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I’d expected more headhunters to call

It’s not an unusual plea. Every month, I must hear it a couple of times. There are some senior executives who thought that this was THE way in which their peers found their next roles. Now, at the end of their six month ‘garden leave’ they are wondering why the phone isn’t ringing?

Let’s begin by considering how much headhunting goes on. Headhunting has always been an exclusive process. When exclusivity is appropriate, then it is the definitive means of finding a new candidate. In specialist sectors, targeting new markets, and looking for someone who has the right quality and quantity of possible connections, then a headhunter will be the ideal choice. However, times have changed.

Nowadays, transparency, stakeholder awareness, governance structures, political and public pressure, media attention, and a myriad of other factors demand organisations to be more open about who, and why, they have appointed someone to a position. Even in the world of non-executive directors, which has traditionally been fed by this profession, there is a recognition that the NED is a dying breed and instead ‘independent’ directors are being sought by more open means.

The world is also a far bigger place. There are more firms looking, more people of exceptional calibre, and the nature of institutional management has become far more complex. It is very likely that an Indian MBA graduate, with some international experience in a professional advisory role in a large, but privately owned, multinational who has then gone on to an ‘executive programme’ at an international business school will be one of the ideal candidates. What’s more, they are as likely to be female as male. Finding them is a challenge, and while the headhunter has undoubtedly the skills to do so, so too do most senior recruitment firms – what’s more, those firms have the technology to do so quickly and at a lower cost. There will always be examples that prove the opposite – a high calibre celebrity who brings both profile and intellect might be an example, but the days of scanning the list of Sandhurst-educated sons of City insurers who are just about to end their short-service commission, are pretty much over.

In times of financial austerity too, the fees commanded (rightly I’m sure) by the headhunters are probably beyond the budget of most businesses taking a risky decision about who to entrust with their leadership through difficult waters. Faced with a £25k to £35k bill for finding the right person, most Group HR Directors will be tempted to give other avenues a try first!

In these times, too, there is an abundance of well qualified people readily available – I put a few provisos on this below, but there remains a larger talent pool from which headhunters can draw – so someone who MIGHT have been within their catchment five years ago is probably well below it today.

For the out-of-work senior executive getting headhunted is a bit of a fantasy. If the circumstances were clear and genuine then a prolonged ‘garden leave’ is excusable (being ‘silent’ throughout it is not). But a quick phone call can usually establish the facts and a nine month (or longer) gap in a CV is a serious problem at the top end of the ladder. Headhunters are very definitely not stupid either and seeing a long gap, with three months of work as Fred Bloggs Associates doesn’t impress.

Most headhunting is of people in post. It makes it easier to find them, their contacts (always an important aspect of any senior level appointment) are current, their knowledge is up-to-date, their experience is contemporary, and their performance can be more easily verified. So much is changing in governance, marketing, and employment that someone who has been out of work for 12 months is at serious risk of being beyond their sell-by date.

Even those few people who were on the potential radar of headhunters have often inadvertently sabotaged their own chances of being sought. Do you remember that call one day a few months ago when someone called asking if you could help them in a search for a new Financial Director? You were a bit stressed at the time and dismissed them with a “Not now, I’m busy!” After all, you aren’t an FD – how stupid could they have been? Well, while no headhunter can afford to harbour any grudges, they do manage their time very carefully. This time, they are looking for a CEO for a really exciting venture with fantastic potential and they are going to draw up a list of a dozen people to call and ask for suggestions from. They have a few dozen to choose from and you ‘wasted’ their time already…

A lot of senior executives confuse recruiters with head hunters. The two are very different. Recruiters may be interested in you, but they work with far more people, charge far less, rely on technology more, and will rarely call you – you need to drive the process.

And on that merry note, I need to turn this article around. You CAN drive the process. There’s a bit of groundwork to do, but I firmly believe that with the right approach and the right effort almost anyone (though I am personally concerned with senior executives) can land a role and do so quickly. The answer is not to focus on intermediaries (like agencies, recruiters, and headhunters) but to go for ambassadors (people who know you, like you, and trust you) who will put the word around (and keep their eyes and ears open) on your behalf. I’ve written this all up in my short e-book, “The Senior Executive’s Emergency Job Hunt”, which is freely available if you visit my website: There’s more free help there too.

Best wishes
Graham Wilson – 07785 222380

1 comment to I’d expected more headhunters to call

  • Dear Graham,

    an interesting article, one which I can relate to (as a recruiter) having watched the recruitment landscape shift dramatically on at least 2 occasions during the last decade.

    I wonder whether or not you might like to speak or become involved with The I Am Group at one of our upcoming events (4 April or 10 May – or the general monthly networking events)? All details are on the website:

    Anyway, I would welcome a discussion at some point – but will leave the ball in your court!

    Kind regards,

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