Every generation has a question it asks itself. A century ago it was: 'How do I get posted to a good regiment?'; 50 years ago: 'How do I get into the civil service?'; 30 years ago: 'How do I land a job with a big corporation?'; 10 years ago: 'How do I make my way into the City?' Today, it would more likely be: 'How do I get myself head-hunted?'
Head-hunters have become a ubiquitous feature of business life. They are the referees, coaches and ground staff of today's commercial rat-race.
How well you get on with them - and how skilled you are at catching their eye - may well prove to be the determinant in whether your career takes you to the boardroom or you are forever consigned to the branch office.
'The power of head-hunters is growing all the time,' says Hilton Catt, author of Get Head-hunted, published earlier this year by Orion Business Books. 'You have to be streetwise about it and learn how to play them at their own game.'
Once limited to boardroom positions, head-hunting now fills swathes of middle management jobs. The Association of Executive Search Consultants, based in New York, says the number of jobs filled by head-hunters rose by 14% last year and the pace was even faster in some high-growth industries.
Internet companies expanded their use of head-hunters almost eightfold, while media and advertising companies raised their use by 45%. These are American figures, but British statistics would tell a similar story.
There are two reasons for the growing use of head-hunters. The first is that the length of the recent economic expansion has left the labour market tight. For many industries, and in particular hyper-growth sectors such as technology and media, there is now a severe shortage of skilled and talented people. That has forced companies to go out and look for those they need and not wait for them to arrive at the door.
The second reason is the recognition that companies are now critically dependent on the skills, knowledge and savvy of their key executives.
Where they might once have been content to appoint the chairman's nephew or promote Buggins from accounts, they now know that having the right person in a job may determine their survival in a competitive marketplace.
Both developments have made companies a lot more willing to turn to head-hunters.
But how do you make sure that you get noticed by the head-hunters? When jobs were mainly advertised in newspapers, you could scour the appointments pages and apply for anything that interested you. Now it is generally only junior or menial jobs that are advertised. Most of the best jobs are filled by head-hunters - and unless you are on their radar screens, it is unlikely you will even be considered.
'People shouldn't be shy and retiring,' says David Potter of the Rose Partnership, a head-hunting consultancy based in the City of London. 'But at the same time they should be prepared to get quite a lot of letters saying: 'Sorry, we don't have anything at the moment, but we will keep your details on file.' At the good firms, that will be true.'
A skilled head-hunter will devote a lot of time and energy to tracking down talented people who may be buried in large organisations. But they are no more likely to snap up someone who has not been brought to their attention than Sir Alex Ferguson is to sign up a striker from the Unibond League or EMI to sign the singer in the Wokingham Working Men's Club.
It would be nice to think they will find you, but in truth you will often have to find them.
'The professional must be proactive in the executive search process by building on current skills, being fully prepared for interviews and by keeping their CVs up to date,' says Oonagh Hegarty, manager of SKG Executive Search.
Head-hunters fall into two camps - those who work by computer and those who work over lunch. It is important to know which type you are trying to attract - and to be aware that, as in so many professions, the computer types are taking over from the lunchers.
The Rose Partnership, which specialises in City and financial appointments, keeps 70,000 names on file. This database is up-dated every morning as head-hunters scour the papers to see who is making things happen in various sectors, who is speaking at civic and trade conferences, and who is climbing up the ranks of companies and organisations. If you aren't already on its database, it is unlikely your name will come up when a vacancy is being discussed - no matter how well qualified for the job you might be.
'We get lots of letters every day from people asking if we might have anything, and we are always happy to look at those and put them on the database,' says Potter. 'It helps if you have a personal recommendation, but that is not the only criterion.'
The lunchers work the other way round. Instead of starting with a database and looking to see who within it would be a perfect match for the vacancy they have been asked to fill, they talk to the client about the kind of person they need and then set out to find them. That will involve ringing round their contacts, asking if they can think of, say, a marketing executive for a software company or a finance director for an engineering firm.
The net effect is much the same: if you aren't on the world's radar screen, your name won't come into the frame.
One important rule is always to make sure you have plenty of time to talk to head-hunters. Often you might be called to see if you can recommend someone in a related field, or provide a reference on someone you have dealt with professionally. You might not feel like returning that call, or spending time on the phone for something that doesn't directly benefit you. But that would be a mistake. 'Everybody should have one or two head-hunters who they know personally and keep in touch with - just as you know a lawyer or a banker,' says one head-hunter.
Whichever type of head-hunter approaches you, the selection process means you are constantly on trial. In the old days of the conventional job interview, you had only to brush your hair and shine your shoes. Today you should assume you are being watched by your potential employers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
'It is a lifelong interview,' observes Catt. 'The nub is that you have to be very careful about the image you project every day, to the people you work for, to the people who work for you, to your clients and customers and suppliers. Someone has to know who you are and feel moved to say something good about you. You have to take a 360-degree view.'
Hegarty of SKG has prepared some tips for making sure you are one of the people who gets head-hunted. They include obvious points, such as making sure you have a well-written CV that is up to date, and always making time to talk to head-hunters and help them fill vacancies. But she also points to less obvious strategies.
Take publicity, for example. If the press office needs someone to talk about the company's products, or its equal opportunities policy, you should make sure you are that person. It might not be much fun, but it will get you noticed. Getting out to conferences, seminars and trade shows is also important. It is at such networking events that you will come into contact with head-hunters - and you can be sure they will be making notes for their databases.
There are many positive things you can do to make sure you are on their radar screens. But it is also important to remove the negatives. Under data protection laws, you have the right to look at what information is held on you in the databases of head-hunting firms. Most of it will be factually accurate, because it is usually taken from CVs sent in by the candidates themselves. But there may also be impressions noted by a head-hunter based on a conversation with a colleague or a rival. And, if these are negative, it may well hurt your chances of getting the job you would like.
If a job is filled within your industry that you would have liked, and you weren't approached about it, you should not be shy about finding out which head-hunters were used and asking them why they didn't speak to you. Few of them will object to the question. They are all in the business of having as big a network as possible and working it to their advantage.
Making yourself known to head-hunters may not sound very British or dignified. It might sound pushy. Yet that is how careers are being formed today. If you don't acquire a reputation among head-hunters, it is far more likely to be your career rather than theirs that suffers.
WAYS TO GET NOTICED
1 GET INVOLVED IN A TRADE GROUP - The committees may be dull, but it will put you on all the right lists.
2 GET QUOTED IN THE NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES - Journalists can be a bother, but there is no better way to put yourself on the radar screens.
3 STUDY THE MARKET - If there is a company you like, find out which head-hunters they use and introduce yourself to them.
4 BE PREPARED TO SPIN YOURSELF - Getting head-hunted is like advertising yourself. Find a simple message about yourself - and remember to stay on-message at all times.
5 GET OTHERS TO SPEAK FOR YOU - Nobody likes a braggart. The best self-promotion is to get others to say nice things about you - preferably in public and in print.