The Guerrilla Fighters

With aggressive but effective tactics, "guerrilla" recruiters can help companies secure top executives, but critics say such behavior can be unprofessional, hurt a client's image and even harm recruitment of executives.

Monday, February 1, 2010
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If you get a Starbucks mug in the mail from David Perry, you'd better just meet him for coffee already. It means you haven't answered his barrage of phone calls to your office. Or your home. Or your cell phone. It means you haven't returned his faxes or e-mails, either.

If you still refuse after he sends the coffee mug, chances are good that you'll run into Perry in the throes of your daily life.

Hunting down an executive a few years ago, Perry -- owner of Ottawa-based executive-recruiting firm Perry-Martel International Inc. -- crashed a Christmas party by donning a crisp black jacket, just like the waiters. He smoothly grabbed a tray of wine and began serving partygoers.

Once he found his mark -- a promising executive who seemed like a perfect fit for a client's list for a job opening -- Perry dropped him an envelope. Inside was a letter offering $500 for the person's charity of choice if he agreed to take a five-minute meeting with him. Then, Perry simply put the tray down and walked out. A few days later, he got his meeting.

Another time, Perry just couldn't seem to get an executive on the phone to pitch a job opportunity to him. Admitting that it was his "most difficult first contact," Perry paid a custodian $100 to give him the number of the phone in the man's private bathroom.

Soon after, Perry was on the phone with the man's secretary -- just like he had done plenty of times before -- and she told him the executive was "indisposed." So Perry hung up and called the bathroom number and guess who answered? The executive.

The conversation eventually landed the man a more desirable job -- and a funny story to tell at cocktail parties. All in a day's work for Perry, who got another signed, sealed and delivered recruit.

"Everybody understands exactly how this game is played and it's a game of winners and losers," says Perry. "That's the nature of the game. That's America . ... You go into battle to win -- to win market share, to win new customers -- and you need the best people possible. Senior executives know that."

For Perry, and others like him, executive recruiting is war -- and he plans on winning. He is among a class of recruiters who believe that aggressive behavior and so-called "guerrilla recruiting" tactics are necessary to place the right candidates with their corporate clients. They'll use almost any means possible -- but nothing illegal, they claim -- to get the right person to listen to their pitch about a job opportunity. Sometimes a coffee mug in the mail will do it; other times, more extreme measures are called for.

Perry has "coincidentally" run into a potential recruit on a ski slope (on an expert run that Perry was not qualified to ski, by the way) and even rented a snack truck for a week to find out the name of a talented employee his client hoped to hire away from a competitor.

Critics, however, say that such behavior by executive recruiters is unprofessional, can hurt a client's image and can even make executives less likely to sign on with a client.

Yet, Perry doesn't recruit just any executive. First, he and his client do extensive research on the qualities and experience that the perfect executive should have -- and only after they put someone at the top of their list will Perry begin the courting process. The more an executive refuses to talk, the more aggressive he becomes.

Sure, the prospect is almost always gainfully employed, but Perry's not only willing to poach from other companies -- he banks on it. After all, the most talented executives aren't looking for work, and if they were, they wouldn't be scouring job boards.

In fact, a study released last November by Seattle-based Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) revealed that 40 percent of the 261 companies surveyed say they actively source their competitors' employees to a moderate or high degree.

"What are the odds of any company finding an absolutely perfect candidate who's in between opportunities at the moment in time that you need them?" says Perry. "It's a million to one."

HR leaders, meanwhile, are caught in the crossfire (see sidebar). On the one hand, they're wary of tactics like Perry's, but are happy when the company makes a good hire. Do well-placed job candidates justify the means it took to recruit them?

Target: Hawaiian Leis

Attending a conference a few years ago, executive recruiter Michael Homula got word that a well-known financial institution (he declined to name it) was having a Hawaiian-style banquet inside the conference hall. During the ceremony, the company honored its best sales people by placing leis around their necks.

To Homula, they might as well have put bulls-eyes on their foreheads.

Homula and his recruiting team from Quicken Loans in Livonia, Mich., simply waited in the bar just outside the banquet room. Once the party let out, they struck up conversations with anybody wearing a lei.

"We didn't break into their sales conference, put people in sacks and kidnap them; we waited outside in the bar [for them to] to come out," says Homula, who now serves as the founder and chief recruiting strategist at Bearing Fruit Consulting in Howell, Mich. "If they're stupid enough to tag all of their [best] salespeople with leis, then they've got to expect that a smart recruiter is going to recruit those individuals."

He says the move wasn't unethical or illegal, but "there are a lot of recruiters who snub their noses at that."

