How to Choose a Head-Hunter

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Thus article is aimed at HR Managers and senior hiring managers and will hopefully give you some value and insider information when selecting a head-hunter for a specific task.One of the periodic headaches for any HR Manager or hiring manager is who to choose when a retained Executive Search is required. It’s a tricky one, I have both commissioned searches (up to £350k salaries) and sold search services. Based on my experience as a customer and a head-hunter, here’s a brief guide:

First thing to consider is when it is appropriate to use retained search over success based recruitment. Definitions, retained search is when a supplier is solely appointed to a project and their fee is split into an initial project retainer and one or more other payments either at stages or on success. Contingency or success based recruitment is when one or more suppliers are given the vacancies to fill and their work is paid for on successful delivery. A general definition is that a ‘Recruitment Consultant’ tends to work on a contingency basis and a “head-hunter” or “search consultant” tends to work on a retained basis. However, that is not always the case as depending on sector you get RCs who also offer, and are very capable head-hunters when appropriate and head-hunters who will be willing to work on a success only basis when it is appropriate. Choose on specialisation and reputation and not on job title.

When to use retained search?

A general rule of thumb I have always followed is consider retained search when the position is either business critical, senior, a very rare skill set or where confidentiality is required. If it is absolutely critical that you have the best available candidate in the market at that time in the job by a certain date then retained search is definitely the route to go down. Search and Selection Consultancies essentially sell risk management.

What service to demand/expect?

You are not just paying for the role to be filled. You are paying for the role to be filled by the best candidate available (when compared to their peers) at that moment in time and who is interested in the opportunity. This means that when you hire Mr Snooks you can rest easy knowing that Snooks has been selected against a thoroughly vetted shortlist that was based on a quality long list of potential candidates initially approached. Depending on the service level agreed as a minimum you should expect to be:

1/ provided with a shortlist of candidates selected from a long list (which should also be provided)

2/ comprehensive report on the reaction of candidates in the market to the client’s position and brand both positive and negative

3/ detailed interview and personal notes on each shortlisted candidate, unless exceptional circumstances occur the head-hunter should have met and extensively interviewed the candidate at least once.

4/ reference and document checking as well as qualification checking should be provided

5/ management of the candidate throughout the offer stage and throughout the notice period

6/ professional communication to all unsuccessful candidates

7/ evidence of the activities carried out during the search

8/ some after sales service.

 

 

Who to choose?

I’m going to make myself unpopular with some of my colleagues here. If you don’t do anything else, choose the head-hunter and not the company they work for. Head-hunters are like lawyers, they get to know their area of specialisation, they become respected within that area, they become trusted in that sector and within the pool of professionals within that sector, when they move their business tends to follow them. Appoint on this reputation and expertise of the delivering consultant. Remember, big names and fancy brands are OK if you want to make a big noise in the market and keep shareholders happy but if this isn’t a requirement, time spent finding niche experts will pay dividends. Over the last 8 years, more than at any other time, there has been huge churn within the search industry. Many household name companies have struggled and as a result, many of the expert consultants and head-hunters who worked for them have either left to set up their own businesses or are working with sector specific companies who, due to their smaller cost base, will be more willing to pay higher rates of commission to the best head-hunters. Ask your colleagues, who would they recommend as a head-hunter in the sector? Check on LinkedIn, it’s now a highly sophisticated source of information of this type. Another benefit is the smaller cost base of the independent specialist company means that your fees are usually less. You are not paying for Mayfair offices, a fleet of powerful cars, teams of researchers and admin or expense accounts, these businesses will be lean and mean and have seen a growth in recent years at the expense of the ‘big boys’. Above all remember that the amount of money you throw at the search doesn’t necessarily translate into successful delivery.

What to pay for?

Ensure you know what you are paying for. In the past some companies have charged excessively for additional expenses. Phone bills, paper, photocopying, secretarial support, travel are all extras which some search companies will charge you for. One business I had dealings with in the past (no, I won’t tell you who it was)once hit their client with a ‘supplemental recruitment charge’ of £10k as they were a few K short of their target that month and bolted the  charge onto the back of a search, the client paid it without question. Now sometimes these extras will be necessary and the search company might genuinely require assistance to pay for them. For example, you decided to take a suite of rooms at The Connaught for candidate interviews or there is a requirement to interview candidates in Australia etc. However, all these additional expenses can and should be discussed and agreed on before the search starts. Go through the terms of business with a fine toothed comb, if you feel it is necessary, get a procurement or commercial expert to help you with the terms and negotiation. You are the customer here.

