, “This whole team knows me if I know the partner,” but when I was a junior person, I was the one out there advocating for candidates and telling my partner, “This is the one. This is the candidate.” Those junior people do a lot and grow up to be senior people. That’s what I would do.
I don’t want to call them the gatekeepers but they’re the entry point at the search. You make this point in the book. The partners are calling the people that they know best that they immediately think of as suitable for a potential role that they have been hired to help fill but at the same time, you’re having the junior people on your team cruise LinkedIn, go through your firm’s database, look for people that maybe you personally don’t know, and test interest. It shouldn’t matter what level the person is at. It’s good to get to know them no matter what.
Sometimes those folks are more senior than anyone realizes. They could have been in that role for 10 to 20 years also. They just didn’t want to be a partner. They’re not a partner. Know all the different levels. I would find them through your network versus LinkedIn searching or database searching.
You talked about the importance of being memorable and giving them your elevator pitch. You also talked about it being important to have done the work on understanding yourself, what you’re looking for, and what’s important to you. How does that play out in terms of how you engage with recruiters?
Most of the time, I find that job seekers want to get through their entire resume as quickly as possible. We’re on the phone, “I started here. I did this. I had this title. Here I am. I’m looking.” It’s up to you as a job seeker to synthesize all of those things together because the person has your resume or your LinkedIn. They have your companies and titles. What they don’t have is, “You’ve done all these things. You’re good at this.” People won’t remember all the things. They will remember three things max.
I came to realize that the way my brain works is whenever I kick off a new search, the company is going through a journey. The world is open to solving this journey ahead, whatever it is, “We’re going to go public. We’re going to go global. We need to modernize because of how many acquisitions we have made.” I’m thinking in my head, “What candidate has been on that journey?” Think of me when a company or a culture is going through this because that’s what I think of, “Who has done this journey before?” If someone can articulate that, then they will stick in someone’s head later.
You argue for a fair amount of transparency with recruiters, not just in what you’re looking for financially or non-financially but also in your life situation and values. How do you balance not oversharing?
I would love to ask you that one too. In your gut, if it doesn’t feel right, then don’t go there. I share quite a lot with candidates and they share back in return. I’m like, “I have a son. What did you do this weekend?” That’s easy but if it’s more than that, it’s probably too much. It’s important though like anything that plays into you being in a process as a candidate for a role or you accepting a role.
It’s a family decision. There’s a lot that goes into it, especially with in-office, “Are you going to relocate?” There are all these sorts of things or even the hours. I don’t think it’s as taboo to say work-life balance as it was a few years ago. You probably know but maybe you don’t. What do you think? I would love to ask you about the oversharing piece.
I’m sitting here trying to think about whether I’ve ever had a candidate early in the process open up way too much to the point of it being uncomfortable. It’s helpful to know, “Are they willing to move? Are they not willing to move? Are there kids locked into a school that they don’t want to pull them out of? Have they got a care situation that they need to be mindful of?” There are all sorts of things that are relevant. The challenge always is, “If I say too much, I may jeopardize my candidacy or attractiveness as a candidate for roles because they’re thinking of reasons to exclude me.”
At the same time, it doesn’t serve anybody’s interest If you push yourself into a job that isn’t going to work for you for one reason or another. The way to think about it is to be upfront with the things that are so important to you that they are going to be exclusionary factors for you. If you’re not willing to move from New York to the Midwest, for example, then you have to be clear and upfront about that.
People will say, “I could commute.” I’m like, “You don’t want to commute.” That’s the worst existence in the history of humanity. Commuting every Monday and coming back every Thursday night or every Friday is a tough experience. If you don’t want to be in the Midwest, then don’t talk to companies whose jobs are in the Midwest. It could be New York or anywhere. Things like that are truly the knockout factors for you. You might as well get them on the table sooner rather than later because they’re going to come to a head one way or another.
As you were talking, it made me think about how sometimes because I’m a recruiter and I don’t work at the company, it’s easy to overshare. Know that anything you say to me is going to go right to the client. At the end of the day, my job is to place someone who will work out and thrive. If I am getting a weird spidey sense about somebody because of what they’re sharing, I’m going to tell the client and bring it out. It’s the recruiter. We’re chitchatting and talking through interview feedback. Maybe it’s a light and easy conversation. Pretend you’re talking to the client.
You work for the client. At the end of the day, you have to protect that relationship because they’re the ones who hired you, not the candidate. Sometimes candidates probably fall into the trap of being a little bit too comfortable. You make the point that every interaction counts, even the most casual ones or even when you call about a job that they’re not interested in. Whatever happens in that interaction goes into the data bank, even if it’s just the Somer Hackley data bank.
