Who do headhunters hunt?


What does the work of a headhunter involve? And what difference is there between recruitment and headhunting? Let’s shed some light on the subject …

‘Recruitment’ is no doubt a term most of us are familiar with: it’s a process designed to find the right person for a job. It covers all of an organisation’s labour needs, from mapping what those needs are to helping the new recruit settle in. For the most part it focusses on marketing an organisation via public channels with the aim of attracting a sufficient number of suitably qualified jobseekers, but it can also involve a more proactive search for candidates. Headhunting, on the other hand, is a type of recruitment which fills a position by mapping specific individuals and personally approaching them.

Recruitment vs headhunting

Although recruitment and headhunting aim to achieve the same thing – to find the best person for a job – they use quite different methods to do so. Classic recruitment primarily involves public competitions, advertising on social media and in job portals and employer branding. The aim is to distribute information about the organisation and the job(s) in question as widely and enticingly as possible and to the appropriate target group so that people will apply.

In the course of headhunting, however, mapping takes place of people with the precise skills and experience needed for a post, who are then contacted directly and brought into the recruitment process in this way. The majority of talented people aren’t particularly active in searching for new jobs: they don’t check the positions vacant in job portals on a daily basis. At the same time, they may be open to at least weighing up new career opportunities and, if the conditions are right, changing jobs. These sorts of people are who headhunters hunt, since the aim is to find the best person overall – not the best among those who submitted their CVs.

The driving force behind success stories

By its very nature headhunting is not particularly ‘visible’ to the public, since it involves no recruitment campaigns, advertisements or media coverage. And yet headhunters have had a hand in the success stories of a large number of Estonian companies, building up strong teams and finding people for organisations who have taken their results to the next level. It is predominantly specialists, senior specialists and managers who are headhunted.

What does the process of headhunting involve?

First, the exact needs of the organisation are ascertained: what skills, qualities and experience are required for the job in question. Next, companies and branches of the economy that have the potential to produce the best candidate are mapped, then positions and finally specific people. Those who make the shortlist are contacted personally to determine whether they are interested in changing jobs and, if so, to include them in the recruitment process going forward.

Depending on the position, this may mean talking to as few as two people; however, it is more common for headhunters to talk to dozens. Sometimes it takes only a couple of phone calls and a couple of days to find the right candidate, but other times it can take months and months of building up relationships and negotiating.

Busting the myths surrounding headhunting

It is often thought that headhunting is essentially ‘buying someone out’. This couldn’t be further from the truth: in the two decades we have been working in the field of recruitment, we have never seen a single case of headhunting where someone has been contacted and simply offered more money to go and work for someone else. Which can be done, of course, but then it is not headhunting. As mentioned, headhunting is designed to find the best (and the most motivated) person for an organisation, not someone solely attracted by the promise of a higher salary.

Headhunting maps talented candidates with the appropriate professional background and involves talking to a number of different people, with the decision then being made by the organisation and the candidate themselves. Deciding to change jobs is almost always motivated by other factors, not (just) money: the lure of new challenges; the candidate’s dissatisfaction with their current workplace or manager; the chance to add to their skills in a different branch of the economy or an organisation of a different size; nuances in the work itself; opportunities further up the career ladder. And as with ordinary recruitment, salary negotiations tend to come at the very end of the process.

As such, being approached by a headhunter doesn’t equate to officially being offered a job – in the vast majority of cases there is still a selection process to get through, in which both the company and the candidate can assess how well suited they are before making their final decision. But it does mean, on the whole, that they have been spared the early stages of the regular recruitment process, skipping straight to the shortlist.

How does this all work in practice?

Below are some examples of headhunting projects we have carried out.

  1. A company producing glass facades for large buildings needed business managers in Scandinavia in order to expand beyond Estonia. These managers had to be familiar with the local market and have a network of potential new clients. By using local business registries, Google searches and a LinkedIn filter, we mapped glass facade companies in Finland, Denmark and Norway. We identified the business, operations and sales managers working for them and contacted those we selected.
  2. An Estonian company making bakery products was looking to recruit a product development specialist – essentially someone who had experience of developing and marketing new products in a mass-production context. Since the nature of such work is so specific, there are very few potentially suitable candidates, and they are unlikely to be regular browsers of job portals or possibly even have a CV to their name. As such, headhunting was required. We mapped the finalists from professional baking competitions in previous years and voila! We found a suitable candidate almost immediately.
  3. A company involved in data research in the medical field was looking for a leading specialist to fill a very specific position. They gave us the names of 10 people they recommended we get in touch with. We sought out their contact details and approached them, finding out first of all whether they were open to new career opportunities and, if so, explaining what the company in question had to offer.

Headhunting is also frequently used to find specialists. The profiles and CVs of finance, marketing, admin and sales people can often be found in job portals and on LinkedIn. If you are open to weighing up offers you should keep both your profile and your CV up to date so that they show up in recruitment searches, thus increasing your chances of being contacted directly.

How much does headhunting cost?

As a service, headhunting is offered around the globe, with competition on the given market determining its price – usually 15-25% of the gross annual salary of the position in question. In Estonia at the moment, that equates to between 4000 and 20,000 euros. As something that produces a great deal of value for an organisation, recruitment (and especially headhunting) tends to be very well paid as a salaried job as well.

What do headhunters get up to on a daily basis?

We can probably imagine what a GP’s day is like, or a teacher’s day at school, or a typical working day for a head of sales or a programmer; less so for a recruitment specialist or headhunter. Sometimes their work entails hours of trawling through the Internet, collecting information and researching markets; other times they spend all day making calls and sending e-mails, conducting interviews, holding meetings and visiting companies.

Headhunting is a complicated task that demands a masterful approach and a specific set of skills in how you search for things, how you evaluate and negotiate with people, how you go about marketing and what psychological insights you have. But more than anything else it is exciting to be so close to and involved in the business plans of organisations and people’s careers.Who