Headhunters: how to tap up talent

The use of headhunters or recruiters to poach skills is a long-established
practice for recruiting finance professionals. Insiders like to claim that
behind every successful FD appointment lurks the hand of a headhunter. But as
with any service industry, you get out what you put in.

The key to using agencies is having a full understanding of what they can do
for you and what you can do for them.

Most companies use recruiters for their expertise and knowledge of the
candidate population. A good headhunter will find the talent others can’t and
have a network of contacts and a database of knowledge on individuals.

Most work in an almost cloak and dagger fashion, making clandestine calls to
FDs to gauge their next moves, likely vacancies within their company and their
opinions on up-and-coming peers.

Simon Bailey, head of the CFO practice at Whitehead Mann, says it starts
tracking people once they turn 30 and are moving into senior jobs. ‘We try to
work out who the likely future stars are and monitor their careers. We then
compile detailed references and find out everything about them before we even
pick up the phone to call them,’ he says.

It’s not just a case of saving company time and effort in advertising and
going through applications; using specialist recruiters is more about gaining
access to a pool of potential employees.

‘Headhunters can trawl through candidates far more easily. You can do it
yourself, but it takes skills and time,’ says Neil Chisman, a former FD and now
a non-executive director of Wembley.

And the impact of a good appointment should not be underestimated. The news
back in April that Mark Tucker, former group FD of HBOS, was to become CEO of
the Prudential added 6% to the insurance giant’s shares, with investors
anticipating significant reforms.

‘The appointment of a good CFO is undeniably price-sensitive information and
can send a positive or negative message to the market,’ says Bailey. ‘A good FD
is central to developing the future strategy of a company and can be critical to
its survival.’

For individuals, savvy use of headhunters and recruiters can be crucial to a
successful assault on the career ladder. Agencies advise finance professionals,
who are eager to progress, to be proactive and begin marketing themselves as
soon as possible. They should contact recruiters and establish relationships
early on, so headhunters have a clear picture of successes and career

‘It’s important they let us know what they are delivering and how their
career is evolving,’ says Bailey. Recruiters’ knowledge of companies and the
professional market also makes them a useful fount of career advice.

But finding the right agency is not an easy task. Rather like the accountancy
world, the executive search world is dominated by a handful of well-established,
multinational organisations as well as medium-sized companies and boutique-style

Being a reputation-led industry, it can be individual recruiters who attract
clients not the companies. And among peer groups, there may be those who have
acted as both clients and candidates and have a good reciprocal relationship
with agencies and recruiters.

‘Normally a CEO has a favourite agency or headhunter they have used and may
have recruited them,’ says Chisman.

Favouritism aside, there are a number of qualities a recruiter must possess.
The fundamental one is confidentiality. Letting the cat out of the bag about who
is leaving and who could be appointed can have a massive effect on a company’s
standing in the market.

The same goes for honesty. There should be honest communication between
client, candidate and recruiter. Some companies charge flat fees rather than
take a percentage cut of a salary to allay concerns they are just selling people
into jobs for profit.

But a good recruiter should never have to do a hard sell on a candidate if
the job is right for them. In the same way, candidates who play off companies
and recruiters may feel they are hedging their bets, but headhunters warn this
can backfire and damage a candidate’s reputation for integrity.

The advice from those in the industry is to look for good communication, and
only deal with a specialist you can look in the eye and be really honest with.
Recruiters find appointments on the basis of a candidate’s specifications as
well as a company’s, so not giving the whole story will never deliver a dream

It’s also important to ensure that your chosen recruiter is a specialist in
the financial market, rather than one with too wide a portfolio. The finance
skills market, despite being portable across all sectors, is very specific, and
recruiters need an in-depth understanding of how it works.

Headhunters are reporting significant movement in the market this year with a
number of high-profile appointments and vacancies, and anticipate a good year
for those climbing the career ladder.

Karen Day is a freelance journalist

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