If you were helpful or weren’t helpful, either way, people remember.
You have a section of the book that’s focused on the actual search process itself. You talk about how important it is to be prepared. What should a job searcher do to get themselves organized and off to the right start when they are in need of their next role?
I hate to start so simple but have your LinkedIn look good. People are going to google you and look at LinkedIn. I view LinkedIn as the conversation that’s happening without you in the room. You want that to represent who you are because people will make snap judgments about whether or not you’re qualified based on your LinkedIn profile. It has nothing to do with your resume. Your resume comes later. Usually, you send it after a conversation or something but LinkedIn is like, “Do you know so and so? They’re looking. Let me look them up on LinkedIn.” You want to be in control of what that message is. I would do that before I do anything.Have your LinkedIn look good. People are going to Google you and they're going to look at LinkedIn. Click To Tweet
There was a job seeker, Jay, who I opened the book with. He’s distraught. He has been layered. He’s not getting these big top jobs. He eventually did. I figured that he was going to tell me all the cool things he learned like how to interview well, be more senior, and say eloquent responses to questions. What he told me was that he went internal, got a therapist, journaled, and realized where his lack of confidence was coming from. People don’t always talk about it that much but so much of the interview process is mental and about confidence, how you come across, and owning what you’re talking about. It’s chicken and egg but that work has to get done.
You’re selling yourself at the end of the day. If you don’t express conviction in yourself, that’s a big red flag for somebody because they’re going to wonder whether you believe you can do this job, let alone what they think. If you don’t believe it, then they won’t. What makes LinkedIn look good and bad for someone?
There’s a whole list. There are studies that show, “Have a photo,” and all the simple things like that. I’ve heard from a LinkedIn expert, and I would agree, that if you want to be found, your headline should be the title you’re targeting, none of the long-winded many words. What do you do? Someone is trying to figure out what you do, “Can you help me?” It’s the faster you can cut to the chase. If someone has their entire resume on there and it’s long, it’s difficult.
Before people hit More, they’re only going to get your last three jobs. Sometimes people have other things there. I make sure that what you have on that first page before the fold is how you want to represent yourself. You can’t put everything you’ve done. I don’t mean in terms of timeline. I mean in terms of even your last job. If you put every single thing you’ve done, it’s probably too long. People won’t read it. They put three things under each job. It’s short and sweet.
I would talk a lot about impact and why you did what you did versus exactly everything about what you did. There are tons of things. That separates the more senior folks from the more junior. The more senior is succinct. They know their story and where they make a difference. They talk about team building, hiring, influence, and the customer impact versus tons of responsibilities.
Come back to the search process. Let’s flip it around and talk about it from the company’s perspective. Every search is different but what is the typical search process? How does it unfold between the hiring firm and the search firm?
Sometimes the business is handed to people and recruiters, or sometimes there’s a bit of competition and they interview a few search firms. Once it’s all won, signed, sealed, and delivered, have a brief about the role. You make sure that we all understand what the position is. Come up with a search strategy where we’re targeting all those good things.
It’s a matter of knowing where to find candidates. I network with my network. I do a lot of fresh research from target company lists. I think about what companies have gone through on this journey and who’s the person at those companies. It comes down to my reach-out, assessment, client introduction, their assessment, and buttoning up their process.
We try to do that in the beginning with how many rounds, how are feedback loops going to work, candidate experience, and all that stuff. There are many different steps. The more we can get figured out in the beginning, the better. I’m also trying to figure out the dynamics between the hiring manager, external recruiter, and internal recruiter because that’s always different too. Who does what? We tend to have ad hoc touchpoints all the time and weekly calls.
I’m sure you’ve interviewed thousands of people over the years. What are the things that people do to stand out in a good way? What are the things that people do to shoot themselves in the foot?
The confidence piece is big. It’s someone who knows their story. They’re succinct. They know how to talk about themselves and relate what they have done. Let’s say it’s an actual search, not an intro call. They can easily relate what they have done to what the role is. On the flip side, people shoot themselves in the foot when they have the pre-rehearsed monologue that they say to every single person they’re talking to.Confidence is a big piece. Recruiters want someone who knows their story, knows how to talk about themselves, and how to relate what they've done to what the role is. Click To Tweet
It’s like, “Let me ask you. Why do you think you’re a good fit for this position?” “To answer that, let me go through my entire background.” It’s a half hour of walking through their whole resume but they didn’t talk about why they fit the role. It’s their job as a candidate to ask the right questions, get there, and help the hiring manager or recruiter be with them on that and understand it. They have to be that conduit for themselves. They’re an advocate versus the monologue.
