There is a lot of mystery and misinterpretation of what is involved in a headhunt assignment. Often recruiters fall into one of two groups, those who think being a Headhunter is some super difficult search technique they can only aspire to understand one day, or those who think a few direct approach calls producing a handful of candidates will suffice. In my opinion both are wrong.

Conducting a headhunt does take application and an ability to see things through, however the skills required aren’t that far away from contingent recruitment. However making a few calls producing a handful of candidates is not a headhunt, and certainly will not result in loyal clients who will call you with their next senior appointment.

The ways the headhunting businesses I’ve built conduct their assignments are to excel in two very key areas.

  • Fill the position with the very best possible candidate available
  • Do it in a way the client feels they’ve had real value for money and come back for more!


 What is a genuine headhunt?


My definition of a genuine headhunt is where you as a recruiter identify all the professionals possible who fit the criteria of the person specification for the headhunt you’re retained on, and make direct approaches to every single one possible (and that’s not an Inmail on LinkedIn!) If your headhunt assignment is a “generalist” headhunt i.e. not sector specific, this is one heck of a task. But even for a market specific role this means not only the clients sector but also any allied sectors where someone might exist with the skills that match your job brief. This means being very, very thorough and delivering real quality, which is the big differentiator.

For the purposes of this blog I’m going to deal only with sector specific searches, because these are the most common and the type I get asked about the most. The generalist headhunt is for another blog. 

Also for this blog, I’ll keep it focused on how to deliver a headhunt, not sell one (again this is another blog). However, I will touch on some aspects of search delivery you will use to sell to your client, so if you want to learn to sell search read on, this blog might help.  


The mind-set for first class headhunt assignment delivery.


The vast majority of recruiters are brought up to believe getting a candidate placed is the most important thing, not necessarily getting the best candidate for your client. Just fill it fast, get paid, and spend your commission! Yes this can make you a big biller in contingent recruiting, but it does mean you’ll always have to do new business as you won’t get as many repeat, loyal clients as you need. My ethos has always been quality, quality, quality. This ethos delivers clients who value you and return that with loyalty, your positive reputation spreads, and hey presto you spend virtually all of your recruitment day just filling assignments with clients ringing you every time they want a new hire. This is how I became such a big biller, and was reflected in the culture of the recruitment businesses I built. I also feel recruiting with quality as the main driver is a far more enjoyable and rewarding way to work.

This is also why I think I found moving to headhunting so easy; I had the right mindset. If your client is going to give you a third of the fee up front and pay you a 50% higher rate than you get for your success only work, believe me they will expect quality. This is not just the quality of candidates you put forward, but the whole process needs to be so much better than your usual candidate search. So if you’re the sort to see tasks through to the end and/ or don’t have a resourcer to do it for you, then you may struggle with the delivery aspect.  There’s no room for “that’ll do” in  true search delivery. 

Sorry if this has put you off, but this is a blog to help you complete searches in a way that I have experienced will generate regular repeat business from your client, not hit and run recruitment.

Where to start.


During the sales process you should have sold to your client that you will not only show them the list of target companies you will headhunt from, but also a report to show who you have identified and what their responses were to your approach. This is important in the sales pitch because it reassures the client that they will be able to see what they get for their money. It also transforms your intangible “trust me” to that of substance.

Showing your client the source company list is great for both sides. This allows the client to remove any companies that a) they don’t respect and so wouldn’t take someone from, b) have too good a relationship with to headhunt from and c) any group companies you may have unwittingly included! This saves you wasted time, plus it reassures the client on the work you’ll be doing on their search. The latter is extremely helpful for two reasons: -

  1. a)           Your client is far more likely to leave you alone to get on with the headhunt rather than asking for constant updates.
  1. b)          Your client is far more likely to take someone from your shortlist, secure in the knowledge there are no other places as a recruiter you could’ve looked.

This second reason is key; having the millstone round your neck of a client who has paid you a retainer but expects you to do the search again because they’re not satisfied with your shortlist is no fun at all. So you need to do all you can to get your client to see the shortlist you present as the very best they could possibly get, with no doubt there may be more out there.


