A guide to headhunting

There are three main reasons to employ the services of a headhunter: you need a high-performing individual at management level or above; the role to be filled can only be done by a few specialists; or, if the person currently occupying the post is as yet unaware that their days are numbered.

How to headhunt

The first step in the process is to find the right headhunter, which is generally done through recommendations from associates in the same or similar industry. The chosen headhunter will then meet with the stakeholders or directors of the client company to compile the criteria of required personal and professional characteristics.

Armed with this ‘shopping list’, the headhunter goes to the required industry area and researches, through published articles, awards and a network of existing contacts, where the talent is. A long-list of, say, 80 candidates is produced and divided into A, B and C leagues, depending on the company they work for and how high they have risen within it.

The client and headhunter then whittle this down to a shortlist of around 20, who will then be sent a comprehensive brief of the client company in question (without including the name of the business) and what it is looking for. Of these 20, perhaps eight will be interested and will be invited to an interview with the headhunter to establish whether their interest is genuine.

At interview, the candidate’s technical competence, management style and key personal characteristics will be assessed. Some headhunters will run a psychological test to give a more scientific result.

The two or three who survive this process will go through to a second (and possibly third or fourth) interview with both the headhunter and the client company. From this, the client will make its final decision, with the headhunter even helping the successful candidate with their resignation.

The research takes between three and five weeks, explains Jim Kay, director of Trojan, a London-based headhunting firm with over 30 years’ experience. The rest of the process lasts around six or eight weeks, bearing in mind that most senior executives are not easy people to contact.

The costs

Costs are estimated to be around 30 per cent of the salary (including bonuses and other perks). For this reason, it is of the utmost importance that the headhunter is chosen carefully. Kay advises avoiding the ‘old boy network’ in favour of an outfit that will dedicate time to thorough research of the industry. He also believes that a good level of after-care is a major plus point.

‘Be careful that the headhunter is not faced with a conflict of interests, recruiting from companies it also represents,’ he adds. ‘And you don’t want a headhunter who recruits a star performer for you but then poaches them away again six months later for another company.

‘However, it has become more difficult to tempt good people away from their current employers as companies know they cannot afford to lose talent that’s few and far between these days.’ Increasingly, he says, ‘it’s not about money, it’s about work/life balance and related issues that attract and keep the best senior executives.’

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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