The biggest thing people do that shoots themselves in the foot is they talk too much. They don’t know their audience. They keep going and then try to have their agenda and shove it into the conversation. They keep saying, “There’s another thing I’ve done that you should know about that you didn’t ask me about.” I get why people are doing that but the people that end up getting the job are approaching it casually. They are who they are. They answer questions. If it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s great, “Let’s figure this out together,” versus, “I have my agenda. Let’s go.”
It’s funny you bring up being too casual. I had an interview for a job I was trying to fill. It was early in the morning. One of the candidates was in his office in the US. I was in London at the time. It was midday for me. He was sitting in his chair laid back. I’m like, “Do you want this job?” It was the weirdest thing. I went back to the recruiter. This was a candidate that they had put forward and I said, “This guy doesn’t want the job enough. We’re going to have to arm-twist him to move. It’s not going to happen.” Body language does matter.
You want to show up as yourself. That’s why I hesitated to use casual. It’s not just showing up in your t-shirt, kicking back, putting your feet up, and saying, “Hiring manager, let’s talk.” There’s a balance of being yourself versus trying too hard.
The dress code has come down. I’m still not quite sure what to make of that. I don’t care if somebody ever wears a tie again but at the same time, when you see people who take an interview call on their t-shirt, it does beg a question.
It does, or hats. I’ve had all kinds of things happen. You’re at home on Zoom. You still have to look professional. Ask the recruiter. Know your audience. If the company is all wearing hats and tank tops, then do it but sometimes, they’re not.
I will confess and this is the first time I’ve publicly confessed this. There was one interview that I did for this job. It was during COVID. We were still pretty tightly in lockdown. Nobody else in the family was there. I was on my own for some period. I desperately needed a haircut but we were doing the family haircut stage at that point. I gave myself a haircut. It looked horrible in the back but I’m like, “It doesn’t have to look good in the back. Nobody is going to see the back on this call.” They had no idea that the back of my head was a complete mess. It looked good enough in the front for me to get by because I wanted to not look like I was too shaggy for this particular interview.
It’s the reverse anchor person with a nice top and jean shorts. It’s the front and the back.
That’s the first time I’ve confessed that. Some companies will use a personality or leadership assessment or a battery of tests that they put candidates through. What’s your take on those? Are you for it, against it, or situational?
Maybe it’s controversial but I don’t use them and I don’t think they matter. There are a lot of companies that love them. The search firms love them. There are third parties that go for it. I wonder how often they change their minds or how often they validate what they already think. It depends on the culture of the company. I’ve had only 3 placements not work out in 20 years. Only a handful have used those tests. Maybe most of my clients don’t use them. I haven’t seen a ton of need but from the candidate side, I’ve had candidates run their results by me and they haven’t been excited by other search firms. They’re like, “Look what this test said about me.”
I love your opinion on it too because I feel bold being like, “They don’t matter.” Maybe a good use for them will be marrying talent acquisition to talent management because I do think that can be a better relationship. A lot of the time, all the rich information we’re getting during an interview process is lost once the person starts. Once someone starts, we have that test to help them navigate internally with opportunities for what they need in terms of leadership, growth, and that kind of stuff. If the company embraces that, then maybe it will help them once they start in terms of onboarding and their career development.
It’s a numbers game. You’ve got a large number of roles to fill and a huge number of candidates. You use those assessments as a sifting mechanism and feel like that works for you as a sifting mechanism. I could see it in those circumstances and the more technically-oriented tests. My son does software development. Pretty much every interview he did when he was graduating from college involved a coding challenge.
That’s their game. That’s a way to measure your technical skills but in the scheme of things, I think about the senior searches where you take a personality thing. They’re not interviewing so many candidates. Why don’t you ask about the things that matter and try to bring them out in the course of a conversation? It feels a little bit like a crutch there in a way.
You said that more eloquently. I was trying to get to this. It’s hard to assess culture fit but it’s easier to understand, “How are decisions made? What roadblocks will this person face? How do you influence? Who’s successful? Who’s not?” Ask those questions, “How do you convince people? Where have you hit a roadblock where you need to gain buy-in from someone? How do you do that? How have you done that before? Did you inherit your team? Did you build your team? How do you retain?” You can ask all these questions and then know in your head how all the other candidates answered and who’s successful with the client. Maybe we’re all getting there, whether it’s a third-party company or we’re asking those questions ourselves.
I’m going to come back to the process. Let’s say you don’t get the job. How do you get the recruiter to take the time to give you feedback on why things didn’t work out?