 Word of caution.


Before you show your client the list of target companies, here’s a clever little safe guard. Compile your list, then name gather on that list of companies BEFORE you show the list of companies to the client. “But I thought them seeing the list first saved me time?” you ask. Yes, but it could also leave you open to looking like you don’t know your market, plus a search report list with lots of companies with no names identified to headhunt. 

Your list of source companies should cover every single company out there that could contain your placement/candidate.  To put this list together, in addition to your sector knowledge, you will have to use Internet research to cover all bases. In doing this you are open to old or misleading information e.g. businesses that have gone bump or changed their name, one-man bands and businesses that purport to be in the sector you’re targeting but in reality it’s only a tiny part of what they do. If you do your name gathering and research before you give your list to your client, you have a far higher chance of eliminating these businesses out. It also means you’re only presenting companies you can actually gather names from. Some companies you may come up against a brick wall in identifying who in that business can do your role, or there being no one in the company who undertakes that role. So finding this out first, and taking these companies off your list removes those conspicuous gaps with no name next to any companies on your report. Lastly, you can be picking up market info during this process. So when you give your client the list, if they ask any challenging questions on your market knowledge you’re more likely to have the smart answers ready! 

It’s also good practice to go through the list with your client and probe for any candidates known to them in these companies they wouldn’t take, any they’ve already spoken to, and importantly any they know of that they rate. Again, another way of saving yourself time. You can also be quite smart in dropping a few names into the conversation you’ve picked up at the name gathering stage and look even more well connected! 

To present your list to your client, ask that they add or omit any businesses from the list and “sign it off”. Getting them to sign off or OK the list means they are semi committed to your list as the only place you need to conduct your search, leading them to be far more likely to simply choose from your candidates shorltist, safe in the knowledge you’ve looked everywhere. 


Name gathering


Otherwise known as mining for candidates, but regardless of what you call it, it’s compiling your target list of people to approach.

How to name gather well is a key subject and will be influenced on the type of role you are headhunting on and the sector. It could also be another blog as it is a skill in itself. But for as much as illustrative purposes I’ll touch on a few techniques to get those names.


Call the company

 This is where I prefer my recruiters to start. It’s too easy to rely on LinkedIn, often this info is old, candidates use poetic license to describe their role, and wont allow you to be thorough.  Lazy recruiters rely too heavily on LinkedIn and you can’t be lazy if you want to deliver a quality headhunt. So start with ringing the company and using whatever story you think best to get the info of the name of person or people that cover the role you’re headhunting on. You may want to pretend to be a potential client, trade association or discipline association. Simply be creative to gather the name(s) you need. Depending on the role, I’d suggest you find out who else is in the surrounding roles in case they also fit your spec.


Yes still use LinkedIn, it is an amazing tool. You can check out the profiles of “people similar” and “people also viewed” to those you’ve identified on the phone that could also be right for your job.


 Playing around with search terms, look for job titles in the sector, discipline directories, and trade directories. Again depending on the role, there could be some smart search string to use here.

Also boolean searching …

Some of the good database systems will allow you to Boolean search through their interface, and there are also other tools that conduct long tail Boolean string searches from a variety of sources all in one place, a good example is Source Hub.

To x-ray search LinkedIn yourself directly via Google (particularly useful at the moment if you don’t have some of the higher level LinkedIn subscriptions to access full profiles of 3rd degree connections). Use the below command followed by any additional search phrases such as job title, skill or location, separated by the syntax operators (), “”, AND, OR.

 (( AND ( OR AND -dir)


Do you show the client the populated target list?


You can show your client the list of names identified before you make your calls, however if it’s a new client I’d probably hold back. The reasons for this is, on the odd rare occasion it can lead to reminding your client of someone they “know”, commenting they’re already in conversation with the prospect when in fact its someone they know is right for the job and they’re kicking themselves for not tapping them up before retaining you! Also as it’s the first time they’ve used you for a headhunt, they may read your list thoroughly and spot some mistakes you’ve made in the name gathering or some of your web research maybe out of date and which will undermine their confidence in you.