 

Guarantee and after sales support

Most companies involved in recruitment offer a rebate scheme should the candidate leave . This is typically on a sliding scale and can be ayting from a week to 6 months. I offer a 12 month free replacement if the person I headhunted and placed decides to leave the business within the first year of employment. It is beyond me why this is so rare in the industry. Surely if you are doing your job properly then you should put your money where your mouth is. It also ensures after sales support. A new employee is a change in the business environment and change is always an issue. It is very important that the head-hunter, with the agreement of all parties, remains in touch with the individual hired after they start the new role. I have seen and experienced several incidents when after sales communication has prevented the hire from leaving or failing in the role, especially when the new hire is not given the support required, it often takes a 3rd party to highlight the issue to the employer or make HR aware so they can take action. This is after sales service and it can be highly effective if professionally used. I always offer it, it beats me why it’s so rare in the industry.

 

Which method you choose and which search company you appoint always ensure it and they are fit for purpose. High risk, confidential, senior, business critical, rare skills or bum-on-seat-by-definite-date then absolutely consider retained search. Otherwise contingency should do.

 

Next episode – “How to set up an In House Search Function, The Basics”

 

 

Why do I offer a 12 month 100% rebate on my placements?

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I’ve sat on both sides of the ‘recruitment fence’. I have been both poacher and gamekeeper. I understand the pressures that recruitment consultants face and I also understand the issues that the busy HR Manager has to deal with on a daily basis. The friction between both is well debated and obvious to all of us who work in either role. However, what is less examined is what can we do to make life easier for each party?

You see, as recruiters, we share the same goal. That is to ensure that the individual hired is the best person available for that role at that time and that the person hired remains in the role and adds value to their new employer by fulfilling and hopefully exceeding expectations. Which is why I often find it odd that such a great deal of time is spent negotiating rebate periods. In my entire 20 years in the industry I have never had to issue a rebate credit nor have I had to demand a rebate from a supplier. It is a rare thing but it is a valid concern.

We all know that recruitment is often about risk management. For an HR or Procurement professional, it’s very important to have peace of mind around after sales service, often missing from many agencies services.

This is why, for the last few years have offered a 12 month guarantee on my placements. I started doing this, not as a sales gimmick but rather to allow me to become more involved in the recruitment process, if I could demonstrate to my clients that I had a personal vested interest in getting the hiring decision right then they would be far more willing to trust my opinions and utilise my experience beyond that of a CV shuffler. As a buyer of recruitment services, I have never understood why more agencies don’t offer this. As an agent I know it is because it doesn’t often fit into the traditional agency business model. However, I take the approach that I’m not doing my job properly if I am not willing to offer this. Yes, it takes longer and delays sales but it ensures professionalism, and builds trust and that can only be a good thing.

With the advent of systems like Linkedin and the growth of in house recruitment specialists it has become increasingly important for recruiters to offer a level of service that goes beyond merely that of a CV shuffler. Any organisation can subscribe to one of the myriad of CV databases out there. Recruitment fees for what is essentially shuffling these CVs is hardly value for money. No matter how much you wish to automate a recruitment process, the more experience and expertise you can bring to an assignment the better. By offering this I am putting my money where my mouth is and from a professional point of view, ensuring that the client gets the benefit of their cash investment.

 

If you are in the business of hiring staff and you’d be interested in a 12 month 100% rebate on your hires then please drop me a line.

Never make a hiring decision alone!

car towards cliff

The hiring cliff, entrepreneurs are so focused on getting where they need to that they often miss the lethal drop of a poor hiring decision.

Here’s one that might seem obvious but is a banana skin especially for smaller and owner managed businesses and especially for the entrepreneur, so driven and focused on success.

Despite the well known catastrophic costs to businesses about making the wrong hiring decision managers and especially owner managers routinely make the mistake of not being thorough in their hiring process. The easiest way to do this is to ensure you involve someone else in the hiring process.

