Notes on a scandal
Like a torrid love affair, poaching talent from another company is a secretive, sly and sneaky business. Get into the furtive business of headhunting. By Lisa Cheong
The art of persuading a talent to move to another company is akin to a secret affair. Most times, it is done on the sly, manifesting itself in corners of cafe where secrets are traded, negotiation tactics laid out and cards laid out on the table.
Could it be a skill that will emerge on internal recruiters or resourcing specialists’ CV? It may well happen. With the war for talent heating up, the best people companies want to hire will not be available in the job market. Instead, these “high potentials” would have been snapped up by smarter companies, which will do their best to retain them.
The option to engage the services of a headhunter will always be available, but some companies have chosen to take on a different stream by choosing to build an external talent pool of suitable and qualified candidates and tapping into this database whenever a new position opens up. Other times, HR leaders may have to suss out new contacts in the market to build an external talent pool to fill in potential succession planning options.
So how do headhunters make a business out of convincing the uninterested? We ask three headhunters around town how they go about doing their job.
The first touch
When it comes to building up a talent pool, utilising all touch points is essential, says Steven Pang, regional Asia director of Aquent. While recruitment ads definitely have a part to play, headhunters Human Resources spoke to say they only use that as one of their many means of contact.
Catherine Lim, consulting manager of the executive placement division at Kelly Selection says everybody she meets is a potential contact. While she has built a contact pool by attending networking functions and industry talks, she has also managed to garnered new contacts from unorthodox means such as motorshows and boutiques as well.
Building up a pool of contacts is easier when there is a strong employer brand in the market. Because of Aquent’s niche in the marketing, media and communications industry, Pang says his company’s branding and recruitment ads in marketing-related magazines helps retain a top-of-mind awareness when candidates are looking to move.
Furthermore, social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are also growing in prominence among headhunters. For example, Facebook is a more effective recruitment tool for advertising and creative agency crowd, but LinkedIn is how Aquent gets in touch with corporate brand and marketing people.
But above all else, headhunters agree headhunting is a business that is built on relationships, one where ties and reputation are valued above all else. Matthew Chapman, managing director of The Chapman Consulting Group goes by the mantra that “good people know other good people” which is why he relies heavily on networking and contact referrals.
Getting down and dirty with it
While meeting people at an event is one way to start a contact base, other times, headhunters simply have to cold-call a potential candidate whom their client is eyeing and convince them to leave their current position.
Cold-calling a new contact may seem like a daunting task, but several techniques can increase the chances of getting a person to open up to you. According to Lim, the lack of time with senior executives means that headhunters have to make a good first impression on the phone within the first few sentences. By Lim’s modus operandi, she would then take the opportunity to introduce herself and lay out the objectives of the phone call within the first minute or so.
Because senior executives are not likely to feel comfortable divulging sensitive details like background and salary information over the phone, headhunters usually try to set up a coffee meeting in the future. “You can’t call a stranger and expect the stranger to give you their CV. In fact, some senior hires don’t even have a CV. It then boils down to how a headhunter sits down and interests them in exploring [an opportunity],” Lim adds.
The first coffee meeting is where Pang also builds up a relationship with the potential candidate, he says. In order to build trust among the two parties, headhunters have to do more than extract information from the candidate. Pang says, there has to be a fair amount of information swapping, where a headhunter provides information such as career advice, salary and hiring trends. “Nobody wants to come to a headhunter be asked questions,” he says.
Even if sparks fly during the headhunter and candidate's initial meeting, there is no guarantee that a meeting like this would be able to pay off in the immediate future. Instead, headhunters bank on the strength of the relationship, that their names would be the top-of-mind when the time comes for the candidate to look for a new job.
Chapman adds, “Some headhunters may think of people as just a candidate or just a client. But in actual fact, most relationships will go from candidate to client, and client to candidate. So a good headhunter will recognise the long-term nature of a relationship.”
The art of flirting
Can even the most contented employee be persuaded to jump into a new job? The answer, headhunters say, is a resounding yes.
But time, or the lack thereof, can be a factor into a headhunter’s decision as to whether to seek out passive or active jobseekers. While Chapman will look for active jobseekers for clients who urgently need to fill the positions, but he says he would prefer to headhunt for the best qualified candidate if the position is not needed that urgently.
