The key difference between headhunters and recruitment consultants.

Dan Sill, Head of Legal Executive Search.

We speak with partners at law firms every single day; if we are not approaching them about a project for one of our clients, we are usually discussing the prospect of taking a lateral hire from us because there is a good business case for doing so. If they are a potential target candidate for a project, they can sometimes be sceptical about the veracity of the project we have contacted them about due to a previous bad experience with an agent masquerading as a headhunter with a retained brief that didn’t exist. When we pitch a business case lateral hire to a firm we do not have an existing relationship with, we are sometimes asked to speak with HR to agree process and this next contact is another example of where we find can be a misconception about what a “headhunter” or an “executive search consultant” actually is and how they differ to recruiters who work at recruitment agencies.

In reality, there is a huge difference yet the term headhunter seems to be used very loosely by some which contributes to this confusion.

Put simply, Executive Search or ‘headhunting’ is a method used to find the best suited person for a particular purpose, whether they are actively seeking new opportunities or not. This applies to acting for companies seeking people and for lateral partners seeking a better platform for their practice.

That said, recruitment agencies can be more effective than headhunting in terms of response rate and lower cost, particularly when considering very junior staff. When a company has a vacancy that they need to fill quickly, or several similar roles, they normally task a recruitment agency with finding suitable candidates. The selected recruiters will usually place adverts, search job boards and call a few contacts from their database. All these methods are very effective at finding those people actively looking for change. However, it is vital to bear in mind that at any given time, it is thought that less than 20% of any given market is looking for a new role and the more senior the role, the smaller this percentage becomes. With this in mind, think about how important getting the best person is versus filling the role quickly. Most people in any industry cannot be considered part of your possible candidate pool with the agency approach to recruiting.

By contrast, a headhunter does not search job boards or place adverts as they do not wish to limit their exposure only to people searching for a new role; they want to speak with the people who would be best suited to their project and most likely to be a success if they are able to attract them. Although Executive Search can be used on any vacancy, it is usually reserved for strategic senior hires or roles that can be particularly difficult to fill. Typically, the best people are not looking for change because they are happy, well rewarded and appreciated so they need to be engaged by a headhunter. When you think of the top 10-20% of performers in your current organisation, how many of them do you think are actively seeking a new role?

Headhunters take a very different approach to their task; they research the market to identify the best suited people and approach them directly. Accordingly, executive search consultants target the pool of people who are ambitious and open minded to opportunities that could offer them some form of advancement or improvement, the largest part of the recruitment target pool. The Executive Search approach to recruitment is a more resource intensive approach working in an advisory capacity to clients as well as researching the whole market to cover a much broader spread of targets.

At Ortus Group, we specialise in senior-level executive search particularly in the legal and finance sectors. Good candidates are hard to come by and the best way to find them is to actively target who you want rather than simply accepting the best of those who happen to be actively looking at any given point in time.

Contact us today for a confidential enquiry about your firm or your career.