When is a headhunter not a headhunter?

Meet someone who works in recruitment at a dinner party, on the train, or waiting in line at the supermarket and the odds are that they will describe themselves as a headhunter. But headhunting, or executive search, is actually a very specific skill and subset of the recruitment industry. This is something even seasoned buyers are often not fully aware of. Many will hire a ‘headhunter’ without really understanding what it is that they are buying; are they actually getting executive search, or something a little less rarefied?

True headhunting is high touch, time-consuming, highly skilled and therefore, necessarily, expensive. It’s designed to find not just someone who can do the job, but the very best available person for the position. It is focussed and suited to the locating of high value and hard to locate individuals, and so not suited to most roles in the workforce.

So what about all those people who refer to themselves as headhunters? Well, headhunting is one of a number of recruitment methodologies, it just happens to be the most famous, exclusive and expensive. It’s, therefore, the one most recruitment consultants will use to describe themselves, both for ease of understanding and for their own ego. Actually being a recruitment consultant no more makes you a headhunter than being a soldier makes you a member of the special forces.

Different Approaches to Recruitment

If you’re buying recruitment services it’s worth understanding the different methodologies:

The most commonly used, the bedrock of thousands of recruitment agencies, is the database search. This method involves the use of, sometimes rather generic, adverts to build a database of candidates, usually in a specialist sector. These days this is often supplemented by using online commercial databases of candidates; Monster, Jobsite, CV Library etc. It relies on finding people from the narrow pool of individuals currently looking for a job, and thus excludes many of the very best people. Also, the process is only as good as the search parameters, if the recruiter only looks locally they may miss the perfect person living further afield and willing to relocate.

It’s worth noting that this is not just limited to the cheaper end of the market, many ‘old school’ headhunters rely substantially or entirely on their ‘little black book’ of contacts. The people on the list may be paid more, and keeping in contact may involve regular lunches in the City rather than catch up emails, but the theory is the same; both have access to a limited pool of candidates. Their advantage is that these candidates are likely to be available at short notice, but this is not a true headhunt!

The second type of recruiter is known as a ‘Selection’ recruiter. They post a specific advert online, or sometimes still in print media, and wait for replies. This may well be supplemented by a database, and so it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between this and the previous method, but a selection recruiter is focussing on people responding to a specific role. The benefit of this is that all the respondents should have a clear understanding of the position. However, the recruiter is still relying on people looking for a job at that moment, and therefore excluding the vast majority who are contentedly oblivious in their current role. Most recruiters see this as a higher value solution to the database search, but it is still not a headhunt.

The third approach actively uses networking and searching social media, such as LinkedIn, for applicants. Recruiters use search functions in social media to make approaches to people, often supplemented by adverts on these same sites. Again they will often also use wider advertising and databases, building on the previous methods to spread the net. The key benefit offered by this approach is that the recruiter can claim to be proactively approaching candidates; they will call this headhunting. But this is actually only really a step along the path and still not a true headhunt. Research has found that up to two-thirds of LinkedIn profiles are inaccurate or not up to date and whilst it is relatively ubiquitous in some industries and in middle management, in more senior environments many people are not on LinkedIn or have moved to purely private settings. So the best people remain unfortunately elusive.

So why use executive search?

To find them, you really need a true headhunter. Having taken a detailed briefing from the client, covering both what skills and culture are required, a true headhunter researches the breadth of the marketplace. They work to map people in competitors and similar organisations who are in a comparable role or who are looking to move into the role, or with have the right mix of transferable skills. This desk research phase is time-consuming and requires skill, but it builds a detailed picture of the hiring marketplace.

At the end of this phase, the headhunter should have a market map of potential candidates if they can’t show this you should be sceptical as to whether a real headhunt is being carried out. Once they’ve mapped the candidates the headhunter makes approaches, pitching the client and the role, whilst assessing the individuals. This is a delicate task as most of these people are not actively looking for a new position and need to be won over. It’s also time-consuming as it may have to be done forty or fifty times.

Once they are interested a headhunter will assess whether the candidates fit the bill. Of course, recruiters using other methods may or may not conduct a robust interview and assessment processes too, the difference is in the breadth of the pool from which the headhunted candidates are drawn. As a result, a true headhunter will present their client with a shortlist of three to five people who can not only do the job but are the very best people currently available, all of whom should be thoroughly motivated and excited by the opportunity.

Sure, a headhunt can seem expensive, but a true headhunt is worth it, you’re getting the best people out there. Just be sure when you’re looking at engaging a headhunter that they really are what they claim to be, and not just claiming the title, because sometimes a ‘headhunter’ isn’t a headhunter.