This article was written by RMI’s CEO, Warren Kemp and first appeared in its entirety on

One of the most widely used terms in recruitment is ‘headhunter’. That seems strange to me given that true headhunters make up a very small proportion of the recruitment sector. In this article, I aim to bust a few myths and at the same time, if you are a genuine headhunter, make you a better one. If you are headhunting already, here are 10 things that will make you a better headhunter. And if not, or you feel you could improve your headhunting skills, who knows, this may even spur you on to get some headhunting training..

The recruitment sector is a minefield of confusion for the potential candidate and client. Leavers will tell their employers that they have been “headhunted” when in reality a recruiter phoned them up because their CV was on a job board making that leaver a jobseeker.

Clients will instruct an “agency” to find them a new employee when, in actual fact, they are instructing a ‘recruitment business’. Recruiters might describe themselves as a “Search & Selection” firm, while others might say they conduct “Executive Search” campaigns.

So, here’s my layman’s terminology crib sheet:

What is a recruitment agency? – a recruitment company that supplies permanent employees or contractors whereby the client pays the salary or the contractors invoice.
What is a recruitment business? – a recruitment company that supplies temporary or contract workers, charges the client for the gross amount and subsequently then pays the temporary worker or contractor directly.
What is search and selection recruitment? – recruiters who deliver a hybrid approach to recruitment. Assignments are exclusive but not always retained. The campaign usually consists of a sweep of their network (database), a client paid advertisement campaign (sometimes named, sometimes blind) running in conjunction with a selective discrete approach to identified individuals whose skillset and background match the brief.
What is executive search? – Assignments are conducted on an exclusively retained basis, whereby each fresh assignment has a target list drawn up. That list and, from that point onwards, other information, becomes the intellectual property of the client should they wish to see the who, where, when and why.
What is a headhunter? – someone who works for an executive search firm making approaches on an exclusively retained basis. He or she will follow a consistent headhunting recruitment process.

I would therefore suggest that while the above is about terminology, the word headhunting relates to the methodology. Headhunting – Any direct approach to an individual who is unknown to the recruiter and to the best of their knowledge is not proactively seeking a move. Approaches are made discretely and confidentially with the client’s name withheld usually until the individual becomes a potential candidate by showing commitment to the process e.g. A second telephone conversation.

So, someone working in a contingent manner (paid upon success) on a multi-agency vacancy for a part-time bookkeeper who supplements their usual database and job board searches with a one off direct discrete approach to someone not seeking a move working for a client’s competitor is headhunting them. I would not, however, suggest that they are a headhunter ’by trade’. If you are a headhunter you work for a search firm. If you headhunt you are a recruiter. Now I realise this is all a bit “a square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not a square”. It does suggest however a level of expertise and experience and likely relationship with the client. Someone headhunted by a multi-agency contingent recruiter may find themselves mixed in with a bunch of job seekers and six other agencies’ best six CVs. Someone approached by a headhunter can expect to be only one of a finite number in the mix at the end with fantastic communication from headhunter and headhunter’s client throughout.

With all of that laid out, my top ten things that will make you a better headhunter are as follows:

