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June 3, 2024

Hunting the Headhunter: What Should HR Managers Look Out For


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Recruiters and headhunters have long driven the dynamic flow of the workforce. Although both aim for the same goal—a successful match between employer and employee—they play distinct roles in the hiring process. A headhunter, unlike a recruiter, seeks out talent who may not be actively job hunting. These could be professionals with specific skills or traits that match a particular job vacancy. Typically, headhunters focus on middle to higher management positions, where the emphasis is on candidates’ experience and track record.

By leveraging extensive networks, headhunters approach executives who aren’t necessarily considering a job change, presenting them with new career opportunities on their client’s behalf. This article will explore the terms of engagement for headhunters and what hiring managers should look for when selecting a headhunter.

Headhunters and Traditional Recruiters

Headhunters use their extensive networks to identify top performers typically in senior and higher management positions. They act as a third party to the hiring company in identifying talents through their vast networks. Individuals demonstrating exceptional skills and leadership within their existing roles are often sought by headhunters in search of specialised skills, talent and a good track record. Though such employees may not be actively seeking a career switch, their outstanding performance makes them prime candidates for recruitment.

Headhunters identify candidates who meet specific requirements set by the hiring company, presenting them with job proposals on the company’s behalf. They leverage deep connections with both companies and candidates to ensure a suitable fit before making a compelling case to the hiring company on their recommendation.

Headhunters identify candidates who may not be actively seeking a career change
Headhunters identify candidates who may not be actively seeking a career change

In contrast, recruiters handle a broader hiring process where they screen applicants and their CVs, shortlist likely candidates for interviews, and facilitate the overall hiring process. Recruiters typically work with individuals actively seeking jobs, matching them to the job’s prerequisites. They would typically reach out to candidates through their existing databases, referrals and advertisements. Traditional recruiters act as intermediaries facilitating the job search process between clients and candidates. Unlike headhunters, recruiters may not be limited to a particular level or position of vacancy in a company.

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Terms of Engagement

Headhunters and recruiters operate under different terms of engagement and are remunerated differently. Internal recruiters are on a hiring company’s payroll, while external recruiters can be hired on a retainer basis – which is ideal for companies with frequent hiring needs. Contingent recruiters are remunerated when a vacancy is successfully filled. In either case, a recruiter would be paid based on a percentage of the successful hire’s remuneration.

Headhunting can take longer as it involves a deeper understanding of needs and requirements for the role
Headhunting can take longer as it involves a deeper understanding of the needs and requirements for the role

Headhunting, a common term for executive search, can take longer as it involves a deeper engagement with the hiring company, understanding its needs and requirements for the role, and often providing consultancy on finding the right hire. They too act as intermediaries, reaching out to potential candidates to gauge interest in transitioning to a new employer. Executive search firms also handle initial candidate screening, negotiate salary and benefits packages, and assist in preparing employment contracts.

The unique position recruiters and headhunters fulfil, unlike other service professionals such as lawyers and marketers, is that they do not just advocate or represent one party – the client. Their success is in ensuring that it is a win for all parties – the employees and employers. Their objective is not merely in finding employees for employers, but in resolving the needs of the client.

Identifying Your Needs

Before hiring a headhunter, a company must have clarity about its needs. What role are you looking to hire? What are the crucial requirements for this role? Are there specific problems are you hoping to address by hiring this candidate? Is there an achievable outcome demonstrated by another company or organisation that you hope to achieve? Are there specific knowledge gaps that require particular expertise? Is there a leadership transition that needs to be resolved by hiring a leader with a stellar track record?

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By diagnosing the core reasons for filling a particular vacancy, the hiring manager and headhunter can determine the candidate’s profile and gain a clearer picture of the company’s expectations for the hire.

Potential hires at this level will prioritise career progression and opportunities. If they have been successful in their current companies, there must be a compelling reason for them to switch careers.

Without accurately identifying the hiring needs, finding a suitable candidate becomes a shot in the dark. You may end up hiring someone who, despite possessing good qualities and charisma, is not the right fit. A misfit will eventually leave, bringing the company back to square one. This bleak outcome results in a waste of resources, including money, energy, and time.

For potential hires who have been successful in their current companies, there must be a compelling reason for them to switch careers
For potential hires who have been successful in their current companies, there must be a compelling reason for them to switch careers

What to Look Out For

Once you have identified your needs, the next step is to evaluate potential headhunters based on their expertise and track record. Here are key factors to consider:

Understanding Soft Skills

  • Balancing hard and soft skills: A job has 2 aspects – the hard skills to work on the job and the soft skills to work with others during the job. Most headhunters deal with hard skills only but good agencies must also consider the company culture, working style of the immediate manager, and other behavioural characteristics needed to succeed (e.g. introvert vs. extrovert, people person or result-driven, etc.).

Industry Specialisation

  • Relevance: Does the headhunter specialise in your industry? Beyond technical knowledge, does the headhunter understand the behavioural traits needed to succeed in that industry? Does the job description specify the required traits? A headhunter with a niche specialisation in behavioural traits can increase your chances of finding a suitable candidate.

Track Record

  • Proven Success: Does the headhunter have a strong track record of matching suitable candidates to companies? Consider their turnaround time between the job search and successful hires. Assess their headhunting processes, the challenges faced and how they overcame them. A reliable track record indicates an understanding of your greater needs in matching soft and hard skills. This gives a higher likelihood of positive long-term results.
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Network and Resources

  • Connections: How well-connected is your headhunter? Experienced headhunters should have reliable networks within relevant industries. Understanding their process and the extent of their reach is important. While headhunting can be time-consuming compared to traditional recruitment, a good headhunter will efficiently utilise various resources to find the right candidates.
Good headhunters have reliable networks within relevant industries.
Good headhunters have reliable networks within relevant industries.

Checking Credentials

  • Certification: While certification isn’t mandatory for recruiters, it can be a valuable asset, indicating formal training and a commitment to developing their skills. What qualifications do they have for assessing behavioural traits? These certifications and affiliations enhance their ability to find qualified candidates. Validating these credentials and affiliations can improve your candidate search.

Client Testimonials

  • Feedback: Client testimonials provide insights into the headhunter’s effectiveness. Look for red or green flags from past clients. Testimonials from both hiring companies and placed employees are valuable for determining if a headhunter is worth your investment.

Case Studies

  • Examples of Success: Review case studies of successful placements by the headhunters you are considering. Each recruitment process is unique, presenting different challenges and opportunities. By understanding their methods and outcomes, you can make informed decisions about the best approach to finding your candidate.

Choose Wisely

The success of your business hinges on the talents and expertise you hire. Employees can significantly impact your growth and sustainability, making it crucial to find the right candidates. Retaining talent is easier than constantly seeking new hires, and having the right resources to guide your hiring process is essential for building your business. Choose headhunters wisely, as they can help you form your company’s A-team. For more resources and consultation on engaging headhunters or exploring other recruitment options, contact us today!