Picking a star: why headhunting is different to recruiting

Picking a star: why headhunting is different to recruiting

The Job Market / June 25th, 2017

Cosmo Currey is a Senior Consultant at Boston Link and spends his days headhunting, as opposed to recruiting, candidates. Here, he reflects on the differences between the two.

Recruiters connect people who are looking for jobs with companies who are offering jobs. That’s an important role that is sometimes underappreciated – candidates often don’t realise the benefits they can get from having a recruiter, who knows both the industry and the employer, as their intermediary in the hiring process. Nevertheless, it’s not what I do.

I sell new jobs to people who weren’t looking for one. That may sound like a small difference, but the process and the results are quite different.

A headhunter doesn’t rely simply on ‘active’ candidates – people with a prepared CV who are demotivated in their current role or actively looking for their next career move. Instead, a headhunter focuses on ‘passive’ candidates – those who are perfectly happy where they are and need to be convinced to consider another employment option.

This is an exercise in finding quality, of spotting the brightest star in the firmament. Passive candidates are usually happy in their roles because they are good at them, so they are appreciated and they are well remunerated. This makes it a much less risky process than recruitment – you aren’t just hoping that the stars will align and a high-quality candidate happens to be looking when you’re hiring. You can therefore match a vacancy perfectly, rather than settling for ‘close enough’. The other side of that, of course, is that it consumes much more time and energy. You must work around the candidate, rather than them working around you. You must sell them the role, not just present it to them. The demands of confidentiality are even higher than in recruitment.

Not everyone wants or needs a headhunter. For junior or very popular positions, a recruiter is the right way to go. They reach a broader range of candidates than the hiring manager might on their own, they filter out the inappropriate ones, and they help build a positive relationship with the candidates. Using a headhunter for such roles is often superfluous and, to be frank, too expensive. All that extra time and energy doesn’t come for free, after all.

So when do you want a headhunter? When getting the right candidate can’t be left to chance. If you’ve got a big pool of actively searching and appropriate talent, you can afford to roll the dice, trusting that there are good odds candidates from the top end of the bell-curve will be available. If you are trying to fill a critical position using a restricted talent pool, however, you can’t take the same risk. If you need a very exact skill set, or a particular cultural fit, or someone with a specific performance history, headhunting is the best way to do it.

It is no coincidence I spend most of my time working on technically demanding or executive roles. The international financial centres I work in are crying out for more IT and development talent, so headhunting plays a much bigger part in that market.

In addition to the difference in candidate quality, a hiring manager looking to use a headhunter also needs to be aware that the hiring process is different. Someone who has been headhunted will come with higher expectations than someone who has gone out of their way to apply. The power dynamic is different, so you should expect interviews to be much more two-way, with the candidate wanting to know a lot more about the hiring company. As a result, the process is generally also more informal than a traditional interview process. Finally, these candidates will expect a more significant difference in remuneration versus their current package than an active candidate who has other reasons for wanting to move.

As a hiring manager, you also need to treat the headhunter slightly differently. A recruiter can often get by with just the job description you sent them, but a headhunter has to actively sell a role to candidates, so will want to discuss the role in more detail. Be prepared to talk more about why the role is significant, what the work environment will be like, and other key selling points. Without these, your headhunter will be ill-equipped to get the most attractive candidates.

To conclude, a headhunter is a very different sort of fellow to a recruiter. To make the most of yours, you need to apply him to the right roles, give him something special to sell, be sensitive to the different process their candidates will expect, and, dare I say it, appreciate why his fees are higher than a standard recruiter. Do all of that and you will see a whole different kind of CV cross your desk!

This blog was originally published in Portfolio Magazine.