Have Headhunters lost the plot? Maybe...


by Geoffrey King

Alan Barrell wrote in this column at the end of last year about the service he expects from the recruitment industry.

Judging by the postbag we received, it touched a nerve but begged a considered response.

Over the past 40 years, the Headhunting community has grown to a multibillion pound industry and most heavyweight director level jobs are now filled with the help of strongly branded international names. Whilst Headhunters lubricate the process, do they actually help to create more robust wealth-creating organisations, or are they merely putting bums on seats, at a hugely inflated cost?

What they do is shrouded in mystery to many people. Is it anything more than massaging a large database? What is clear is the fact that it can be a highly lucrative career.

So is the Headhunting community helping in the wealth creation process? If one inspects the performance of FTSE top companies, and looks at the changes that have taken place recently, the answer must be a resounding 'no'.

What exactly is going on?

In my view, it has merely been a game of musical chairs with the same people being recycled at regular intervals. Often they have failed in one high profile job only to fail again, and again.

So a critical examination of track record is clearly not a high priority assessment criterion. If one is cynical, it doesn't really matter as people are amply rewarded by failure; witness the massive handouts senior people receive when they are fired. It hardly gives a lot of confidence to 'the workers'.

Shareholder interests are clearly thrown out of the window as they are sidelined by clever compensation and benefits specialists who appear to follow the new breed of arriviste executive.

The paradox is, that while time and energy is expended on the assessment and selection process down the line, the boardroom appointment is handled with breathtaking ineptitude.

Much is known about good selection practice and considerable research has been carried out to develop a wide repertoire of tools to help the recruiter, but they appear to be totally neglected at this level. It is therefore hardly surprising that great names of British industry have floundered recently.

But there is a way forward. At Cambridge Recruitment Consultants, we've gone back to first principles and - rather than attempt to reinvent the selection process - we have recast it and made it into a new holistic process by assembling and prioritising well-proven methodologies. We accept that it is still far from perfect, but we feel that our new assessment paradigm takes much of the guesswork out of a critical issue, thereby reducing the risk.

It works like this:

  • The starting point is determining where a company is in its evolutionary cycle. This is not as obvious as one might think - for example a mature company that is quickly losing market share may need quite a different type of leader from an organisation that is winning market share with speed that outstrips its ability to deliver.

    The essence is to identify the horse for the course - all obvious stuff so far, you may think, but not so. We have found that like perishables on a supermarket shelf, so too are leadership styles. This being so, the career management of senior people needs to take this into account at the hiring process in a transparent way. This can be managed by a carefully drawn-up contract that includes a timely exit route for both parties.

  • We then look at the teams in place. This exposes a range of problems, but sometimes, interesting options. Quite often external recruitment may not be the answer. Re-allocating roles, or internal promotion after specific skills training, can play a potent part. This aspect also helps us to pinpoint what skills are required in a new recruit - recruitment must be seen as a process of teambuilding.

  • The next issue we concentrate on is whether a person is eligible for a particular role - this is usually the start and end point for most Headhunters. Eligibility concentrates on whether a person has the qualifications, track record and domain knowledge required for a particular post.

  • If the person is deemed eligible, we then move onto the next stage, which concentrates on whether a person is suitable for the job in question. Measuring suitability is the most difficult part and requires robust techniques to be used by skilled assessors.

    The repertoire of techniques available includes detailed interviews and psychometrics, which assess personality, reasoning ability, team role preferences and so on. These techniques require real skill in interpretation, which only comes after many years' experience.

    Furthermore, it's essential that any tests used have substantial and relevant norms - norms for airline pilots are not relevant to the skills required by the modern CEO!

    We've found that if all of these processes are not followed and a match is not achieved in each step, the appointment will fail -and the penalty for failure in today's economy can be cataclysmic.

    What I have briefly described is a time-consuming process, which requires skills and experience and does not add cost to industry standard fees. It is not insignificant that our new service is called TeamBuilder, not Search or Selection.

    Geoffrey King is CEO of Cambridge Recruitment Consultants. Contact him by email geoffrey@crcselection.com

    Headhunter welcomes topical articles and details of Director level vacancies for our 'Top Job' slot. If you wish to contribute, please contact headhunter@cambridgenetwork.co.uk