Any spare change for an old headhunter…..?


There was a time, a time before direct sourcing, when executive search firms reigned supreme. When big companies believed everything they heard from them. This was an age when only respectable english gentlemen (with a military background and a female excluding golf club membership) were allowed to hunt talent in the City of London Town. They had voices that would make a wolverine purr and suits so saville row fine they made sinatra look like a hobo.

In other words the headhunter was the balls……..

Primarily on the back of the rise of the financial services and dotcom booms they spread out to global cities like wildfire, seen sporting red braces and spats in Manhattan to crumply white linen suits in sweaty downtown Singapore.

You wanted to tell your friends you were headhunted and you were prepared to court them for the off-chance that you just might get that last elusive ticket to Ascot, in the days before the Lumpenproletariat arrived en masse at the racecourse and urinated cheap fizzy wine all over the fields.

Then one day a terrible thing happened to this institution – we accidentally peeked behind the curtain like Dorothy’s dog and found that the whole damn machine was being powered by a spotty, introverted, nerdy research type using a homemade database and a series of clever cold calling techniques that would shame the devil to build a market map to make the headhunter schmooze confidently at the next client meeting.

Common sense statements like “we can do that ourselves” sprung out from large corporate flipcharts and with savings projections of millions predicted, the early pioneers of the internal search function were born and with it came a very different organisational system required to to make it thrive and realise its value.

The headhunter will continue to thrive in an environment where short termism, distressed hiring and a lack of faith in the internal HR / Recruitment model exists. Unfortunately there are plenty of HRDs willing to feed them and remain overly dependent on them. These tend to be the very same souls who refuse to ‘invest’ in an internal recruitment organisation and divert ‘bad’ money to ‘good’ investment.

So, if you are enlightened and want to rid yourself of a historic dependency model then how do you make it work ? Easier said than done but go with the following and you are on your way :

  1. Build for sustainability – Always connected and always on’  is the modern recruitment mantra and you can’t be subject to the vagaries of the annual hiring season. You’ve got to be focussing away from distressed hiring to talent outcomes, succession plans, meeting skills shortages and courting the ‘best’ talent over a period of time both socially and through technological advances. True RoI is a long term game so hold your nerve !
  2. Invest in the internal machine – This is a true business case for change with an ROI and in the first instance don’t shirk the fact that you need some investment. For example, acquire one of these researchers and build out the capability, invest in a CRM system that given its easy configuration needs to be carefully managed centrally to ensure maximum knowledge and candidate sharing across the business.
  3. Create a recruitment culture that breaks from the past – I am of the firm belief that the old headhunter dependency (which big organisations colluded in making part of their DNA) was part of the ‘baby boomer’ generation toolkit. I am of the belief that with the Gen X and Ys dominating leadership positions and with a ready made network via Facebook, the environment to grow the social recruitment network exists and is going to squeeze this sector further. Seize the opportunity !

Executive search can remain an effective part of your overall talent agenda, but where you only require niche or business critical roles and the cost for sourcing or community building  yourself is prohibitive. This blog is focussed on challenging those HR leaders who are happy to overspend corporate pounds or dollars in a lazy fashion where a viable alternative exists if only enough vision and commitment exist.

There are many victims in the awfully titled ‘war for talent’ – headhunters are one of the obvious and don’t worry not many will be lining the streets of London looking for spare change from tourists. I’ll return in future blogs with a commentary on others  who have been vanquished and of course, the victors (or at least those with the foresight to spot the opportunity the changing tides have presented).

In the meantime it is important to note that no headhunters’ feelings were hurt during the making of this blog.

Until next time.


4 thoughts on “Any spare change for an old headhunter…..?

  1. Pingback: The RPO – Rapidly Proving Obsolete or Reassessing Possible Opportunities ? | changinghr

  2. Pingback: The RPO – Rapidly Proving Obsolete or Reassessing Possible Opportunities ? | changinghr

  3. Hi Barry, another great post. Looks like the blogging suits you 😉 And what a topic – my pet subject! We share a similar view and its been on the cards for a long time. You are spot on when you say its a babyboomer solution. Search is not a solution that will prevail longer term. I blogged on the very same subject –

    Although, having read your comment:

    “The headhunter will continue to thrive in an environment where short termism, distressed hiring and a lack of faith in the internal HR / Recruitment model exists.”

    Looks like the search boys are here to stay then lol 😉

    • Thanks Gareth. No blushing but you were certainly an inspiration for me in kicking it all off and appreciate the words. Read your contribution and spot on. There’s unfortunately a lot of mutual stroking of headhunters, baby booming hiring managers and Comfortable senior HRBPS who don’t want to move this agenda on. It’s gonna time as George Harrison would say. Must have that beer soon.

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