Understanding Headhunting

Published on: 13 Nov 2013

Head Hunters - or Executive Search Consultants - as they are more formally known - are assignment driven. Their first priority is to obtain a top role from their client companies. Finding the best person in the whole market who can deliver on all the qualities on their client’s list of requirements then should follow, in that order, as opposed to proactively taking candidates to corporations with a view to creating a specific role around that individual’s strengths.
These firms sit at the peak of the recruitment industry pyramid, moving highly paid executives, who are typically earning £130k basic minimum to over £1m+. In line with the level at which they operate, and their expertise, head hunters also charge the highest fees of any type of recruitment agency.

Originally an American concept, Spencer Stuart was imported from the US to the UK in the 60s, by a Tory MP. Others on this model quickly followed including Korn Ferry, Russell Reynolds and Heidrick & Struggles, some employing up to 400 people in the UK alone, with multiple offices throughout the world. Their business models are based on "practices" that specialise in industry sectors, matrixed by disciplines, backed up by a skilled and experienced research department.

The Swiss, with the same basic principle but with an entirely different partnership philosophy, began Egon Zehnder soon after, a firm that was well established by the early 80s and remains highly respected today.

Amongst other leading firms, Odgers Berndtson, as they are currently known in the UK, was an amalgam of two firms, Ray & Berndtson and Odgers, the later being originally a Financial Recruitment specialist at all levels, named after its English owner - as indeed was Whitehead Mann, who now have amalgamated with Korn Ferry. Both the latter entered the top market much later than the originators of the sector.

Today, there are approximately 500 "Executive Search" firms, but the significant players number no more than 30 or so. Some of the very best are small and know their candidates and their specialist markets extremely well. Each Consultant, Principal or Partner within a Practice tends to specialise in an industry or discipline and whilst some share candidate information within their firm, others do not.

Search" or "Head-Hunting" actually means picking up the telephone, talking to employed executives as a result of researching employers and their current senior executive teams and asking something along the lines of "do you know somebody who...", to build the firm’s own network and feedback relating directly to their current or potential assignments. The target candidate is seldom the one that has received this approach. Some real time is invested by the Search firm in researching and validating candidate capabilities and a shortlist of possible candidates is presented and the best of those candidates chosen by the employer. However, on occasion, a candidate may withdraw at the final stage.

For a top candidate, sending a cv without invitation, is of little value, as the likelihood of a relevant assignment coinciding with the receipt of the cv is received is negligible.

It is extremely rare for an Executive Search consultant to interview a candidate without an assignment as the driving factor. A top executive is therefore at a substantial disadvantage when undertaking a job search as both access and information is lacking. It is impossible for any individual to have any detailed knowledge of the totality of relevant roles available either in the UK or overseas at any given moment in time at the top levels as they are both widely spread and by their very type, hidden.

A reasonably recent development within the higher end of the Recruitment Industry is "Contingency Recruitment". There are some very professional firms in this arena and they often obtain excellent placement results, by approaching the Employer directly, without an assignment, but with a good executive who they know will fit well into that organisation. Their validation process is just as thorough, but it is undertaken on a personal basis rather than by a researcher who has been employed to do such a role.

The difficulty for a Senior Executive in addressing this market is knowing where to locate relevant firms and who their contacts are.

In the £75K to low six figure bracket, where Executive Recruitment is known as Search and Selection, most jobs are advertised and a number, although by no means all firms are familiar names - there are approximately 500 additional Executive Recruitment firms at this level. Implicitly, "Selection" means choice of candidate as a result of the response to an advertisement as well as a data base search. A good example of "selection" is Michael Page, who advertise all their recruitment vacancies.

Finally, and perhaps importantly, due to the downturn in demand in the Executive Job Market, coupled with the economic conditions, employers have become more cost aware and sometimes to recruit from other sources outside traditional routes As an outcome of these factors, the Executive Search as well as they Search & Selection firms have been in a great deal of turmoil over the past year. At the top, a number have significantly cut their staff numbers and have ceased some specialist areas altogether. Some firms have amalgamated with others, some have risen phoenix-like out of the ashes, whilst others have ceased to exist, and profits, which were large in the heyday, have dropped dramatically, sometimes to a loss. A small few have bought others, doubling or trebling in size, taking advantage of the weaker businesses and markets.

Although there are still areas where the market is less buoyant, there are definitely signs now of recovery in key areas of the market as a whole. There is a resurgence in the need for experienced management that can quickly assimilate tough business requirements and companies are again prepared to spend money on specific, professional expertise.

The new concentration of recruitment consultants in these rejuvenated businesses and the upturn in the market can only benefit the cause of top-flight executives. Quality consultants are keen to place quality candidates in challenging roles, and whilst their maximum resource is given to obtaining the gradual increasing number of top assignments, reputation for true delivery is more important than ever.

This article was provided by InterExec, the highly respected Career Strategists and Executive Agents, who have confidentially managed the careers of top international executives since 1976.

For further information, please go to www.interexec.co.ukor telephone +22 (0)20 7256 9972)