Demystifying the Costly, Secretive Practice of Headhunting

Published: Mar 5, 2023  |  

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At worst, headhunting is seen as expensive, manipulative and secretive: an unscrupulous business of networks and address books, lunches, and cajolery. 

Perhaps the “secrecy” tag is the most justified of the three misconceptions, as any service industry requiring a high level of discretion inevitably runs the risk of seeming mysterious. Confidentiality and tact are central to not only the success but also to the basic operation of executive search. 

Potential candidates cannot be compromised by explicit approaches in the workplace, and anonymity needs to be preserved until late in the process. As far as possible, the hunting has to be imperceptible to all but the hunted.

The unfortunate corollary of this is that many potential clients remain somewhat in the dark about what headhunting actually involves, and some do not feel comfortable asking about it. But such caution is unnecessary and unhelpful: it certainly doesn’t follow that because the practice of headhunting is discreet that there should be any caginess about the theoretical process. 

Clients should not be afraid of asking their headhunters about what goes on and how it is achieved. It is entirely possible for us to qualify and quantify what we do, and it is not in the interests of our own reputation to operate shrouded in mystery.

Costs may or may not be negotiable for clients in cash-strapped sectors and circumstances, yet there are several ways of ensuring good value for money. To start with, anyone paying for a “search” should expect just that. 

Even if the headhunter could produce a shortlist after making as few as six calls, a search should by nature be extensive. It should have a broad international reach, and it should bring the vacancy to a large number of targeted and appropriate potential candidates, whether they are technically in the market or not. 

In terms of scope, “searching” might mean approaching anything from 150 to 300 people (sometimes more). In order to achieve this, search needs to be preceded by the appropriate research into sectors, communities, and industries. If in any doubt about scope, clients should follow my recommendations to audit the headhunters’ work.

Clients should realize that they can learn a lot about their own organization via headhunters. A search can double as an intelligence-gathering exercise. In the course of the many conversations conducted during a search, headhunters will be able to gauge reaction to the client institution in the marketplace, hear the gossip about it, and get a sense for its perceived reputation. 

This is valuable information for clients, and tapping into it is simply a case of asking headhunters for their post-hoc analysis of marketplace perception.

A search is also a great opportunity for clients to manage their PR. As headhunters are hired ambassadors for the client institution, it is advisable for clients to think carefully about how they wish to be thus represented. 

Whereas it is obvious that this should inform the initial selection of a headhunting company (and the individual headhunters), it is sometimes less obvious to clients that they have the opportunity to choose the image they want to project, and brief the headhunters accordingly.

This kind of “added value” can have long-term beneficial effects. A good headhunter can ensure that candidates have a positive experience (regardless of ultimate outcome), and a good experience cemented in the memory can generate interest, business or even funds for the client in future. 

For example, conducting a search for a higher education institution or charity can allow for the gentle articulation of its development strategy to an audience amongst whom there may be potential supporters.

For those about to engage in an executive search, here are a few key points to bear in mind for getting the best out of headhunters:

  1. Find out exactly who will conduct the search process. Will it be the same individuals who pitched the business? And who exactly will be responsible for which parts of the search?
  2. Does the company have an in-house research team?
  3. What is the process; what kind of experience will potential candidates typically have?
  4. Is the headhunter prepared to commit considerable time at briefing stage to fully understand the client and role?
  5. Has any written material that the headhunter is likely to share with candidates been considered and approved?
  6. What does a typical interview involve? Is it formulaic or open and dialogic?
  7. Do mention any particular areas / sectors / individuals you want to make sure the headhunter covers in the search.
  8. Ensure your headhunters are comfortable providing an audit trail so you know the depth and rigor of the work.
  9. Ask for a short post-search report on diversity and marketplace perception.

We’ve covered some of the basics a potential client should address in seeking a headhunter’s services; now we’ll look at the other side of the equation: the candidates. It is a commonly held misconception that headhunters persuade (at worst, cajole) less-than-enthusiastic or wavering candidates into entering discussions with clients. 

Whereas it is undoubtedly true that a good headhunter will have the capacity to emphasize aspects of a role that are likely to appeal to any individual candidate, it is simply not in our interests or those of our clients to persist with and engage the less than enthusiastic.

For exactly the same reasons, headhunters must engage interested candidates in extensive and realistic discussions of client and role. 

It is easy to make a sought-after or prestigious appointment sound attractive; it is more challenging, yet far more important, to be able to have frank and insightful conversations about the quotidian trials and frustrations attendant on the role. Yet mismanaged or unrealistic expectations can lead to failed appointments. 

Failed appointments are not only unpleasant and emotionally disruptive, but also regressive and costly. It is here particularly that our reputation is at stake. Although most headhunters will offer to repeat the search gratis if an appointee leaves the post within six months, it is more important to appoint a headhunter who will take the time and have the insight to present the vacancy in a positive yet candid way from the outset.

Unsuccessful candidates sometimes reflect retrospectively on the validity of their own candidacy. In some cases this prompts thoughts such as, “If I’d known they wanted to appoint the sort of person they have, I’d not have thrown my hat in the ring.” 

No doubt there are suspicions that headhunters waste candidates’ time by including no-hopers on longlists in order to bulk them out. However, it is very often impossible to judge until very, very late in the process who the serious contenders really are. 

For no matter how much time a headhunter spends with the client taking a detailed brief, and regardless of its initial specificity, it often develops in unpredictable ways. Longlists are often deliberately diverse and allow the headhunter to show the client range and scope: what and who they can get for their money. 

It may only be the action of going through the longlist in detail that allows the client to refine their thoughts on the kind of background and experience that is going to be most relevant.

Lastly, although the business model of executive search is a client-driven one, and it is ultimately to our clients that we answer, a good headhunter always remembers that candidates are far more than raw materials. 

Indeed, it is our duty to ensure that there is no distinction between our treatment of clients and our treatment of candidates. Candidates must be fully informed decision makers whose individual circumstances we learn and respect. 

Those who go through (often long and arduous) processes need to have considerable faith in their headhunter’s ability to guide them through it, keep them fully informed, and to communicate with them regularly.

Moreover, candidates need to be able to see us as advisors and confidantes with whom they may share often quite sensitive or personal information, along with the gamut of hopes, desires, and fears that interviewing engenders. 

Often intuitive by nature and acutely aware of how a recruitment process can be a life-changing experience for candidates, headhunters are trained in how to make things easy and pleasant. The best indication of our success in this respect? When our candidates go on to become clients.

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