To persuade a person who is happy in their current job only requires more time and effort. But while the process more complicated, it is definitely not impossible to poach a person who is happy with their current job, says Chapman.
When poaching, it is important to understand the inertia which prevents a person from making the jump. Chapman says many people are hampered from taking on a new job because it will mean leaving behind the loyalty, trust and credibility that they’ve built. “And when push comes to shove, that is often one of the things that stops people from moving from the current company.”
Based on his previous experiences, Pang also cites cultural factors as something which could come into play. One such example is older Japanese executives, for whom the decision to switch jobs also involves the family as well.
To find out what’s lacking in their current job, it all boils down to pushing the right buttons of the candidates and asking the right questions. “The first question I ask when I interview someone is 'Why are we talking? What are you looking for? What are your push and pull factors?” From these answers, Pang then uses the information to craft a proposal for the potential candidate.
Other times candidates may not be explicit in saying what they want, and this is where good listening skills kicks in, says Lim. “When you talk to the person, and the person talks about his family, you probably get the idea that the person is family-orientated. When we talk about relocation, would the person want to move out of Singapore? And if he does, would he want his children to go?”
Lim cites a previous candidate who told her he travelled for work so often that his son did not recognise him. “And after talking to him, you realise that he was working at a job that needed more work-life balance. Then you can pair him up with certain organisations that can provide a work-life balance as opposed to others that cannot afford that due to the nature of the business.”
But for a potential candidate who might have the fear that it would be a risk to “step out of the current company”, Chapman says informal involvement from the company’s end can help ease some of the candidate’s concerns. Furthermore, because the new company is at a disadvantage when it comes to luring a contented employee, it has to demonstrate that the company can offer a better proposition in comparison to the candidate’s current work situation. Unfortunately, Chapman says companies often neglect how powerful informal meetings such as phone calls, coffee dates and after-work drinks can help in establishing a new relationship.
While skill sets are easy to match up on paper, finding the suitability of whether the person is a good fit for the company is often a little trickier to define. This is where headhunters are often similar to matchmakers, discovering attributes of interested parties and pairing them together. But how do they arrive at these decisions?
According to Chapman, knowing that a person right for a company is largely based on “gut instinct”. While he thinks this “gut instinct” may be an inherent trait, he adds, “[But] I think after you’ve met a large number of people and a large number of companies, you start to connect the dots. And it is not an exact science, and sometimes you make mistakes.”
What is important, Chapman says, is that both parties know what they are looking for, but are open-minded enough to be influenced when the situation changes.
Lim agrees, saying that knowing the candidate is largely dependent on the quality of information that the client company provides which needs to go beyond just the basic job functions and description. “For example a salesperson would need to know what technical support there is. For a CEO role, he needs to know what the challenges the company is facing now,” she says.
Don’t kiss and tell
As with any other courtship, it isn’t all smooth-sailing and there are mistakes which headhunters make which turn a potential candidate off.
The top blunder? Being too aggressive and pushy.
Citing her own experience where she was sitting beside her managing director when a phone rang, Lim, thinking it was a client, then picked up the phone. Without asking if it was a convenient time for Lim, the headhunter immediately rattled on about a job opportunity which he wanted to pitch. In an attempt to pry herself off the phone, Lim took his number down and promised to call him back.
“But one hour later he called me back,” Lim says, adding that the headhunter was too pushy and did not give her enough space.
“Of course we can help influence people in a situation and help people see things that they would otherwise miss, but they can’t push someone into accepting a job,” adds Chapman.
Discretion and being careful with sensitive information is also something recruiters have to be careful with. When a prominent senior executive moves, any movement may cause company shares to fluctuate. Or if the role is for an entirely new function, divulging the name of the company may give their business strategy away to their competitors.
Because of the small job market and the way gossip travels, even the leak that a person is thinking about the possibility of moving may hurt his career chances, says Lim. This is why many headhunters choose to meet in coffee joints or in neutral territory – away from meeting rooms and cubicles where they might bump into other people.
In the end, headhunters Human Resources spoke to understand that the work they have comes with great responsibility. Pang says, “They need to listen and not just pitch. They should also be concerned about the advice they are dishing out. Is it good for you and your career?”
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