First of all, they should. You can’t make people but the more open you are to feedback every single step of the way and the more you ask for feedback, and if you react well to feedback, you’re more likely to get feedback. There’s a difference between being defensive and trying to help make your case. I was asking two candidates. I said, “I was hesitant to put you forward because I don’t think you’ve built and run a business with full P&L. You’ve been more of this strategy role.” I flat out told them and then they said, “I did this here and this other place.” I’m like, “I’m glad we talked about it,” versus talking in generalities, “I’ve done this. I’m the best at this. How could you even question that I’ve done that? Have you read my resume?”The more open you are to feedback and the more you ask for feedback and react well to it, the more likely you get feedback. Click To Tweet
There are different ways to take feedback. If you’re having a conversation, listening, and responding appropriately, you will get better feedback. When you’re getting very simple feedback, it could be that the recruiter doesn’t have full feedback or they don’t want to tell it to you because they’re afraid. They don’t want to get into a whole thing. If you can’t get the person on the phone, that’s a whole other story. Why aren’t they responding to you? That could be the recruiter’s problem or something you did but when you’re in that moment, being open to feedback will help you get feedback.
On the flip side, when you do get the offer, how would you counsel people to think about negotiating the offer?
My whole take on comp is you negotiate the entire time. It’s not at the offer stage. Don’t bring up comp at offer. That’s too late. It’s done. Once it’s like, “Here’s your offer,” it should not be a surprise. It should be what you’ve been talking about for a month. Once you’re getting into the second round, say, “Can we talk more about comp? Here’s what I’m thinking and what I need to make.”
First of all, know what you want. A lot of times, people are like, “I don’t want to talk about comp. What do you think?” That’s not how you get what you want. Know what you want, have the data to back it up, and talk about it early. I don’t think it’s a back-and-forth with whoever talks first or all these things people do. If you talk about it early, you bring it up. If they haven’t, you will end up getting what you want. I love talking about comp early.
You do talk about the importance of setting the anchor, which argues for you setting your comp expectations first and you being the one who initiates so that they have a sense of where they need to come in. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing control relative to what you want if they end up setting that anchor price.
I truly believe that. It’s a risk if you say, “I don’t know what I should make. What do you think? What can the role pay?” First of all, I don’t want to throw a number at you if I have no idea what the company will pay you. I’ve known you for twenty minutes. I don’t know how senior you are yet. It’s tricky. I can give a huge range to protect myself a little bit but I have seen the candidates that get what they want. They know what they want and they can say it in certain terms, “This is how much I need to make. This is why.” They have a lot of detail behind it. It takes some time to get there. You have to create your dataset by interviewing, talking, and thinking but I truly believe that. I’ve seen it in action many times.
In the time we’ve got left, let’s spend a few minutes talking about your journey. You went to Tufts. When you were a student there, what did you envision yourself doing professionally?
I was one of those people who wanted to be employed right away. I’ve always had a job since I was young. As soon as I could make money, I made money every summer. I tried out everything. I interned everywhere. I was like, “I want to go into advertising.” One day, I met with someone. I took all these alumni interviews and she was like, “You should go into sales.” I was majoring in Econ. I interviewed for every single sales job I could find in Manhattan. That’s how I found recruiting.
Was Manhattan a key criterion for you?
I grew up in Westchester outside the city. I knew I wanted to be back. I was looking in New York.
You went into contingency recruiting pretty much right away.
I had the offer lined up. I started a week after graduating. I interviewed for every single sales job possible and found that recruiting spoke to me. It’s selling people versus things. I fell in love with it.
You made the jump over to the retain search world, which I’m sure was a fairly big culture shock for you at the time.
I didn’t realize how hard it is for people to do that. When I showed up at CTPartners, they were like, “Never tell anyone you worked in contingency.” I didn’t know it was a thing. Later in life, I embraced my entire background. Who cares? At the time, it was like, “I don’t have an MBA. I didn’t grow up in big search as a researcher and this and that.” It was different.
Mainly, we’re talking to very senior people. As I wrote about in the book, we had to fill the job. That was the biggest change for me. In contingency, you’ve got your hot candidate. You’re trying to open doors, find interviews, and get them as many interviews. It’s hardcore sales, standing up, yelling, and screaming. This was very different. “We have to fill this role.” I was getting my head around that.
While you were at CT, you were doing well and getting noticed but you didn’t want to become a partner.
I couldn’t do business development. I’m like, “Who’s going to pay me? Who’s going to give me a search?” I was a good candidate finder. I had seen too many people get promoted to principal, which is the first quota revenue-generating position, and then get fired, laid off, or struggle. I’m like, “I don’t see why anyone would pay me versus you all. I don’t get it. I’ll stay here, work on searches, and be an awesome director for a long time. This is fine.”
