Costly? Manipulative? Secretive?

Helen Yallop tackles what she sees as the three great misconceptions about the world of headhunting

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 those three misconceptions, for any service industry requiring a high level of discretion inevitably runs the risk of seeming mysterious.

Confidentiality and tact are central to both the success and 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 in the dark about what headhunting actually involves, and some do not feel comfortable asking about it. But such caution is unnecessary and unhelpful: clients should not be afraid to ask their headhunters about what goes on and how it is achieved.

It is entirely possible for us headhunters to qualify and quantify what we do, and it is not in the interests of our own reputation to operate shrouded in mystery.

Consider costs. They might or might not be negotiable for clients in cash-strapped sectors and circumstances, yet there are several ways of assuring good value for money.

First, anyone paying for a “search” should expect just that. Even if the headhunter could produce a shortlist after making as few as six phone calls, a search should be extensive. It should have a broad international reach, and it should bring the vacancy to the attention of a large number of targeted and appropriate potential candidates.

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 proper research into sectors, communities and industries.

A positive side effect of this work concerns diversity, as headhunters can approach balanced numbers of women and men. Because search is to some extent self-selecting, we cannot ensure a perfect 50-50 split of men and women at the long list stage: the long list represents the best of those who express genuine interest, and interest is often not equally balanced between the sexes.

However, voluminous searches do tend to produce diverse shortlists; diverse not only in sex and other biological criteria, but also in experience and background.

Clients should realise they can learn a lot about their own organisation 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, hear the gossip about it, and get a sense of its perceived reputation.

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

A search is also a great opportunity for clients to manage their public relations. As headhunters are the client’s hired ambassadors, it is advisable for clients to think about how they wish to be represented.

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

It is another commonly held misconception that headhunters persuade (or worse, cajole) less than enthusiastic or wavering candidates into entering discussions with clients.

While it is true that a good headhunter can emphasise aspects of a role likely to appeal to an individual candidate, it is not in their interests or those of the clients to persist with and engage the less than enthusiastic. They tend to drop out of the process, which is costly and inefficient.

For 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 trials and frustrations attached to the role.

Mismanaged or unrealistic expectations can lead to failed appointments – and failed appointments are not only unpleasant and emotionally disruptive but regressive and costly.

Although most headhunters offer to repeat a search for free if an appointee leaves the post within six months, it is more important to appoint a headhunter who presents the vacancy in a positive yet candid light from the outset.

Unsuccessful candidates, for example, 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.”

There might be suspicions that headhunters waste candidates’ time by including no-hopers on long lists in order to bulk them out. However, it is often impossible to judge until very late in the process who the serious contenders 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. Long lists 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 might only be the action of going through the long list in detail that allows the client to refine their thoughts on the kind of background and experience that is going to be most relevant.

Although the business model of executive search is client-driven, and headhunters answer to their clients, candidates are far more than raw materials. Indeed, it is our duty to ensure that there is no distinction between treatment of clients and treatment of candidates. Candidates must be fully informed decision-makers whose individual circumstances we learn and respect.

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

Moreover, they need to be able to see headhunters as advisers and confidantes with whom they might share 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 to make things easy and pleasant. The best indication of our success in this respect is when our candidates go on to become clients.

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