I’ll let you into a secret, one that I am far from proud of – I’ve been involved in recruiting and hiring both as an HR Manager and as a headhunter for nigh on 20 years and about 2 years ago I blithely wandered into this trap – one that I had been highlighting to clients for years. I thought that my years of experience would protect me from making a bad decision, after all, I have interviewed thousands of people over the years, how could I possibly make a mistake? At the time I was running an engineering business. Like many entrepreneurs I was snowed under, literally, with huge demands on my time. When it came time to hire someone I knew the dangers of getting it wrong but arrogantly assumed with my vast experience that this was unlikely to happen. So I hired a guy based on the recommendation of an associate for whom he was working for at the time. The interview process was, in reflection, quite shocking. Like many business people I was so caught up in my todo list and in the plans for the company that I didn’t do the basics, I relied on the recommendation of the third party without questioning their motives. I was too busy to give this the time I needed to.

I ended up eating a huge slice of humble pie as the individual we hired ended up being a disaster that cost the business tens of thousands, and has resulted in a criminal court case being pursued against the individual in question for theft.

So, what did I do wrong, how could I, with so many years experience of this, got it so wrong?

Now, in hindsight the reasons were obvious but it is very easy, especially with your own business to be so focused on the success of that business to end up falling into these very obvious traps. The mindset you need to succeed as an entrepreneur is one of optimism and positive attitude, you want to bring everyone with you and you will use your sheer force of personality to succeed. However, the mindset you need for interviewing is to temper this with a huge dollop of cynicism, yes sell the candidate your idea and your passion but do not expect that person to share your drive, ambition and passion. They are not you and their motives are not yours, you need to be quite hard on yourself and on them. This is a lot more difficult than it seems.

So, how can you easily avoid making the wrong decision?

The easiest way to avoid this is to ensure that you have at least a second opinion. Here’s some ideas of where to get that from:

– Professional HR Consultants are a very cost effective way to do this. Many offer a service that includes, writing a job spec, helping you shortlist, designing an interview schedule and supporting you with the interviews. They usually charge by the hour or day and you’d usually be looking at a few hundred for this support. Given the potential cost of getting it wrong, it’s money well spent and the time it will save you in process more than pays for itself. I provide a service for small local businesses that gives this support, many others do as well.

– Trusted colleagues, these must be appropriate, it would be inappropriate to ask a potential report of the new candidate to interview for their boss. If you are a small business think laterally,

-a non executive director (get them to earn their stipend!),

-a business consultant who might be working with you in another capacity,

-a friend who knows your business and who might run their own business.

– A family member with an interest in the business, your spouse for instance

-Consider using a headhunter/recruiter and putting the onus on them to support you. As a headhunter I offer a 100% rebate for the first 12 months. This allows me to become far more involved in the selection of the RIGHT candidate to the extent that I have supported client interviews. I have a vested interest in getting it right, not just in placing any old candidate. Very few recruiters offer this level of guarantee, if they don’t, ask them why not?

Whatever you do, make sure you get that second opinion on every candidate and do those checks.

Remember – the point interviewing is not to assess how well a candidate interviews

How many times have you sat in room with colleagues after an interview and someone has turned to you and said: “well they interviewed well”?

I’ve lost count. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I have reminded my fellow panel members that we are not there to assess how well someone interviews, we are their to work out if they are the best fit for the vacancy we are recruiting.

The pressures on ensuring consistency of assessment, especially in competency based interview there is always a danger that a gem of a candidate gets rejected because they didn’t shine at interview. I have always believed that it is the job of the HR manager on the panel to ensure that this doesn’t happen and you don’t end up missing the best candidate just because they are having an ‘off’ day. This can lead to absurd situations and can result in the wrong hire being made just because a candidate is a ‘good interviewer’ I’ve seen panels discuss this and still make the wrong decision “well, I thought ‘x’ would be our hire but she interviewed dreadfully and waffled on for ages and was nervous. ‘y’ however, he’s a superb interviewer and scored highly on the assessment form because of his answers”. As an HR professional you will likely be the most experienced interviewer on the panel. Therefore it is your job to ensure that you get the information you need to make a decision from each candidate no matter how nervous or stressed they are. Yes, an interview is a formal process but you are dealing with humans at the end of the day. We all have ‘off’ days.

