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In the highly competitive professional services industry, including executive recruiters, you must have a clearly defined personal brand that is supported by an unquestioned record of success.  You can be the best recruiter in the world but if you are also the best kept secret in the universe, your skill as a recruiter won’t mean much because you won’t have any business.

As I have written here in the past, for people looking for work or new business, all the doors are closed.  If you want to get inside you better have a pretty unique knock to attract attention.

I was once asked by a business writer who was doing research on search firms to describe myself.  I was a little surprised by the question and spontaneously said, “I am a reporter/writer who recruits.”

Where did that come from?

Truth be told, like most other gut responses we utter from time to time, the origin of a spontaneous answer can be found in the well of truth.

In my earlier life, I was an editor and then a crime writer and investigative reporter for several Texas newspapers including the now defunct Houston Post.  Over the years I covered Chamber of Commerce banquets, car accidents, fires, plane crashes and, way too many homicides.  In the last 16 months of my newspaper career, I probably saw 250 dead bodies.  The mind’s eye images of the children who were victims of violence tend to stay with you.  I dug into allegations of corruption in the police department and in the prison system as well as the taint of the heroin trade on the people who used it and the police who worked undercover to halt the flow.

That is part of my brand, it is one of the things that distinguishes me from my competition.  It is part of my unique knock.  So what does that mean for my clients?

Well, let’s start with the fact that I am unbelievably curious.  Not the kind of curiosity that makes me a New York Times crossword puzzle whiz — that honor and burden belongs to my wife.  But I am very curious, dare I say embarrassingly curious, about a variety of other issues including the news of the day, and most especially concerning the candidates I screen for my clients.  My years of reporting and interviewing public officials, especially those with something to hide, helped train my ear to push past the spin and get to the truth, or reality.  Today, if I hear what I think is a “gloss over,” a blatant, inexpert spin or a scenario that doesn’t seem to hold together, I will zero in.  It is not in a spirit of indignation but a desire to get to whatever the illusive truth is.  Even though I have not written for a daily newspaper in many years, those instincts are deeply embedded in my professional DNA.

I once heard an outplacement consultant tell a candidate who was scheduled to interview with me, “Oh, hell, you better be ready.  He is tough.”  While flattered by his characterization, that is not exactly the truth.  Candidates who show up, prepared for the tough questions about their successes and setbacks, and who are ready for the natural follow up questions, report that they think my interviews are fair and, by far, the most interesting, they have experienced in the world of executive search.  While that is even more flattering, the important thing here is that I go deep enough so that I can share with my clients an honest appraisal of a candidate’s skills and quantifiable accomplishments, whether they have learned anything from their previous missteps, and whether they can fit with the client’s culture.

Seasoned candidates who think they can just “show up” and go through the interview are making a big mistake, not just with me but any conscientious practitioner of the art of recruiting.

Executives with big reputations who think they deserve a special pass in the search process, that the recruiter should be grateful that they even showed an interest in the search, are in for a bigger surprise as search committees focus more intently on a candidate’s quantifiable accomplishments and their leadership style.  Their experience, their demeanor with employees and customers, and their standing in the community will all come under increased scrutiny, as well they should.