“It’s a very broken system at the senior management level as far as I’m concerned.”
Even amidst the frenzied gossiping of local college girls and honking traffic of Northwest Washington DC, the calm demeanor of George Zarubin couldn’t hide the frustration. It was lunchtime at a local Mexican restaurant as we sat down to talk about his 7 month process of finding a new executive position at a nonprofit. Zarubin and I had spoken before about what it was like working with recruitment organizations (often called headhunters at this level), but I had no idea about the process of being hired to run something like a foundation.
Having recently run the $400 million endowment of The America for Bulgaria Foundation and now working as the Executive Director of The AHA Foundation, Zarubin has built a career running internationally focused non-profits around the world. He’s not the type of person who would need to spend too much time finding a job. And yet, despite the fact that an entire industry of headhunting companies exist to hire people like Zarubin for these positions, he sees that process as deeply flawed.
The executive hiring game has more players
“When you see the job… you’re not referred directly to the company, you’re referred to the headhunters. And the headhunters don’t really want to be looking through a bunch of resumes that have been sent to them.”
One of the first things that becomes clear listening to Zarubin is the number of players involved in executive hiring. You have the three basic players: you, the headhunters, and the company you’re trying to get hired by. But actually, the latter two can be much more complex.
“The system is even more broken because usually it’s a board that’s hiring a [headhunting] firm, and the board compromises and agrees on a job description, tells the [headhunters] what they want, and the [headhunter] doesn’t want to go outside those boundaries… And usually, any kind of criteria that’s set by compromise is imperfect in itself… usually looking for somebody you’re not going to find.”
But the problems ultimately go beyond that culture of compromise.
Headhunters are all about networks
“At the senior level, either you’re in the network or you’re not, you either know the recruiter or you don’t… [but] they’re not interested in getting to know you… It’s a fascinating study in imperfect supply and demand. There’s no real good mechanism that links the one with the other.”
Zarubin explained that in this sense, headhunting firms are very conservative in how they handle their networks. Because they only tend to hire from within those networks, there’s plenty of “supply” in the form of good candidates who simply aren’t considered. Incredibly, the issue of restrictive networks doesn’t just exist for headhunting firms as a whole, it also exists within those firms.
“[The big headhunting firms] may not even be sharing information within their own networks, among their own colleagues, and across offices. So the London partner might not know what the Washington partner knows in terms of a person who might be suitable for a placement.”
The result is that it’s up to those getting hired as well as people working within the headhunting firms to tackle the system.
“You have to break that cycle… And I bet certain [headhunters], if they’re honest, would love to be able to break into all their other colleagues networks and see who it is they have.”
But even if there’s nothing Zarubin can do to affect how headhunters operate, there are steps he’s learned to take to be more effective within this entire process.
Proactivity is key to getting hired as an executive
Zarubin obviously had a lot to say about the system he’s witnessed and worked within for most of his professional career, but I was also interested in discussing what lessons he’s learned along the way. Those lessons start with being proactive.
“When I see something on LinkedIn and I see it on a platform of a recruiter, then I try to figure out if I know any of those recruiters. I actually call them to alert them to the fact that I’m sending my resume in. You have to be incredibly proactive, a lot more so than you would think.”
So just because there was a headhunting firm working to find a new executive director for the AHA foundation didn’t mean Zarubin could wait to be found and approached about the position. He had to take the first steps.
Getting hired for positions that are never announced
“Most senior management jobs, like president or CEO… never get announced. They’re all done in secret. Both of my last two senior executive, non-profit positions identified me through my networks and these positions were for jobs that were not posted anywhere.”
Getting hired for such a job might seem daunting, but Zarubin has a clear strategy which has worked for him.
“At some point, I just sent out a message to a whole bunch of the [headhunters] I was talking to saying ‘I know sometimes you have jobs that aren’t externally posted. If anything looks like it has a bit of an international flair and suits my qualifications, let me know.’ Next thing I know, I get a call saying ‘would you consider this non-profit job?’ I wrote back and said ‘it sounds very intriguing, tell me more.’ That started a process I would never have gotten into had I not already been in the recruiting process, meeting these recruiters… continuing to write to them, keeping my foot in the door and saying ‘I’m here and I’m looking’.”
Once again, it boils down to building relationships with recruiters and always being proactive. However, Zarubin also cautions that this doesn’t mean you can neglect building and maintaining relationships with board members either.
“There are times when a board can become frustrated with a search process and begin reaching out themselves. That’s where having those relationships can really make a difference.”
Ultimately, Zarubin’s reflection on the entire process was straightforward.
“It’s a very very complicated, imperfect, and competitive process… at the senior, non-profit and international development management level it seems to be a very different game. But, it’s also extremely rewarding when you find the right fit.”