A business acquaintance of mine who recently considered using a Headhunter for the first time asked me to advise how he could find the right Headhunter partner for him. When I answered, I simultaneously wondered how much the industry had evolved and changed over the years. Here are a few of my thoughts. Many of the people working as executive search consultants today hadn’t even been born when I started in the executive search industry 🙂 Most people had never even heard the word Headhunter. Even many business leaders didn’t know what headhunters were doing back then.

Nowadays, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know the word Headhunting, but precisely what it means is still unclear to many. Many new actors have entered the industry, and the service product we call Headhunting can nowadays vary a lot from company to company. This has brought new useful alternatives to business recruitment needs. But at the same time, the concept of Headhunting has also become vaguer and more unclear, especially if you are someone who for the first time or rarely deals with executive search.

In the old days, Headhunting and so-called public search, advertised search via newspaper, were two completely different products. Today, many Headhunters (Executive Search companies) also use newspaper advertisements as part of their recruiting services. Some offer both Headhunting and advertised search at the same time as a hybrid product. To avoid any misunderstanding, I want to point out that when a Headhunter searches for candidates via advertisements, whether in a magazine or on social media, this is not Headhunting, this is an advertised search. Here it is the advertisement that “searches” for candidates.

For me, the word Headhunting refers to a recruiting process, where the search consultant first conducts candidate research by which he/she develops a candidate target list. Then the search consultant confidentially reaches out to the persons on this target list. The persons on the list have not applied for the job, and the first time they hear about it is when the search consultant calls them and asks, “might you be interested in discussing this issue”.

In the “old days,” the Headhunter approached mostly the top executive management. Nowadays, Headhunting is done at all levels of a company, starting at the lowest level and for all kinds of tasks. Coders, nurses or even welders can be recruited by “Headhunting”. Although many new companies with different “Headhunting concepts” have entered the industry, many search companies are still explicitly focusing on searching for top management. These companies have not gone anywhere. In my mind, when the words Executive Search and Headhunter are used in the same sentence, we still talk of a search assignment for senior executive management. I may be old-fashioned, but for me, the word executive refers to senior executive management.

Success in senior executive management search assignments often has a business-critical significance. Although failing in lower-level recruitment is not a good thing, failing in a CEO recruitment of a billion-dollar company may, in a worst-case scenario, lead to thousands of people becoming unemployed. I can tell you from my own experience that one also feels this heavy responsibility when carrying out such a search assignment. In CEO searches, some executive search companies, as a rule, also include interviewing the board members as part of the search process to ensure the assignment’s success. Recruiting senior executive management is often a trade secret, and executive search is used when you don’t want to reveal what you’re doing to your competitors and the market.

In Headhunting, in all recruitments and at all levels, in senior executive management, middle management, lower managerial levels, as well as in entry-level jobs, a high level of professional expertise is equally needed to achieve high-quality and good results, but different job levels may require a different kind of skills. Rarely, if ever, does the same person possess all skills regarding all jobs and levels. Headhunters also specialise. Not only in different tasks, functions, and industries but also in different job levels. Companies in all industries specialise and offer different service concepts. This is now also the case in the executive search industry.

Of course, an executive search company can search for both CEOs and entry-level employees, but that said, the bigger the companies are when searching for people for executive management level jobs, the more demanding the search consultant task profile and assignment becomes. This is directly reflected in the search consultant’s competence profile and the work required of the search consultant. Search assignments for e.g., CEOs or board members of large, listed companies, require a very different type of professional expertise, experience, business expertise, business network and perspective of the search consultant than when searching for entry-level persons. The use of time, the search process, and the content of work are also different. Good business expertise and an excellent overall understanding of the business world are essential here. In fact, before entering the Executive Search industry, many search consultants who specialise in executive management level searches have worked in executive management level jobs, thus having a first-hand personal experience of what working in an executive management team means.

In lower-level searches digital skills/methods and data sources are often more important. Of course, digitalisation is important in executive management searches too, but the emphasis is different.

The lowest price for a search assignment can be less than €10,000, while a search assignment for a CEO for a large, listed company can cost up to €100,000 – €150,000. So, we are not talking about the same service and work done throughout the whole price range, although the name Headhunting might so suggest. For a recruiting company (or candidate) who is about to contact Headhunter, what this means is not so clear at all.

Before contacting a Headhunter, it is vital to have a crystal-clear understanding of what it is you want from them and why. If you then happen to walk through “a wrong door”, any decent search consultant worth his/her salt will advise you to “the right door”. But even the best search consultant can’t know what a customer wants if the customer doesn’t know it him/herself. So, you must always do your homework properly. Well then, how do you know who’s the right search consultant for you? Below a few thoughts on what to consider when evaluating your options. I will start with what I think is most important, but all the factors mentioned are essential.

KEY FACTOR: My long experience in Executive Search has taught me that the success and the high quality of products and services of any company are always due to the people working in that company. Search companies typically showcase their staff on their website, so start here. Is there someone you think can solve your recruitment needs? If the career presentation of the person concerned is very brief, remember to ask about it in more detail if you meet the search consultant.

COMPANY SIZE: The size or ranking list position of a company does not tell the whole truth. Of course, a big and successful search company usually correlates with good work, but even a small locally operating search company can offer excellent and top-quality service. Neither should we hesitate to check new executive search companies that may have recently entered the industry. Although I will not advertise anyone by name here, I know that some excellent actors exist among them.

EXPERTISE: Check out if the search company has previously done the type of assignments you are interested in. If not, this does not necessarily mean that it cannot solve your recruitment needs successfully. Still, in this case, the skills and potential of the company need to be studied particularly closely.

LOCATION: I have successfully conducted searches in many countries from Finland, where I live, so the location of the search company is not necessarily always a critical factor. That said, often, conducting a search assignment in a specific area, a country, a restricted area in that country or even within a particular town requires excellent knowledge of the local business world/praxis and the candidate potential. The search consultant can usually only get this knowledge by working in the area in question or having an excellent network of people with the needed knowledge. Always check this factor.

EXECUTIVE SEARCH FEE: The most expensive search company is not automatically the best, and the cheapest is not inevitably the worst. That said, I do not think that the old saying “quality always costs more” is entirely wrong. In every industry, whether it’s a product or a service, high quality always costs a little more. Everyone must decide where to draw the line and what kind of quality and service they want. Always compare a few search companies with each other before making the final decision.

REPUTATION: Good reputation and results are always a prerequisite when choosing a cooperation partner, but a good reputation sometimes reflects what happened yesterday. Always check the company’s references from someone who has been dealing with the company recently, preferably from both hiring customers and candidates. Sometimes search companies can provide reference persons themselves.

FINANCES: Check the company’s financial history. A profitable company is a more likeable partner.

CHEMISTRY: You don’t have to “love” a search consultant. The most important thing is that he/she can convince you of his/her competence and ability to solve your needs. Compare this situation to a doctor who knows how to cure a severe disease and save your life. Which is more important, the doctor’s professional expertise or good chemistry? Should you also have good chemistry with the search consultant, consider this a bonus. Never let good chemistry decide your choice at the expense of competence.

OTHER: Some search companies also offer additional services, such as management audit and assessment services, which can also be used in an executive search process.

While I may be a little biased ;-), if you’re interested in knowing more about the subject, I warmly recommend buying and reading my book How to recognise excellence in Executive Search, where I comprehensively talk about executive search (and recruiting in general). I also give many practical tips on recruitment, both from the perspective of the recruiting company and the candidate.

For more information about my book, please take a closer look here.

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