Looking back on that, was that the right decision for you? You were sticking with what you were good at and what you loved doing even if it meant a more junior role with less pay and status.
I don’t think I would have been a successful partner at a big firm at that time in my career. I didn’t have the relationships. I didn’t have people who would give me the work versus my boss or anyone else. I didn’t see how that would be successful. It was the right thing. I was happy. I wasn’t looking. I got recruited over to the boutique I was at, Marlin Hawk, for a long time. They recruited me. It was a cool opportunity to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond and build something again. That was fun.
What prompted you to go out on your own? How have you found it?
Lots of things. As you become more senior in recruiting, at least in my experience, you get farther away from recruiting. I was running huge accounts. It was awesome but I felt like I was pretending to know the candidates. You can’t work on 30 searches at a time. You can be the face of it but I don’t want to be the face of it. I felt like I wanted to do the recruiting myself. That’s the part of the job I love.
I hate making promises to clients that I can’t execute. All these clients are paying us to fill these roles. They all have pain around these positions being open and I can’t fill them all by myself. I had an awesome team but I was getting root canals. I was stressed out. It was so stressful having all these clients. I’m like, “I can quit, have three clients at a time, do all the work myself, and have my director or my assistant help out with interview scheduling and everything else that she does rather than 30 at a time.” It was to do the recruiting again and not pretend to know candidates.
What’s ahead for you? What are your goals for the next few years?
I hate to say it but I don’t necessarily know. I love what I’m doing and I’m pretty content with this. Things keep happening. I didn’t expect to write the book and be invited to speak at these universities. Meanwhile, I’m still recruiting. I’m busy with clients. I don’t want to hire anybody or be a part of a big firm. I’m happy doing this. I’m going to keep on keeping on, filling roles, trying to make my little dent in the world, and seeing what happens. We will see. There are all kinds of ideas I’ve had on the recruiting side in terms of training recruiters or internal recruiters. People have asked me these things. I would have to see how that plays out. Recruiting is my love. This is fun. It keeps me busy because every search and client is different. It doesn’t get boring.
You talked a little bit about the idea of whether you should scale your impact. Is that something that you’re still thinking about? Do you just love the recruiting part?
At that time, I was probably still feeling like I had to pretend to want to scale. I do a lot of work with tech people. I don’t know if people understand that you don’t need to hire people ever. It’s like, “What’s next? Get bigger,” but then that’s what I had before. The whole point is for me to do the work so that we fill roles faster. I’m the one representing the client and the candidate. I know both inside and out. I talked to a client on the phone while driving about all these candidates because I know them all so well. It’s so easy versus, “I need all my notes.” I don’t need to go back to that. I own it. I’m like, “I’m not hiring because this is awesome.”
Are there any parting thoughts for our audience in terms of managing their career or working with search firms more specifically?
The way I ended the book, I’ll probably end this too. When you’re hiring, remember the recruiters who were great and use them to fill your roles because that’s the only way. Anything that’s broken with recruiting will get fixed with that. Hire the people who give feedback, interview you well, are ethical, and all those sorts of things because we will perpetuate good behavior.
It matters. I’ve seen good and less good from the hiring side. It does matter a lot. Thanks for doing this, Somer. I appreciate it.
Thank you for the invite. This was awesome.
It’s good to catch up. There’s a lot of valuable insight in here. I’m sure anybody who’s reading will find it valuable. Thank you for taking the time.
I want to thank Somer for joining me to help demystify the world of executive search and cover her career journey as well. If you’re ready to take control of your career, you can visit PathWise.io. If you would like more regular career insights, you can become a PathWise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. Thanks, and have a great day.
- Somer Hackley
- Search in Plain Sight: Demystifying Executive Search
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About Somer Hackley
Somer is the founder and CEO of Distinguished Search, a retained executive search firm. She has been in recruiting for 20 years, including the last 13 years in executive search. She spent six years at CTPartners, the seventh-largest global retained search firm, and later ran the North America digital, technology and commerce practice at a leading boutique. She went off on her own in 2020, inspired to launch a firm that aligned with her core values: working with fewer clients and offering more personalized services. She has placed executives in companies from Fortune 100 to startups, with a focus on technology and digital positions. She received her degree in economics from Tufts University in 2002.
The need for transparency in executive search led to her debut book, “Search in Plain Sight: Demystifying Executive Search.” There was a tight race in 2022 between the due dates of her baby and her book, and the book won by about a week, which was lucky timing. She lives with her husband, son and two cats in Austin, TX, though feels she will always be a New Yorker.