‘HEAD-HUNTING’, aka ‘executive search’, is the process of identifying, enticing and securing senior executives into key positions. And ‘retained executive search’ is where an external search firm is paid an up-front fee to fill a business critical appointment.
To be ‘head-hunted’ should be applied only to someone who has been specifically identified for a particular position, approached for that role then hired into the company – unlike an active job seeker applying to a company or being introduced via a staffing firm.
Head-hunting is widely used at senior levels, where the impact upon business performance can be as much as 40%! Where a successful appointment may result in a positive impact of up to 20%, conversely a poor one could be minus 20%! The more senior the appointment the greater the stakes, which is why head-hunting is so highly valued – says Robert Tearle pictured centre.
The best talent isn’t always available on the jobs market, so head-hunters will also seek out those high performers who are heads down and happy! A good search firm will explore the best talent, regardless of whether the person is employed or in between jobs.
The days of relying on the old boys’ network to find that exceptional candidate are long gone – we are now experiencing a third generation of head-hunting. After the old boys’ network came a more scientific approach, more comprehensive, structured and often ruthless. But that method is already out of date: in today’s connected on-line world job seekers use networks like Linkedin, which complements conventional people networks and traditional referral techniques, enabling a head-hunter to achieve shortlists in weeks as opposed to months.
The starting point is research: looking at the industry sectors where the target candidate is likely to be found, and at the companies which operate in those sectors. Research is the key to work sources (conventional and on-line) and to leverage referrals. Head-hunters are tasked with finding candidates who are exactly right – well-qualified with relevant experience and strong track records in a closely aligned field: i.e. square pegs for square holes.
You’ll come across the term “research” and in the context of head-hunting, this means identifying and approaching prospective candidates. In all but very small firms or independents, invariably head-hunting firms have employees dedicated to research (researchers).
Best practice will incorporate taking soundings on ideas and prospective candidates throughout the process – in particular taking views not only on where the best candidates may be found but importantly how well qualified people may be. Soundings enable head-hunters to build quality into the search at an early stage and cross referencing (taking multiple soundings, from different people, with different relationships / reporting lines and in different eras) ensures a holistic view.
The process of identifying people and thoroughly vetting them is time-consuming and requires high level assessment.
This demands a depth of knowledge and breadth of experience beyond the limited perspectives of people who may have worked for only one or two organisations, or at best a handful of environments. At the high end, head-hunters tend to be well qualified, possess significant knowledge of their domain and are subject matter experts. Even if the people running the businesses have the relevant skills they don’t have the time nor can they afford the distraction – the more business critical the position, the greater the value the head-hunter can add.
At the time of writing this article, the top 10 executive search firms are Korn Ferry International, Spencer Stuart, Heidrick & Struggles, Egon Zehnder International, Russell Reynolds, Odgers Berndston, IIC Partners, Whitehead Mann, DHR International and Highland Partners. These are big global players who recruit mainly for big global companies. There are also specialist ‘boutique’ head-hunting firms for vertical markets and in particular disciplines.
Charges are typically 33% of the salary, split into three parts, the first one payable on retaining the search company. At the top end of the market (salaries above $300k) the work is almost without exception retained. However, at mid and lower management levels it’s not unusual for assignments to be undertaken without a retainer and even on a non-exclusive basis.
Things you should know!
If you are being interviewed by a search firm, you must seek to impress them. It’s not a dress rehearsal – they decide who to put forward and recommend!
There are a couple of simple ways to reach the radar of head-hunters: make sure you have a good Linkedin profile, and register yourself on BlueSteps, an on-line register of executives used by top end search firms.
Things you didn’t know!
For the most senior executive appointments, it’s not unheard of for head-hunters to also look at people working inside the company for whom they are recruiting!
Often head-hunters are commissioned to use a cloak and dagger approach: to confidentially seek out a new hire without the incumbent being aware that they are being replaced.
If you’d like to know more, click below to read our 7 Stage executive search process (PDF)