by Nick Booth

What are headhunters looking for?

Jun 03, 200910 mins
CareersEnergy IndustryGovernment

It’s flattering to be headhunted: at least somebody has recognised that you’ve got something, although you could say the same about being burgled. But a good search executive can also be a wise counsel and a good mentor. But how do you find the right one? Or how do they find you? We spoke to a selection of leading CIO recruiters to ask them about their roles, the market and what CIOs should do to get themselves noticed. Frederik Hansen Senior consultant, Huxley Associates How does a CIO typically come to the attention of a headhunter? The names are all out there in the market – being the one headhunted for the position is simply a question of how accessible your contact information is. Networking tools like LinkedIn, Naymz and Xing are eagerly used by the headhunter.

What advice would you give CIOs waiting to be headhunted? Getting yourself on the databases of various agencies to receive the occasional job offer improves your chances with regards to timing. Depending on how specific the sought profile is, there is only a short timeframe to secure a spot on the shortlist of candidates for the job. So if you only apply when you are actively looking to move, the chances that the right role is already vacant will be slimmer. Is being headhunted recognition of outstanding work or the fact that you have a prestigious employer? Prestigious employers are always great to attract headhunters. The fact that you’re at a great employer implies you must have exhibited an especially appealing skillset. But, working for leading brands is not a guarantee of attracting the best job offers.

Headhunters tend to match former employers with those seeking to achieve the best fit in terms of culture and responsibilities, so if you are looking for a change in that department, this needs to be specifically pointed out. Recognition of outstanding work is a self-seller, so producing awards, certificates, press clippings and/or letters of recommendation on public profiles will definitely lead to an increase of interest by headhunters. Does it help if you raise your profile within the industry? How can you do your own PR? Being active in blogs or public forums will raise awareness of your profile, so yes, it does help. Click here to read the CIO UK research on personal branding and PR. What will impress a headhunter? They want to see that you know what it is you are looking for, but willing to consider your options. They want to know that you are aware of your strengths without boasting, and conscious of your limitations. Flexibility is important for headhunters, while being too vague about your intent can be offputting. What else puts a headhunter off? Appearing too busy. Nothing bothers a headhunter more than a candidate that seems to think he is the only one with work on his hands. Headhunters will call you outside working hours because their business requires them to do so. They will be waiting for your documents on weekends so you have time to prepare them from home. Generally speaking, good headhunters will invest a lot of time in your search without any guarantee that their clients will hire you – so take their calls and action their requests promptly. You’re not the only one who’s married with kids and a Tuesday night football meeting. Another point that will drive a headhunter away is a candidate refusing to go to interviews that have been arranged for him. Take the time to meet the clients they match you with; if the talk doesn’t work out, simply give a direct feedback and the headhunter will realign his efforts – that’s his business after all. Who knows, maybe the talk will even be surprisingly positive. Refusing to go lets the headhunter appear unprofessional in front of clients, and will perhaps lead to him dropping your file.

John Whiting (pictured) Managing director, Harvey Nash Who are headhunters looking for these days? The good news is we’re still taking briefs for CIOs and the market is fairly buoyant. The reason is that companies realise they need to make changes, and anyone who has experience of being involved in a company transformation has valuable experience. We’ll want to know what your contribution was though. Everyone will claim they took part in, say, a project that slashed costs, or created a system that catered for new markets. But the acid test is what you actually did. What effect did you personally have on the business? A crucial question that comes up often now is: what experience do you have of mergers and acquisitions? Four or five year ago, the demand for people with experience of going through mergers and acquisitions surged, and it’s still in demand now. Anyone with due diligence experience has got a competitive advantage [in today’s CIO employment market].

How do you get headhunted? Is it all about blowing your own trumpet? Well, branding is important. We’ve carried out a study on branding and found it has a significant influence in a career of a CIO. It’s important to brand yourself, whether it’s internally or externally. Click here to read the Harvey Nash CIO UK branding research. How do you do that? Speak at conferences, become a press contact, blog. Make sure you network. Your profile on LinkedIn should be set up and updated.