I can distinctly recall one interview I managed some years ago. The interviewee was highly nervous, he’d been out of work for 6 months, had a family to support, was under huge financial pressure. The interview started and he was terrible. The first half dozen questions he made a total mess of and the more he could see we were disengaged the worse it got. After forty minutes of this I interrupted proceedings and said “would anyone like a cup of tea?” This stopped the candidate and the hiring manager, who had resorted to roasting the candidate, in their tracks. The tea arrived and we had a general chat. During this chat I confided in the candidate that I could well sympathise with his predicament. I’d been made redundant some years before and, despite being a professional interviewer could not get past second interview. I had a family to support and as under huge pressure and I couldn’t help this coming over in interview as nerves and desperation. My confidence was shot. Eventually I got a job but it was a miserable time which got worse and worse. Was he finding the same thing in his job search? From then on the candidate started to open up and relax. We started again and by the end of the interview all on the panel knew this was the guy for the job. We offered him the role and within the first 6 months he had won 400,000 Euros in new business for the company and opened up Benelux where they had no presence before.

car towards cliff

I’ve found that a bit of preparation with panel members can pay dividends. Pre empting the above situation by understanding a candidate’s personal circumstances and motivation can avoid this and saves everyone time.

 

I’ve found the following steps essential to ensure this doesn’t happen:

  • Spend 5 minutes before each interview running through the CV and circumstances with the line manager. Point out potential areas of concern and also whether or not the candidate is likely to be under stress sufficient to effect their interview conduct.
  • Ensure that you understand any apparent ‘weaknesses’ in the CV. For example: candidate made redundant 3 years ago, unemployed for 6 months, takes the first job that he is offered because he has a family to support but it didn’t work out. A candidate should not be judged too harshly for this. Get the line manager to put themselves in the candidate’s shoes, there is a world of difference between someone who is flaky and someone who had no choice but to take the job
  • Bear in mind the economic conditions out there. If a candidate has been unemployed for a year and has had dozens of interviews despite having huge experience and a lot to offer the chances are that his or her confidence has gone and that they are under huge stress in their personal life due to financial pressures etc. You must bear this in mind and look beneath the nerves. Such a candidate will frequently be an excellent hire because they are so grateful that you had the imagination to see beneath their stress
  • When conducting a Competency Based Interview, should the candidate answer a question with a poor example, ask them for another example, explain the reason for the question. e.g.” We are trying to ascertain how good you are in a crisis, can you think carefully about your career to date and tell us of an event which you believe best demonstrates your ability to ‘x’.”
  • By the same token, if a candidate wanders from the point of the question. Don’t sit there with a fixed grin on your face. Interrupt and being them back on track. What you interpret as lack of focus is often just nerves or even enthusiasm.
  • Desperation in candidates is not a bad thing. There are many things that can motivate it. If someone has a family to support and are unemployed, yes, they will be desperate. You need to see through this and understand and empathise with them. “didn’t like ‘x’ he was too desperate” is not an acceptable reason for rejection.
  • Remember that those who have only interviewed a few times in their career or are coming back from a long career break (back to work mums etc) will tend to be less slick at interview. Bear this in mind.
  • Above all, empathise with the candidate and don’t judge too harshly, there are often reasons for behaviour and interviewing is very stressful.

 

How to Talent Pipeline for HR Professionals

In the mid noughties I can recall sitting in the reception at Premier Foods HQ in St Albans, I was due to interview for an HR role. I had recently finished an interim assignment at Transport for London and was doing the rounds. I hadn’t considered the food sector before. One reason was an inherent prejudice, mostly through ignorance I had towards FMCG and especially food production – I simply didn’t get it. I’d spent much of my time prior to this working in the City as a headhunter. Finical Services, telecoms, new media, those were the cool places to work where the high flyers could be found. What did a smelly old Baked Bean factory have to offer or a bunch of cake peddlers? I could not have been more wrong.

