29 May 2020

Not all Headhunters are Equal

The term Headhunter is subject to many differing interpretations. I should start by saying that no, we don’t shrink heads and we definitely don’t kill people for money. Yes, I’ve been asked both.

Headhunting is a specific type of recruitment that is arguably more about quality than quantity. It is not volume recruitment or large numbers of suitable candidates. It’s about focused searches, for particular roles, usually at the top end of seniority, where the skill set is likely to mean a limited pool of suitable candidates.

You may hear people say that that they were headhunted. This means they were directly approached about a role which might be of interest to them. A true Headhunter will already have conducted due diligence to ascertain that they have the requisite skill set. They didn’t apply for it directly; they were asked to apply for it.

Even people within the industry know that not everyone that refers to themselves as a Headhunter really is one. Headhunters can provide an array of differing services so when the time comes for you to talk to one, you need to make sure that you are speaking to the right one.

Gone are the days of the old school Headhunter with a coveted little black book, the names inside revealing the very best and worst of industry candidates, who was paid what and where the next big ‘thing’ was going to happen. Clandestine meetings would culminate in a gentleman’s handshake and a suitably highbrow candidate being introduced to the business. Now we have to work much harder!

In essence there are two types of Headhunter; Generalists and Specialists. Generalists work across most industry sectors at senior levels. They have a vast array of contacts and can turn their hand to most searches by following well thought out, methodical practices. It is likely that they will work on specific mandates at any one time. That means that a company has a specific hiring need, the role profile has been written and the Headhunter is actively looking at what suitable candidates are out there. They will be aware of market trends and should be able to give you sage, industry advice.

Then there are the Specialists who are fully immersed in one or more particular sectors – they know all the companies, all the movers and shakers and rarely does anything happen in their sector without them knowing about it. They will work on direct mandates but will also be able to make speculative introductions. They will know the right candidates to introduce to a business which could result in a placement either in the short or long term. Both are useful as long as you are asking the right questions of each.

If you are considering a career change and as yet haven’t definitively decided on what sectors you have an interest in, then a Generalist would be able to introduce you to multiple sectors. If you are very clear on what your sector interests are, then a Specialist could help you target them.

Consider the following when approaching a Headhunter:

  • What is it you actually want them to do for you? It is not a Headhunter’s job to get you a job so don’t expect to speak to lots of Headhunters and then sit back and wait for the opportunities to roll in.
  • Headhunters are there to help you but you need to make sure that you are asking the right questions of the right person. They are great market sounding boards including how active a particular market currently is. You can also ask their advice regarding salary expectations given they are already immersed in the market. What level of salary can someone with your skill set look to command? What are the top levels paid? You do however need to accept that using a Headhunter is not a quick fix and you will have to be aware that you are not necessarily their priority.
  • Be selective about the Headhunters you speak to. Choose around 3 headhunters that you are confident will market you appropriately in the market. It is important that you maintain control over who is representing you, so you know at all times who they are discussing you with. This is not the time to spread bet. Consider yourself a commodity so keep control of that product.
  • Do you know anyone that has previously had a successful relationship with a Headhunter – if so, ask for an introduction.
  • Proactively manage your relationships with the Headhunter(s). Agree a strategy with them on how to approach the market. Get their advice on your CV. Again, it is not for them to write it for you but they can advise on structure and content. Create timeframes which you are both accountable for. Maintain contact with them even if it is just a quick catchup call.
  • Understand from them whether they know of any specific roles, currently being appointed that they would consider putting you forward for or whether they are going to speculatively introduce you.
  • Ask them if they have any particular contacts they can immediately introduce you to. Make sure these are genuinely useful introductions.
  • Link in with them on LinkedIn. You want their contacts to be aware of you and vice versa.
  • Ask them if they are the right Headhunter to represent you. You won’t offend them and it could avoid disappointment on both sides. They may well guide you towards a Headhunter that would be better suited to help you.
  • Do not part with any money. A true Headhunter will get their fee from successfully introducing you to a business. There is absolutely no reason for them to command a fee for representing you.
  • You will still need to actively manage your job search and you should never pin your hopes on one opportunity. Keep them abreast of your activity. If you come across a stumbling block, for example a specific company you want to speak to but don’t know the right person to approach, ask for the Headhunter’s advice. They may have a route in for you.

The market is always evolving and there is advice out there for anyone needing help navigating the world of recruitment.

Consider Headhunters as part of your team, helping you with your next career move. Ask the right questions of them and you’re more likely to get useful advice. If you find that someone isn’t acting on your behalf the way you would like, let them know. A quick, polite email to say you would rather they no longer forwarded your details to anyone will suffice. Then you can move on and find someone else more adept at representing you who can help you be a head worth hunting.


By Leo Gilliat – Research and Development Director at 18-07 Careers & MD at Gilliat Moray Executive Search.

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