  1. Only work on retained or 100% watertight exclusively contingent roles. With exclusivity, that really needs to be only for very few select clients who you have worked with before and there is two-way trust. You can be the best headhunter in the world and yet, if you haven’t got the absolute buy in from the client, you are opening yourself up to losing out on a fee. It isn’t unusual for a recruiter to work a role doing a great job, for it to be pulled at the last minute because of a share price warning and a headcount freeze. Spending a few thousand on a lawyer to ensure that your terms of business means you get paid regardless if something happens outside of your control is money well spent. When the client knows they are paying you upfront or will have to pay you anyway then they respond quicker, have more in-depth conversations, are more committed and are more demanding of you. A genuine win-win.
  2. Specialise. The generalist headhunter is fighting it out with the specialist agency. The specialist headhunter has only a finite number of true competitors. Being a specialist means you can add real value to both clients and candidates. You won’t just know people, you will know facts, figures, the ‘professional gossip’ and market intelligence. Generalising means spreading yourself too thin and building your reputation is a long slog. Specialising significantly increases your chances of a client putting all their eggs in your basket.
  3. Remember recruitment is a “vote for me” campaign. You need multiple contacts in each organisation you represent or want to represent. Having only one vote in the room amongst six stakeholders isn’t going to win you the headhunting assignment when faced with other headhunting firms whose spread is greater within the client’s business. Multiple touch points over a few months with multiple people will multiply your chances of success. In the same way with candidates, when someone talks to a trusted friend to say they are starting to consider moving on from their current role – you want that shout out.
  4. Work very few assignments at any one time. In my search firm, an individual consultant only works one role at a time up until first interview stage. That’s means the clients and candidates get our critical core time. You are not working for an agency. Your odds of success are purely down to your expertise. Take the right amount of time to get it right. You can still juggle a few assignments to avoid feast and famine, just not all at the early stages when it can go badly wrong through lack of time to research companies and people properly.
  5. You are not there to unsettle the settled. While helping someone decide as objectively as they can whether they should consider their career options, don’t sell ice cream to Eskimos. Your headhunting career can be a long one. By doing things correctly you will burn out far slower than a contingent multi-agency style recruiter. That means you will be around a long time to help that settled guy a couple or more years down the line. Remind yourself regularly that it’s not about you. It is all about them. And when you remember that and act accordingly, you get your rewards.
  6. Work a four day week. Use the fifth day of your week to tidy up all the loose ends, chase all the people you didn’t reach earlier in the week, document the who, the where, the when and the why. Ensure your ‘to do’ list is cleared by the close of play and all the intellectual property is not just in your head but on the system. Good housekeeping is essential to keep all your headhunting recruitment process consistent and tangible. The number one complaint from candidates about recruiters is lack of communication. Make those calls, send those emails and keep things on track. I call it “mop up Friday”.
  7. Learn how to use social media to enhance your credibility. While the telephone needs to be your best friend as a recruiter, social media is your very own advocate for what you do, how you do it, who you know and what you know. Infographics, case studies, facts, figures, insights and much more. Have people talking about you online. Post regularly. Add value to your connections. Build your connections. Become the headhunter of choice for influencers and leaders and then business development gets a heck of a lot easier.
  8. Keep your eye on the prize. Taking on a role that is outside of your specialism could end up being a false economy. Calculate your ROI (return on investment) alongside the lifetime value of a client and then decide if it’s a tangent worth coming off at. I recently turned down the chance to work three headhunting roles for a potential client because they were outside of my remit. While I could have filled them, it would have taken me longer than normal (not enough knowledge or contacts to hand) and all of those hours, days and weeks would mean that I wasn’t building up my knowledge, contacts and reputation in my core area.
  9. Surround yourself with positive people in your life. Being a headhunter can be frustrating and results are very often influenced by confidence. There are too many people in recruitment ready to tell you that something won’t work, that the client has never paid a retainer before or that you are not ready to pitch for a senior role. Work alongside supportive and equally driven people. Clients take longer to win and assignments take longer to conclude than mainstream contingent recruitment. You are in recruitment for the long term, so don’t let negative people (in or out of work) try and steer you off course.
  10. Consistent headhunting recruitment process will get you consistent results. Have your process for both client and candidate documented and always accessible/visible. Cutting corners will cut your chances of success. Once you have the process then it’s about being consistent with your actions and words. Not giving a candidate interview advice because they are a 50 year old director is as bonkers as not reminding someone to call you after an interview because they are a 28 year old wannabee who is desperate to land the job. Get some headhunting training, if needed, by all means if you are unsure as to what best practice looks like. Once you know what best practice looks and sounds like take those actions every single day with the same enthusiasm and commitment you had for your job on the every first day you joined.

Headhunting is a skill that can be taught and learned. Learn from the very best people you know or can reach out to. Like any skill you will improve it with practice. One day you might become world class. There are many ideas about what makes someone world class at what they do. I’m a believer in Malcom Gladwell’s theory (author of ‘The Tipping Point’ and ‘blink’). He says that there are three things that make up world class. Number one is a bit of natural talent. Second is a little bit of luck along the way and the third thing is 10,000 hours of effort. Simply put, do something you have a natural affinity towards, do it enough times and at some point, you will get that bit of luck that sets you on your way. For example phoning someone for the fifth time (when others would have stopped after two) to find your contact has had a key member of staff resign that very morning.

Along the way to becoming world class you want to be a better headhunter each day than you were the day before. I have my own theory about that. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in recruitment for nearly 25 years. As well as recruiting for much of that time, I’ve also racked up 30,000 hours in the recruitment training room (does that make me a three times world class trainer lol) and I’ve trained more people in the art of headhunting than any other trainer in Europe. So, it’s probably fair to say I know what it takes to become a great headhunter.

I believe there are three things that make up that model headhunter – Consistency, Commitment & Belief.

Consistency of documentation, communication, acceptable standards, behaviour and of working hours – to name but five.

Commitment to your career, your candidates, clients, colleagues, your learning, and the recruitment industry.

Belief in your ability, your choices and that you absolutely deserve to succeed.

If you have any thoughts, comments or questions regarding this article or want a discussion about headhunting and what it takes to be a headhunter then get in contact today.