The headhunter

What's a great negotiator with a fat contacts book worth? Ask Simon Burnsby.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Simon Burnsby kicks off his day with a cold call to a merchant banker. 'Good morning, is that Jeremy Galbraith?' The voice at the other end replies testily that it is, and 'who is this?' Simon tells him that he's from Burnsby & McIntyre. Can Jeremy talk? Unsurprisingly, Jeremy can't, but he agrees that Simon can call him on his mobile at 3pm. So the process begins again, the end result of which will be a big new job for Jeremy and a substantial fee for Simon. B&M are City headhunters and charge the industry-standard 35% of salary for their services.

Next up, a meeting with an accountancy firm, new clients who want him to find them a tax partner. The remuneration being talked about here is so far up the upper quartile that even Simon will work for a flat fee rather than a percentage of the first year's pay. They discuss the firm's needs, 'really drilling down into the corporate DNA', as Simon puts it, using a metaphor whose mix goes unchallenged. He's pleased: the clients seem impressed by his knowledge, even though 95% was pulled off Google yesterday by his PA. They tell him so; he replies that in his game, 'knowledge is what separates the hunters from the gatherers'. Everyone laughs at a joke that is old and obvious.

Lunch is at a restaurant where the eye-watering prices (Simon's shout, alas) do much to dispel any qualms he might have about whether B&M 'adds enough value' to justify its fees. Simon is meeting a contact at the bank he's earmarked Jeremy for, who is accompanied by a haughty senior type who'll have ultimate say on candidates. Simon wants to kill the senior bloke, who will keep referring to him as the 'recruitment bod'. Someone in his job really should know the difference between run-of-the-mill recruitment and executive search and selection, especially as he's paying the bill.

Early afternoon brings a staff meeting to talk about B&M's strategy - which even the firm's greenest graduate has already divined is simply 'to place as many people as possible in as big-a-ticket jobs as possible' - and that mobile call to this morning's prospect. Jeremy, freed from the constraints of the office, is even more brusque. Simon takes a strong dislike to him, but he has read Jeremy's CV, spoken to his colleagues and even winkled a guestimate of his salary out of another contact. Simon realises that in the process of collecting this scalp, he'll have to talk to the obnoxious Jeremy half a dozen times - and be really nice.

Simon now has only two items of business left. First, he has to tell a candidate for another position that the firm has decided she isn't 'quite the right fit'. A shame, as Catherine was in his opinion the best choice for the job. Still, the people who hired him have final say - even if they don't have to break the bad news. He sighs as he puts the phone down: Catherine's reaction suggests that she has already burnt bridges with her employer; and her loss is unfortunate for him too - it means only 30% of the fee for doing 90% of the work.

But at 5pm, he gets final sign-off and full fee for another job that has taken six months. Headhunters speak of the great buzz of satisfaction they get from this moment. But, as Simon knows, what they really feel is relief. Still, it's an awful lot of money - and for what, exactly? Are the qualities needed to be a headhunter really so rare and precious? But that's missing the point. It has been an arduous process involving cold-war-grade negotiating, tongue biting, smoothing ruffled feathers, smiling when self-important people cancel longstanding appointments, feigning interest in dull monologues and massaging monstrous egos - all with good humour. Simon's skill set is more like a diplomat's than a recruitment consultant. If the FCO ever found themselves short of an ambassador for an especially difficult position, they could headhunt Simon Burnsby.

1963 Born 12 December. Educated: Bristol University
1985 Search consultant, Henrick & Bootles
1990 Marketing manager, Henrick & Bootles
1994 MBA, Gruber Management School, US
1996 Partner (executive search), LBE Recruitment plc
1999 Founder, (folds December 2000, £7.8m lost)
2001 Founding partner, Burnsby & McIntyre Executive Search

Any resemblance to a real person is coincidental and unintended.

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