Secrets of a Corporate Headhunter

Secrets of a Corporate Headhunter

Jim Carroll

The scene is played out every day. The chief financial officer just turned in his notice. We need a replacement now. I don’t care how you do it, just do it. Consider it your number one priority. This will have a definite impact on your year-end bonus. And so the process begins.

The hunt for an executive can and will have a huge impact on the success or failure of your career and your company’s survival. A new executive can enrich or devastate the lives of hundreds or thousands of people who work for a company. It’s an awesome responsibility. But the thrill of the hunt, the buzz of the catch, selling the sizzle, and closing in for the kill can be a galvanizing experience. It can also be an exercise in utter humility if you don’t have the proper tools, skills, and techniques to get the job done.

How and why should you take on the mantle of a corporate headhunter? Should you outsource it to an executive recruiter? What are the top secrets for finding and keeping incredible people who can do wonders for your company? Below are just a few tips to keep in mind when venturing into the illusive waters of executive recruiting.

1. Replace your HR hat with a steel helmet.

Don’t wait for your boss to start barking commands when a recruiting crisis develops. You need to formulate a plan and take massive action. Getting out of the administration arena and into the executive suite should be your first order of business. Anyone can administrate. Few can navigate the choppy waters of the search game. That’s why many companies will hire professional executive search firms to get the job done. It’s quick, stealthy, and very expensive. A professional search firm can easily cost your company $20,000 or more and there may not be any guarantees, depending on the type of recruiter you use. You need to convince your boss and yourself that you can do this. The savings factor alone will practically be a shoo-in for you. But you will need to trade in your HR hat for a steel helmet. This is a tough game. Learning how to deal with rejection requires a certain amount of stamina, persistence, and a strong backbone.

2. Salespeople aren’t born, but it helps to have a good mouthpiece.

Let’s face it, you’re either outgoing or reserved in various shades and flavors. If you have a deadly fear of picking up the phone and talking to a total stranger about the wonderful opportunities that exist in your company, then it will be a hard hill to climb. The casualties of failure come in many dimensions in recruiting war games, such as demotion, transfer, outplacement, or termination. There is a certain amount of risk in the executive hunt.

If you’re up for the challenge and can deal with the stress, then go for it. Don’t underestimate what you can accomplish, but at the same time, don’t overestimate your capabilities. Some people don’t have the stomach for headhunting. Hey, it’s not for everyone.

3. Penetrating a company’s armor is nothing to be ashamed of.

Some people have strong reservations about calling another company in an attempt to lure a quality person away. Let’s set the record straight. We live in a competitive environment. We’re looking for a quality product at the best price. If your company offers a bigger and better lollipop, then start spreading the news. Competition is the kind of stuff that has helped make America great! If a company does not want to lose its good people, then it needs to put the proper mechanisms in place to ward off a potential recruiting assault. If another company has more to offer to a candidate, then that person would be foolish not to at least listen to what the other side has to say. Sometimes the grass really is greener, especially if your turf offers more in perks, pay, and a fun work environment.

Another argument is that you should not try to recruit an otherwise happy, loyal employee. The concept of corporate loyalty has practically vanished from the face of Corporate America. Through the unending avalanche of mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, and mass terminations across the land, employees of today are more loyal to themselves and their families than to mother corporate. While loyalty is great, it shouldn’t be a factor in the recruiting game. In fact, giving people an opportunity to work for more efficient and productive companies will help to weed out those companies that are underperforming.

4. If the candidate isn’t a player, break the news quickly.

The worst thing you can do is string a person along because you find it uncomfortable to be the deliverer of bad news. Don’t postpone the inevitable. If a candidate is not qualified, don’t beat around the bush. Your time is money and to prolong a negative decision is unfair to the candidate.

For most human resource directors, the standard rejection letter is the most common mechanism for communicating the veto. But when you’re dealing with the high rollers in Corporate America, either a phone call or an informal e-mail outlining the two or three reasons for striking out is the best approach. First of all, most executives can deal with rejection and will appreciate your candor. They might even be gracious enough to give you a referral–and if they don’t, then you should certainly feel free to ask for one. It’s pure business, and as a headhunter, you’re obligated to ask the question. It goes with the territory.

5. Once you find a winner, start selling the sizzle.

Many human resource recruiters will put the candidate through the ringer before they start selling the opportunity. Big mistake. You should not be spending the bulk of your time weeding out 80 percent of the candidates through lengthy interrogations. That

Perry Mason mentality should be left to the lawyers in the courtrooms of America. Playing the rejection game is simply not an economical way to spend your time. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to check out the candidate’s credentials, strengths, weaknesses, etc. You need to develop a short list of critical factors that can quickly determine if you have a player. These factors should be objective and measurable. There are no gray areas. Once you have a world-class candidate, you need to sell the sizzle and get your candidate excited and curious about the opportunity. The hard questions should come later. Right now, you are building rapport, trust ,and a fabulous opportunity.

6. If you want to sell candidates, know the house they live in.

When you start to pontificate about all the great things your company has, your candidate is making an immediate comparison and assessment of your company in relation to his company. You may be talking about things that are totally meaningless to the candidate. The key is to put yourself in the candidate’s shoes and try to see the opportunity from his or her point of view. Once you know your competitors, you will be in an excellent position to make this determination. This is powerful. If you sound knowledgeable and can relate to your candidate’s situation, you will succeed in winning him or her over.

But your challenge does not end there. By asking the right, open-ended questions, you can quickly find out about the candidate’s hot buttons. Then you can tailor your sizzle to the candidate’s needs and desires. You must take the time to understand your competitor’s strengths, weaknesses, strategies, sales plans, and more important, what they are doing that is frustrating to their current employees. A lot of companies are very good at frustrating their employees.

7. The real interview starts after the candidate is fully pumped.

Whatever you do, don’t start the interview off with a canned, dull list of dry questions taken verbatim out of some book you strumbled upon in a book store. First, get the big picture. If you are interviewing a sales executive, get a quick profile of what was accomplished. Look at the candidate’s performance last year: total accounts sold, total revenue, size of account, length of sales cycle, key contact, type of account, gross profit margin. Start with the big picture and then drill down on the details. You do need to ask the same questions of every candidate, but make sure they provide you with the information you need to make an intelligent decision. Once you have arrived at a decision, make sure you can communicate the basis of your recommendation to your boss. You don’t want to be asked a question by your boss when you don’t know the answer.

While the trend these days is to outsource recruiting to professional headhunters, there are many companies out there that cannot afford the huge fees that recruiters demand. Any of these companies can jump into the recruiting game if they are lucky enough to have the right talent in-house to get the job done. Learning how to recruit executive talent can be a fun process and can certainly add a new dimension to any human resource professional’s repertoire of talents. Happy hunting!

Joe Carroll, SPHR, is vice president, human resources for IST Management Services Inc., headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.

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