How to make it as an executive headhunter

Helping businesses fill their top jobs can be lucrative work, but don't expect a 9 to 5.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 22 Jun 2017

Many of us find a new job by scanning job sites like Indeed and Monster in the hope of finding the perfect next step. But when you’re a high-flying business executive it doesn’t really work like that. When was the last time you saw a FTSE 250 CEO vacancy advertised on Reed.co.uk?

Rather than using these channels, or general recruitment agencies, boards turn to headhunters – or ‘executive search firms’ as they prefer to be known – specialists with large networks of candidates that choose the most suitable people they know and put them forward for interview. It’s a lucrative field to be in, but you’ll need a strong resolve and a willingness to work long hours. Here's some pointers on how to succeed.

What you’ll do

Most headhunters are responsible for drumming up new business as well as looking after existing clients, so you’ll need to be happy pitching for opportunities. Once you’ve bagged an assignment you’ll work with them to figure out the skills they’re looking for in the roles they need to fill.

‘At the same time we are meeting hundreds of candidates who are thinking about moving role and helping them to understand what their longer-term career objectives are and what they need to do in order to meet them,’ says Mark Freebairn, partner and head of the Financial Management Practice at Odgers Berndtson, one of the industry’s larger firms.

‘We are then effectively trying to marry up those two groups.’ Headhunters select the best candidates to put forward (sometimes going in search of people that aren’t on their radar already) and coach them through the interview process.

The skills you need

Headhunters have to be outstanding communicators says David Goldstone, a partner in Osprey Clarke, whose clients include Whitbread, WH Smith and Ministry of Sound (for its senior management, not the DJs). ‘You need to be comfortable talking to senior executives, and be able to steer the conversation towards what you need to get out of them.’ Writing skills are an asset too – ‘you need to be able to articulate in writing why a candidate is right for a role.’

Freebairn says the most important attribute is emotional intelligence. ‘When I meet a candidate I’ve got to be able to see through the bullshit they might tell me and understand on a deep level what matters to them.’ It’s a lot more complicated than comparing a list of desirable qualities with a few hundred CVs. ‘I’ve got to be able to match up culturally whether you and the organisation we’re dealing with are right for each other.

You’ll also need some commercial awareness to understand how the roles you’re filling fit in with the organisations they belong to, the ability to spot an opportunity, and to be good at operating with discretion.

How to get in

There are three typical routes into the industry. Many of the large search firms (including Odgers Berndtson) recruit graduates fresh out of university. In that case you’ll typically start off as a researcher, digging up potential candidates’ details via LinkedIn, familiarising yourself with certain industries and such.

Some headhunters start off at recruitment agencies, filling lower level roles on a more industrial pay-by-results basis, before working their way up to more senior roles. If you’re looking to switch careers into headhunting then it helps to have a strong network – many start out by recruiting former colleagues and acquaintances for employers in their old industry.

How busy you’ll be

‘If you’re the sort of person who wants to turn up for work at nine and leave at five, it’s not the job for you,’ says Goldstone. Candidates often don’t want to be seen to be talking to headhunters, so expect lots of early morning and late night meets, sometimes out of the office.

What you’ll get paid

Headhunters tend to earn salaries and bonuses, with less of the focus on performance-based pay that’s more common in the broader recruitment industry. But your pay will nonetheless depend on the money you’re bringing in – Goldstone stays you will tend to earn around one third to half of the billings you make.

Junior headhunters can earn £25-30k or more, with typical pay at a senior level rising to £100-250ks. True masters of the trade can bring in seven figures, says Freebairn, but ‘they will be the absolute exception.’

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