One you’ve conducted one or more searches for your client I would suggest showing them the list, by then you should have built trust and respect so the above shouldn’t apply.


How to make the headhunt call.


Since the advent of LinkedIn, it’s handy to have it open on the target candidates profile for every call. This way when you do get into a conversation with the target candidate you can drop in details of their career to sound like you’ve really done your research, so inflating their ego plus gaining respect for your work. It can also help if they aren’t interested, to use the follow up referral question “I understand you used to work at ABC company who there in your opinion would be best suited to this role”.


How to make your approach call.


We all know most candidates complain about “recruiters pestering me all the time” so this can bring on the PPI call syndrome i.e. they just fob you off without even listening to the fantastic new employment opportunity you’re offering them .  The pre pitch intro should at the very least get past this ever increasing PPI call syndrome, plus it may not actually be convenient for your target to concentrate on what you’re saying so if you pile into your pitch you could lose a great candidate who’ll just fob you off. 

The pre pitch intro is your greeting and opening hook of what the call is about, before you sell the opportunity to your target candidate. As an example, below is a standard intro I have passed on to some of the headhunters I had in my businesses to use as a starting point. The reason I say starting point is, I do recommend measuring the ratio of success of call-to -interest in your pre pitch intro, then altering your pitch, measuring again, and over time honing a pitch that has the best call to interest ratio for you and your sector.

“Good morning/ afternoon Mr. /Mrs. X or Christian name (your sector will generally prefer one of Christian name or Mr. /Mrs. so you choose) we’ve not spoken before my name is Joe Bloggs, I’m a specialist headhunter for the ABC sector. I’ve found specialist headhunter gets the attention more than recruiter.

“The reason why I’m calling you is I’ve been retained by one of my key clients.” Keeps the senior headhunter style going.

“to search for the very best person possible (optional insert of generic role e.g. in the Design arena) for a role that’s pivotal to the growth of their business.” This bit may need some finessing depending on your role but make sure you pump up your need to find the best talent, and a phrase that ups the importance of the role in your clients business. 

“You’ve been recommended to me as being highly regarded in this area.” People love to think someone else is saying good things about them hence the recommended and the phrase highly regarded.

“and I wanted to speak with you about this role, is now a good time to speak?” As you want to speak with them about this role even if they’re not interested in the role themselves, hopefully you’ll have pumped up their ego and your headhunter status enough they’ll still be happy to talk more to you, which may lead to a referral, them as a future candidate or even better a future client.

 This might need to be adapted depending on the role but it’s a very good starting point. Try using this against your usual intro and measure the ratio of success, adapt and find the best one for you.


Do you initially leave a voice mail?


I prefer not to so I would suggest you try a few times, and leave no message . But this can’t go on forever, so you will eventually have to leave a message. I’d also vary between calling from a landline, mobile and even a second mobile number. If your office number is withheld a lot of people now won’t take anonymous calls to avoid the dreaded telesales of PPI, plus if you have alternate numbers you can use you won’t look like a stalker! To increase the chances of a return call, I try the vanity card again; “Hi Christian name (Mr. or Mrs. will sound like sales call) you’ve been recommended to me can you call me back on” and leave a mobile number. They won’t always call back but this isn’t a bad way to increase your chances through intrigue.


The second blog in this series of two covers: 

  • The headhunt call to get the highest interest to call ratio
  • How to interview the candidate in a way that creates business and gives you plenty for your interview notes
  • How to present your client with the shortlist in a way they see huge value and commit to interviewing all your shortlist
  • And finally how to add the real value to ensure your clients come back to you every time for more.


- Written by Davidson Gray Managing Director Rhys Jones.

Rhys’ experience has come from progressing from a  big billing contingent recruiter to a successful headhunter and onto building two Headhunting firms. Rhys sold out of those businesses in 2014 to focus on working with recruitment start ups with every one to date being a success.

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