Getting a call from a headhunter used to be a sign that you had arrived in career terms, but the growing shortage of talent everywhere means that headhunting is no longer confined to those earning six-figure salaries.
So how should you respond the first time you are approached by a headhunter?
Firstly, you should not automatically assume you are the ultimate target of the call.
Headhunting is a research-driven process. This is contrary to the popular idea that it is based on a list of names plucked out of a little black book. Headhunters aim to build up an initial ‘long list’ of about 15 names, and if you are approached it is fair to deduce that you have been identified by someone as an authoritative source.
If you do get a call from a headhunter do not appear too eager. One of the qualities that clients like to see in a candidate is that he or she is perfectly happy where they are. At this stage, asking a little more about the job and offering to send in your CV is about as far as you need to go.
At the other end of the spectrum there are those who are so well established in their current job that they brusquely rebuff calls from headhunters.
This is not a good idea. Even if you are not interested on this occasion, getting into a headhunter’s good books as a useful person to talk to could stand you in good stead in the future.
There are some questions that it is better not to ask at the outset.
Top of the list is demanding to know who the client is before saying anything.
One reason why this is not a good response is that searches are often conducted in circumstances of great confidentiality and the person being replaced might still be in their job.
It is also a mistake to ask for precise details about money at this stage, though it is reasonable to ask for a ballpark indication. However, what you are currently earning will be of great interest to a headhunter. It can be tempting for candidates to talk up their package in the hope of attracting an even better offer from the client, but this is not a good idea as it can backfire later.
So once approached, how do you get from the headhunter’s long list of 15 to the short list of five or six that he or she eventually submits to the client?
One useful tip is to be aware that the people who conduct the searches are generally experts in the field in question. As a result, they are more likely to be impressed by a candidate who can explain the issues clearly and simply than by those who try to blind them with science. So try to relax and just be yourself.
Establishing trust is crucial in establishing a two-way relationship with a headhunter. So build up a relationship over time. Find one who you trust, whose style suits you and whose organisation has the scale and reach that will enable them to work on assignments that will attract you.
So how can potential candidates become more visible and increase their chances of being headhunted?
Remember that headhunters often gather recommendations through an informal network of industry sources. The more people who know you, the more people who are likely to pass your name on. That includes co-workers, from the most senior to the most junior.
In fact, recent research from global career management consultants, Drake Beam Morin indicates that 42% of executives in the United Kingdom found their new job through some form of networking.
Focus on being good at your job
It may seem an obvious point, but headhunters look for high achievers: people who are given responsibility, head big projects or initiate major change.
A successful career is a long-term proposition and needs to be planned carefully. A good headhunter can act as an advocate and help to advise on the strategy and timing behind some of your key moves.
Invest in yourself
Titles and qualifications alone are not enough. Make sure you invest in career training and development.
In most of today’s organisations the aim is to empower people to take ownership of their own training and development. In particular, focus on leadership and communication skills, which will give you the tools necessary to influence colleagues at senior levels.
Be active in your industry
Another vital reference point for headhunters is professional bodies and membership organisations for individuals in a particular sector.
Do your own PR
There is no harm in getting your name noticed in the financial arena.
Write opinion pieces in the trade press, get quoted in articles relevant to your area of specialism. If you have a public relations consultancy, let them know that you are keen to become a spokesperson. Investment in this activity will show that you understand the issues and have the confidence to voice your opinion.
Headhunters do read the relevant sector titles and your name will stand out.