Another time, Homula's client had three top picks for a job opening, but after repeated calls and letters, two said they weren't interested and the other never even responded. So, Homula sent a formal job offer detailing the position and pay. No interview. No screening. No reference checks.

"If you're going to put together a golf team, who's the first guy you're going to try to get? Tiger Woods," says Homula. (Let's put aside Woods' recent off-the-course transgressions for this example.) "Are you really going to interview Tiger Woods and put him through a screening process? No, because we already know he's the best golfer in the world."

As it was, after receiving the offer, none of targets signed right away, of course, but they did elect to talk to the company. Although the recruitment process ended up being backward, the company still got to interview the executives and do background checks and other hiring procedures.

"I turned the entire recruiting process around," Homula says. "I flipped it over. I put them in control."

And the strategy worked. In the end, he says, one of the executives took the job.

Risking a Backlash

While some may see these tactics as good, clean recruiting, others -- like Joseph Daniel McCool, a principal at McCool Group LLC in Amherst, N.H., who helps companies choose recruiting firms -- think they go too far.

"Aggressive recruiting, in my opinion, should turn people off," he says. "There is a school of thought in some recruiting circles that if you're going to be a successful recruiter, you've got to be a hungry recruiter, you can't take no for an answer and you've got to shoot for the stars. I just don't buy that."

Rick Slayton, president of Slayton Search in Chicago, goes even further, calling such guerrilla tactics "crazy" and saying that the practice "demeans our profession, it demeans the clients and it demeans the candidates, as well."

McCool, who authored the book Deciding Who Leads, says phoning an executive on the line to his private bathroom (as Perry did) is highly unprofessional.

"Overly aggressive recruiting, from my perspective, is conduct unbecoming a professional executive-search consultant," he says.

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Others seem to agree. In the i4cp study, roughly 53 percent of companies said using "headhunter" techniques -- such as actively sourcing a competitor's employees or contacting key employees of competitors directly -- can force competitors to reciprocate by targeting their talent, which could start a full-scale talent war. One in three (32 percent) called it "bad form" and 27 percent said such tactics can damage a company's brand.

But again, Perry's bathroom phone-call stunt ultimately gave his client its desired executive. Perry says the story even served as a funny icebreaker when he introduced the candidate to the company's leadership team for the first time.

"When I'm introducing candidates to a client, I'll often tell the story [of how I found them] and the two will laugh . . ." he says, noting that they may say " 'It did take 52 phone calls to get me here, but I'm here.' "

Homula also defends his tactics against the criticism that they're unprofessional.

"I represent these companies in a professional way; it's not like I run around rogue with my pants on fire," says Homula. "Tactically, it might be extremely aggressive, but I'm not going to push a candidate harder than I think they're ready to be pushed."

McCool disagrees, saying many candidates are turned off by overly aggressive recruiters -- even if they're dangling a terrific career opportunity in front of them. If a company pays a recruiter to make so many phone calls that it "borders on harassment," it may seem to the executive as if the company condones that type of behavior and it's part of the organization's corporate culture -- a culture they might not want to be a part of.

Perry shrugs off that criticism too, saying he explains to candidates that he's the aggressive one, not his company client.

"I have never had one of these stunts that I've pulled reflect poorly on a client," he says. "I've had people taken aback and make comments, but I just apologize and [say] 'You're right, I shouldn't have done that, but I shouldn't have had to go to this much trouble to get your attention. If you had returned one of the first 10 phone calls [I wouldn't have had to go to such lengths to contact you.]' "

McCool says rogue recruiting behavior may also hurt a company's brand. He says he's stunned that companies spend so much time and money to send the right branding messages when recruiting at lower levels but don't pay much attention to the reputation the company gets from the recruiting process at its highest levels -- where it can hurt the most.

"A lot of corporate marketing and branding officers have no idea how their organizations are being branded through the lips of external recruiters," says McCool.

But Perry says he only reveals the company that he works for late in the recruiting process.

Peter Felix, president of the Association of Executive Search Consultants in New York, says aggressive recruiting tactics run afoul of the organization's code of ethics. He even says those so-called rogue recruiters are comparable to "quacks" in the medical world or "ambulance chasers" in the legal field.

"It's absolutely not professional practice," he says. "It is absolutely not endorsed by any of our member firms and is beyond what this business is about."

David Lord, founder of the Executive Search Information Exchange in Harrisville, N.H., says he thinks "good search consultants probably don't need to go to extremes" to find candidates. They should simply use the traditional modes of communication.

Despite such criticism, Perry says he'll never give up his style. The stakes are just too high.

"In my mind," he says, "[recruiting] is the highest form of management consulting you can get -- do it right and the company soars. Do it wrong and you can hobble them for years." 

See also: 
HR Wrestles the Guerrillas

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