Secret Life of a Headhunter: Executive Tips

Part 3 of our three part series on headhunting. In Part 1 and Part 2 we pointed out what an exhaustive process executive search is - and that it has many stages, all of which are designed to filter out all but the most suitable candidates and build engagement with the strongest candidates.

In this part we will go into what actions you can take to increase your chances of success as a search target.

Visibility & Reputation

Pretty obviously, if you aim to be on the radar of headhunters, you need to be visible. In practice that means two things: you need to be good at what you do and you need that fact to be noticed.

To be a strong headhunt target you actually have to be a very effective and capable executive in the first place. The whole headhunting process is designed to identify, reference and secure the best candidate for a given leadership position, so there is no scope for ‘bluffing it’. How you go about being as good as you are is up to you of course, but I am sure that I do not need to remind you that actions speak louder than words and results speak louder than actions. At a senior levels, your performance counts and numbers are used to measure it.

Making sure that performance is noticed is another thing entirely. Some points are more obvious than others:

  • Make yourself invaluable to your boss/to the board. Great leaders are rare beasts and you are not just performing your duties. You got your organisation to its current position through your endeavours and that fact should be clear.
  • Leadership. You will be assessed on your leadership ability. I am sure that you know that means vision, innovation, strategy, influence, ethics and execution but don’t forget that leaders make things happen and drive benefit through making things happen. You need to build a portfolio of results.
  • Get networked. The more senior, influential people who know how effective you are, the more likely you are to come up in discussion about future opportunities. You probably already network extensively with board members, clients, suppliers, stakeholders and shareholders. Just do more of it. This is a normal, ongoing thing for senior executives so it will not send “I want another job” messages.
  • Get online. This one is often under-utilised by senior people. Try Googling your own name. You - and better still your achievements - should be prominent. If your current organisation has a PR department, make sure you are engaged with them. Get your name and face on press releases. Use social networks effectively - especially LinkedIn. Don’t underestimate the importance of LinkedIn. You will almost certainly be checked out on LinkedIn and possibly found there in the first instance.
  • Speak and have a voice. To be considered as an influential leader you need to be out there voicing your opinion and (gently) pointing out your successes. That may take the form of speaking at industry events and conferences or being part of an association, institute or discussion forum relevant to your sector. Again, the more you do so, the more likely you are to be noticed.
  • Broaden your horizon. Aim to join a number of boards or organisations that are not directly in your field. Influential positions in charity or community bodies can be very good for your visibility while at the same time saying positive things about you. If you are going for CEO roles, you really should hold some board appointments.

Headhunters contact you, not the other way around

You need to wait to be approached - that is the way headhunting works. If you try to approach headhunters you will get at best a lukewarm response and you could damage your reputation. Remember their job is to find the best candidate possible for a given search assignment, not to help you out.

The only people effectively ‘databased’ with top-level headhunters are those who just missed out on the headhunters’ recent assignments. Those who narrowly came second or third when someone else got the appointment.

Once you are on a headhunter’s radar though, if you continue to perform well you will stay there. Headhunters are very good at keeping an eye on you once they know your worth.

Balance what you can and should not disclose

This one is hopefully pretty obvious, but you will almost certainly get into a grey area where commercial confidence becomes an issue. Use your judgement about what you can and should not say.

Equally obviously, avoid any negative comments about your current or past organisations or executives.

Don’t overdo playing hard to get.

It is a natural response to be a bit reticent when approached, but it won’t do you any favours in the search process. If a move isn't right for you at the moment  - maybe you have only recently taken on a new role or your major results are just around the corner - tell the headhunter that you are not interested in a move right now.

If you are going to engage though, be open and prepared to engage fully. The early stages will all be about discovery, so you are not committing to anything. You might learn something too!

As the process develops, if you are interested you should show that you are. Surveys of reasons for failure at CEO interviews nearly always put “Candidate did not appear interested in role and acted unattainable” right at the top. Voice concerns with the headhunter though your engagement process by all means, but if you get that far, you should attend the employer interview with commitment.

Look after your references and reputation

Chose your references carefully, covering a range of influential people from your organisation, the board, suppliers, clients, stakeholders and the broader market. These people are hugely critical to your success in an executive search, so make sure you keep in touch regularly, help them when you can and make sure they know what stage you are at in your career. Nurture your references and regard them as career mentors.

Your reputation is everything at senior levels, so look after it. That means keeping up with all of the positive and proactive career management that you have been doing, but also avoiding anything that could be interpreted as negative.  That applies beyond your professional role.

Do your own due diligence: reverse headhunting

As the search assignment progresses, you will have plenty of time and opportunity to conduct your own search on the organisation, on its executives, board and policy, market opportunity and culture. You need to establish if there is a match and if not, what you need to do to change that fact. Can you achieve what you want to with them?

By the time you attend an interview with them, you should have a very clear picture of a) who they are, what they have done and what they plan to do and b) what direction you would take them in.

By the time the search process is finished, you should be clear whether you want to join the organisation and take them on the next stage of their journey. If you do, enjoy your next challenge!

For more information or help

See our Career Planning Coaching page, email us or give us a call on 1300 97 87 66. We will be pleased to help.