How to get best out of headhunter when hiring for senior roles

One of the most important things any leader can do is to hire the right people to work with them. Particularly in senior positions, they can be the difference between success and failure for the business.

Headhunters can be vitally helpful here in finding the best candidates, but executive search isn’t something you can just outsource, getting on with something else while you wait for them to come back with the perfect CFO, CMO, divisional head or indeed CEO.

Like most services, executive search works best when you, the client, know how to use it properly.


Understand what headhunters are and what they are not

Good headhunters are not recruiters. We are partners, working in tandem with a Chair, CEO and HRD rather than engaging in an impersonal transaction.

At our best, headhunters go further, becoming confidants with whom clients can talk through different scenarios, test hypotheses and ask for unbiased feedback and insight from the market – all on a private and confidential basis.

It’s often hard for CEOs and chairs to have some of these conversations in-house: because these decisions or discussions may affect people within the business, they are sometimes limited in what they can say within their own four walls. But it’s also the case that they may have developed an insular view of their needs and/or the external environment, making external insight doubly invaluable.


Be willing to listen to things you don’t want to hear

Sometimes an honest confidant relationship involves doling out some hard truths or challenging some deeply-held assumptions.

For example, recently one client wanted to hire an FD who would work five days in the office. The harsh truth was that the market wouldn’t accept it. Either they needed to pay more or they would have to show some flexibility. As headhunters we are used to looking for Unicorns but ultimately the market determines supply and sometimes we have to explain uncomfortable truths.

Not everyone wants to listen, but an honest and frank exchange will invariably result in better outcomes for everyone involved. After all, you and your headhunter share the same ultimate goals – we all benefit when the right candidate gets into the right position, adds real value, and remains in place for the long term.


Clarity is key

The brief you provide will dictate your shortlist and the eventual outcome. Some businesses start off unnecessarily prescriptive about what they expect from candidates. For example, is it essential that they’ve had experience of international expansion, or just desirable? Clarity is essential, which is why red lines are as important as areas to flex.

A good headhunter should help to provide this through rigorously exploring the brief and benchmarking. However sometimes more is required, which is why I also offer consultancy services around strategy and organisational design.

Whether you need to just ‘tap in’ the brief or do some heavier consultancy work, it pays to think it through.


Pick carefully

CEOs, chairs and HRDs have a choice over who can help them find their next critical hire. They could use different functional specialists for each brief or work with a single headhunter with whom they have a long-term partnership.

The former will know the candidate market for their function, but this may create issues with ‘hands off’ relationships or a lack of sector knowledge. Alternatively, a sector specialist with whom you have a deep partnership will be able ‘knit’ together the team because of their intimate knowledge of the industry.

The advantage of finding a long-term partner is they know your business and its needs inside out, and from all sides. This enables them to understand every piece of the jigsaw and how they all connect, so that there is cultural fit, technical fit and behavioural fit between the candidate and the business.


If you’d like to find out more about how we can support your executive search needs, drop us a line.

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