Don’t people only go to LinkedIn when they’re on the jobs market? That’s the big question. Should you wait to be poached or look to make a move? In some ways you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. It’s very important [to spend time raising your profile] because you spend decades on your career, so it makes sense to make sure you get the recognition you deserve.

Do headhunters use people? There are organisations out there that waste people’s time. They interview them when there’s no definite job anyway. Sometimes they’re just testing the water. Sometimes they’re seeing if the talent is out there before they think of embarking on some project they’re undecided about. You need to ask questions to reveal the company’s intentions. Ask if any budget has been approved yet for your appointment. Has the headcount been signed off? Is this a new position, or has the previous person left? Some companies will set up interviews, find a person they want, and then retrospectively try to get approval for the appointment, or the project, they are mooting. And sometimes they are turned down. So they intended to give you a job, but the role wasn’t there in the first place. In the public sector, often the position is already allocated, but they’re obliged to advertise the position. The interviews can be a formality.

Anything else candidates should ask? Ask direct questions like ‘how do I compare with the other candidates?’ Yes, it could make you sound vulnerable, but it gives you feedback on how the interview is going and gives you the chance to address the problem. For example, they might think that you’re not strong on, say, leading a project during a period of merger and acquisition. But it could be that you haven’t had a chance to talk about that yet. If you find out that you haven’t presented your best case, that’s valuable feedback.

What mistakes might candidates make at interview? You need to stress how business-oriented you are. Everything you do will support the business. The maverick techie who thinks they can lead the business won’t get anywhere in the current environment.

Emphasisehow aware you are of the bottom line. That doesn’t necessarily mean stripping out costs. It could mean improving the production process and cutting the time it takes to get a product to market. Don’t take credit for a project unless you can prove your contribution though.

Doesn’t everyone take the credit for good ideas? Yes, good ideas have many parents, while bad ideas are always orphans. But don’t be tempted to try and take credit where it’s not due. A good interviewer will tease out of you telling information. They’ll probe to find out what your personal contribution was to a successful project.

Satnam Brar Managing director, Maximus (specialist ERP recruiter) There’s not much demand for a CIO who specialises in driving ERP projects in the current climate, is there? True, companies have tended to cut back on non-essential software projects, but there is still a surprising amount of demand – more so abroad, because their economies aren’t suffering as much as ours. As a company we’re not seeing a slowdown, but we’re not a strictly UK-centric company. There is a lot of negative thinking in the UK, but in the rest of Europe we’re seeing growth. Companies can’t afford to stop certain software projects, so there are still opportunities out there. The good thing about working the foreign markets is that the exchange rate is in your favour if you’re being paid in foreign currency.

Where are the opportunities? There are niches with positive growth. But in general in the UK there is zero growth. In France and Germany and in central and eastern Europe there is at least some growth. Spain and the Nordic countries are also quite attractive. The UK though, offers the lowest growth at the moment – we’re standing still and we may even see a period of retraction.

What are the niches where demand is currently high? Anyone with change management skills or experience [is in demand]. It’s all driven by mergers and acquisitions, so integration project management skills are at a premium. I’d work the phrase ‘M&A’ liberally into my CV if I were a CIO. In these moments of uncertainty, business intelligence skills are at a premium. Companies are desperate to know every-thing they can about what’s going on, both in the markets and within their own organisation. Anyone who can help them drill down into the masses of information they own, and identify patterns and trends will be invaluable to them. Anyone who knows how to get the most out of Oracle, Cognos or SAP experts, for example, will be a target.

How would headhunters find them? On your LinkedIn profile, for a start. One of the best tools for the headhunter these days is LinkedIn. Anyone career-minded these days should have a detailed LinkedIn profile prepared. But be warned: don’t put fantastic claims down on your CV or your LinkedIn profile that you can’t back up. People want to see credible sites, a stable background and a themed environment. For example, they like to see a common thread throughout all your work, such as project management or cost management. Achievements should be clearly stated, and the value you brought to any project must be tangible and provable.

Part 2 of this article will be published on Tuesday 9 June at