What headhunters really do … and what they don’t

What headhunters really do … and what they don’t

March 27, 2017

Some of you probably remember the classic paper describing a typical day of a general manager. Apparently they don’t do anything “special” – they mostly just talk to people. John Kotter puts it as follows: they get things done through a large and diverse group of people despite having little direct control over most of them. A headhunter’s job is similar, with the small difference that we have even less direct control. But by and large we do the same – talk to people most of the time – clients, candidates, prospective candidates, prospective clients, or just nice and interesting people we happen to meet who might fit into one of these categories. Sometimes they actually fit, in succession, into several of these – a candidate turns into a client, or a client becomes interested in new challenges and turns into a candidate. And so on.

Everything is self-evident if you have been headhunting for years, as I have. Sometimes I am surprised by the prejudices toward our trade, which are based on not understanding the basics. That’s the reason for this post.

A few of the things we don’t do.

We don’t just “sell the candidates from our database”

This seems to be the most widespread misunderstanding about our work that we look at who has sent in his resume lately and try to sell this information to a client. That’s not really our business, we are not realtors, but there are people around who do just that. Beware of these fake headhunters!

Yes, we do a lot of networking and we do know lots of people. We also are attentive to rumours about who is dissatisfied with his or her position or boss or just looking for a career move. We keep our eyes on companies going through restructuring as people there tend to be more open to new challenges. Of course we maintain a database of contacts and resumes where we happily include information sent to us. But the latter is just one of our sources for building a long list for an assignment, far from being our key asset.

We don’t find jobs for people

If you have sent in a resume, please don’t expect a job offer next week. This might happen, but it is more an exception than not. Our clients are businesses looking for new talent. We can’t do our job without candidates. They are our good partners, but we can’t serve both sides of the process. Candidates will benefit from our work, but as headhunters, our focus is on serving the client who has commissioned us.

What we actually do

We carry out research to build a contact list for each assignment

Data is available for everyone, and if we know about an executive on the move, many others will know as well. Our professionalism is not in having someone’s phone number but in our expertise in understanding how the candidate’s abilities fulfil our client’s needs. We can answer the following questions:

  • What kind of person is needed (competencies, personality)?
  • Where might he/she be (working) today?
  • How can they be best accessed?

Knowing (how to ge to) the answers and having the necessary skills, we’ll find a solution efficiently. We usually have several people working on an assignment to build a list of between 30 and 50 prospective candidates to contact.

We reach out to many people and many of them decide to consider a change.

We call everyone on our long list and most of the people are happy to receive our call, even if they haven’t thought about a move. Usually the people we reach out to are pleased to meet us. At the same time, they probably wouldn’t talk directly to our clients, who are often their direct competitors. They are still content to discuss their career situation and perspectives with us. We are good sparring partners for these talks. Some of them tend to move to “candidate mode” for the assignment we are working on, and for some others we might agree on a follow up call after some time. We often end up having between seven and ten candidates on our final list. Then we shorten this to about five to present only the best.

We help the client to make a final decision and make a deal with the best candidate.

The happy day when we introduce candidates is not the end of our work. A manager who is too busy or has the wrong attitude might spoil the fragile relationship at this point, and end up losing the preferred candidate. One can also make a wrong decision based on human errors in interview process. We therefore tend to be closely involved to help make the important decision quickly. With employment negotiations, our expertise is handy again – these talks are not an everyday thing to our clients or candidates. We can be the trusted advisor for both sides and facilitate the process to mutual satisfaction.

To summarise – the headhunting process is not rocket science: you only need a professional headhunter with whom you can build a good professional relationship. You should also have a great business with a good reputation as an employer and – last but not least – an attractive offer for your new hire.