How to grab the attention of a jobs headhunter

August 4, 2014 | The Guardian

If you have dreams of being the boss, you'll need to attract the attention of a head hunter.  Here's how to get on their radar

By Anna Lewcock

Do you have dreams of the corner office? Plan to be a senior exec or CEO one day? Chances are you won't land in that padded leather seat by scouring the job boards, for these roles are the realm of the executive search consultant – the headhunter.

Headhunters work differently to the recruitment agencies you might be familiar with. They're paid a retainer by a company to go out into the market, research behind the scenes and identify the very best people for a specific role, and then approach them directly – even if they're not looking for a job. "It's a proactive process," explains Sue Rossiter, managing director and European practice lead for DHR International's global life sciences practice. "Rather than finding jobs for people, we're finding people for jobs."

Although usually focusing on 'C-suite' roles (often with six-figure salaries), executive search firms are also regularly used for other senior positions or to fill vacancies requiring very specialised or unusual skillsets.

Becoming a target

So how do you get yourself on a headhunter's hitlist? It's all about your visibility, your network, and your reputation. "LinkedIn and Twitter should be a given today," says Richard Shea, managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, at international search firm Futurestep. "Candidates can stand out in these saturated spaces by positioning themselves as a commentator on relevant topics." Always be aware of the self you're portraying through your online presence, and use it to your advantage.

This personal branding is something you need to tackle head on if you want to appear on a headhunter's radar, particularly in terms of establishing yourself as an expert in your field. Keep up to date with industry news, and always have something to say. "Getting noticed and referenced by people as an authority and as somebody who knows their subject well is really important," says Rossiter. Speaking at conferences or blogging will help build your profile, as well as helping you hone important communication skills.

You'll need to conquer any networking fears if you hope to build up enough of a profile to be recommended when a headhunter is calling round, so make sure you always have business cards handy. Join professional organisations, attend networking and social events and be seen. "There's only so much we can get from looking at a LinkedIn profile or reading somebody's blog, we've got to meet people face to face and know all the key players in the industry," explains Edith Udemezue, who heads up the life sciences practice at Futurestep. "We get a good number of names through recommendations and referrals."

Hard and soft skills

Being known isn't the only important thing. "First and foremost, be exceptional at what you do in terms of your technical capabilities and your subject matter," says DHR's Rossiter. The most successful candidates will be high achievers, both academically and in their careers. Add softer skills like leadership, teamwork, and excellent communication skills, and you're more likely to start appearing on a headhunter's radar.

Know your sector and what will make you a strong contender for senior roles. Would additional qualifications help? Speaking another language? Turn any unusual career routes into a selling point to help you stand out from the crowd. In the financial services sector, for example, banks have become keen to recruit candidates from more diverse backgrounds to bring in a different style of thinking and problem solving post-financial crisis, says Futurestep's Jason Smallwood.

The world's your oyster

An international flavour to your CV will reap rewards. "No more than around 20% of what we do is contained within one geography," says Rossiter. The remainder will be international searches, often across the globe. If you're able to relocate then your career is likely to be more dynamic, and make you attractive to larger multinational firms.

If you haven't worked in another country, you can still add an international dimension to your work experience. "In an increasingly global workplace, having a knowledge and appreciation of other cultures (and markets) is a distinguishing quality in today's talent pool," says Shea. Learning a foreign language is an obvious way of demonstrating this, but working closely with foreign departments within your company or international suppliers will help you expand your network and show you have an appreciation of workplaces outside your home country.

Make the first move

It's not a one-way street – there's nothing to stop you contacting a headhunter and letting them know you're in the market. "Definitely go out there and meet with the right headhunter," says Udemezue. "Stay in touch – we may not be retained for something specific at that time, but we'll remember you."

And if you're not quite at the point where you can command a six figure salary, there's no harm in reaching out a little early. "Part of our role is to talent spot in an industry and see who's coming through," says Rossiter. That way they can talk to people about specific roles when the timing is right.

And if you are lucky enough to get a call from a headhunter? "Always take the call," says Udemezue. "You might not be looking for something right now, but it's always good to keep in touch with a good headhunter because you never know when you may be looking for an opportunity."

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