There are four kinds of people you should have at the top of your contact list: an attorney, a realtor, an accountant, and a recruiter.

The order can certainly shift and you (fingers crossed) won’t always need them. And let’s hope you never need all four at the same time. That would be bad.

These folks should move in and out of your life as things come up. (Sadly, we see our accountants most often for that whole “taxes” thing.) But when we do need our attorney, our realtor, our accountant, or our recruiter, we have the expectation they are ready and able to take care of us. We would never select an attorney, an accountant, or a realtor without understanding her background, her experience, her successes, or talking with her references. In the same vein, working with an executive recruiter is a very personal decision. Your recruiter eventually will know everything about you: your family situation, your financial situation, your employment situation, the skeletons in your closet (yeah, you’ve got ’em), and your future hopes and dreams.

You wouldn’t just trust that kind of information to anyone, would you?

Why, then, do we scrutinize recruiters any less?

Trust me when I tell you this – the industry is full of inexperienced recruiters in poorly run organizations. Yet most of the people I know suffer through incompetence just to get a peek at the opportunity the recruiter represents. Why do we settle? Is it because we are flattered that someone called us? Are we that unhappy that we’ll work with anyone who might change our situation? Remember, that recruiter is your agent in the field. If she doesn’t impress you, how do you expect her to impress anyone else? How will she represent you to prospective clients?

Here are some simple tips to follow when selecting an executive recruiter:

1. Expertise and Depth: While some recruiters are generalists (meaning they work across multiple functional areas), some are focused on very specific career categories (i.e., accounting, science, marketing, information technology, etc.). There is great value in working with a recruiter who has a deep and intimate understanding of a particular industry. They are “in the know.” You don’t want to work with someone who’s experience and expertise is a mile wide and an inch deep. Subsequently, his connections (and the depth of those relationships) will be the same and he’ll be less likely to come through for you when you need him. Generalist recruiters can be marginally effective earlier in our careers, but are much less so as we ascend into more senior leadership roles.

2. Experience: How long has your recruiter been a recruiter? Five minutes? One year? 10 years or more? The best recruiters I know have been around the block a time or two and have gained the expertise and depth mentioned above through years of networking, relationship building, and flat out success stories. Experience working with executives in a particular industry is also critical. If the recruiter you are thinking of working with doesn’t have this, run – don’t walk – to the nearest exit. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. If your recruiter doesn’t have the experience, you are relying more on luck than competency.

3. Integrity: This is beyond honestly – simple honesty is a given. Integrity means if your recruiter says she’s going to call you at 3:00pm and she doesn’t without letting you know (preferably in advance), drop her. This lack of follow-through is not an isolated incident. It is a pattern in her behavior that extends across all of her relationships. Recruiters must have impeccable integrity and do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it. If she doesn’t, kick her to the curb.

4. Outstanding Brand Identity: Do a little research on the recruiter. LinkedIn and Facebook are great resources. Does he have a well-developed, typo-free profile? Does she manage her online brand well? Are there lots of connections? Maybe a recommendation or two? In this day and age of online brand management, there is just no excuse for your recruiter to have a poorly developed brand. The tools are just too easy to use. Instead, this lack of brand management may point to something deeper ~ there isn’t a brand to manage.

Don’t wait until you need a recruiter to develop a relationship with one. He won’t represent you on every career move, but he should be a person you trust for advice and counsel regardless of where the opportunity originates. Follow the simple tips above and, more often than not, you’ll partner with someone who can add a ton of value and help you navigate each step in your career.

Let me know what you think.