The food industry in the UK is a hard forge. It is intensely competitive, customers are brutally demanding and relentless, suppliers uncertain, raw materials and commodities under pressure, factories aging, legislation burdensome, unions sparky and margins tight. The difference between success and failure can be down to a single person’s leadership skills. The margin between profit and loss is terrifying. I quickly began to understand that I could not have been more wrong. I had the privilege to work with some of the brightest and most talented managers I have encountered in my career, it remains a source of wonder how they could make profit from an intensely complex business armed with the most rudimentary systems and mostly from spreadsheets (this was pre SAP roll out you’ll understand).

Making my way to the factories the hands on leadership skills that management brought to the site became even more polarised. It became very clear to me that there was not only a huge risk to the business in losing key staff but that it was going to be essential to build a talent pipeline to ensure that any losses could be quickly replaced. This was more the case in the food industry that it was in any other industry I had worked in including rocket scientists. There was much talk of talent pipelining and there remains much talk around it, the problem is, time is against us all so, what can you do as a harassed HR professional to ensure that you have this key function covered.

Here’s a few pointers I picked up, hopefully they will be of some use to you:

 

  • Ensure you have identified the key talent positions within your area of the business, who are the key individuals who are really making the difference?
  • Once identified accept the fact that no matter how good your retention strategy, people move on therefore you have to plan how to replace them
  • Draw up a replacement strategy before it happens – a bit like the papers already have obituaries written for the famous, do the same – will we need an interim? Can we promote? Do we have a target list of individuals? Should we bring in a headhunter? Do we have a budget? Ensure that these documents clearly state that this is risk management strategy, and keep them highly confidential.
  • Start to keep a record of those who you interview especially those who impressed but were unsuccessful
  • Consider investing in a recruitment management system that allows you flexibility, it makes tracking people a lot easier, there are several excellent systems available some of which are highly scalable from the smallest of operations to the largest and can be surprisingly reasonable round cost
  • Build close relations with your trusted recruitment suppliers (you would say that, you’re a headhunter these days! I hear you cry. Yes, I am but I’ve also had to design and implement these strategies. Keep the effective ones close and draw them into confidence, it will ensure you have a quick go to solution as well as hopefully keep them from headhunting your key staff) get them to work with you, and be selective in who you use. It’s not jam jars or wheat you are buying, it’s talent.
  • Start to keep organisation charts of your competitors, these don’t have to be complex but it helps if you know who is on the x team at so and so or who the senior management team are at the factory in Bristol. You can gather this information from a number of sources, Linkedin, CVs, conferences etc. Even if it is just a simple black book, write it down, it is easy to forget.
  • Check to see if there is a company succession plan in place and if so, how realistic is it, succession plans are often created to tick boxes rather than to implement. Even if there is a plan in place, you might want to draw up a specific strategy for those key roles.
  • Check with senior management, do they foresee any change in the role should the key employee leave? Again, stress this is risk management, you don’t want to build a constructive dismissal case by mistake!
  • If you outsource your recruitment, don’t outsource the management or process of recruiting key staff, it is too vital to your business area and your value as an HR Business Partner to rely on a service who is not directly answerable to your employer. Keep tight control of the process and insist on being involved even if procurement force you to use an RPO. Keep tight control of your suppliers and go out of your way to support line managers and add value at interview time, it will pay dividends and ensure that the right candidate is professionally handled and flattered from day one and minimise the risk of them being inadvertently put off the opportunity by clumsy, inexperienced communication or interviewing.
  • Get this bit right and your life will be easier when the new key employee comes on board, you will already have a relationship with them and they will already see the value you can bring to their role.

 

This just scratches the surface, some organisations spend significant funds in building talent management and pipelines. However, just because your employer doesn’t it doesn’t mean you can’t do so on a local or micro scale. The starting point should be risk management anyway, which people can you not afford to lose – then work backwards from that. It doesn’t require much to make a huge difference and if you initiate this you’ll get major brownie points. Bear in mind the points above and it will not only allow you to get on the front foot but you may even shower yourself in glory as you miraculously produce a confident strategy, or even the CVs of the replacements at the very meeting their despairing manager gives you the news that they are off. If you get really stuck give me a bell.

 

With over 20 years experience in recruitment and talent management Richard Palmer has worked as both poacher and gamekeeper. He designed and rolled out the first in-house search team in the public sector and has hands on experience of designing and implementing talent pipelining and management strategies in several industries. He now works as a headhunter, talent consultant and interim management specialist in the UK Food industry.