Making a career out of career-making

Sunday Times Article Nov 14, 2010 12:00 AM | By Margaret Harris

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A lawyer.

So what happened?

I studied law and qualified as an attorney. I practised for some years. Then I joined The Premier Group, a listed investment holding company. In my 15 years in the corporate world I held a number of senior positions from legal advising to line management. In the mid-1990s I started re-examining where my passion lay and what I loved doing most. Head-hunting allowed me to pursue my interest in people while leveraging my legal and professional discipline, my corporate experience and my knowledge of business. An added bonus was achieving independence in owning my own business.

What exactly does a head-hunter do?

I always say that I'm a sort of matchmaker. My clients are mostly blue chip companies that retain me to search for and identify people of calibre to fill senior or executive positions in their organisations.

Do many women do this job?

Yes. I think women are ideally suited to this career. Women generally are intuitive, curious and brave enough to ask the right questions of both employer and employee to reach an understanding of the objectives of both and whether there is alignment in thinking.

What characteristics do you need?

You have to be externally focused, in touch with developments and the goings-on in business and who the key players are. You need to have a penchant for drilling down, the courage to probe, ask the right questions .

What qualifications do you need and where do you train?

To be successful, I believe that a head-hunter needs to have a tertiary qualification and to have held successful positions in a corporate, consulting or professional environment. How else will you know what you're looking for and the type of profile to target?

There is a lot in the media about the brain drain; how easy is it to fill executive positions?

My two pet hates are the phrases "brain drain" and "no chance of getting anywhere because I'm a pale male". To the former I say: "Yes, there are certain areas where shortages in skills exist, but for the most part talent is there if only clients weren't so hell-bent on employing clones of themselves." My personal battle as a head-hunter often is to persuade employers to consider employing people with the right profile and aptitude even when they lack specific industry experience. In only seeking those who have similar backgrounds to their own, they are hampering freshness of thought and inadvertently contributing to shrinking the pool of talent. To the proponents of the "pale male" syndrome, I say: "If your track record is average, if you haven't specialised or gained expertise in a particular area or excelled in your chosen field, why should you be preferred over the majority of our population?" The truth is that talent and success always rise to the top regardless of colour.

Is head-hunting only about offering candidates lots of money to take the position?

Definitely not. When I approach someone about a position and the first question they ask is about package, I walk away. It's a total turn-off.

There is a certain pride felt by people who have been head-hunted; is it justified?

I saw an article a few years ago in one of the British newspapers. It was entitled "Be seen with the head-hunter" and it spoke about how prestigious it was to be the object of a head-hunter's desire. I suppose some may derive some self-importance from our approaching them but I think that most people I deal with know who they are and don't need me to boost their egos.

How does a head-hunter differ from someone working in the recruitment industry?

The basic difference, I think, is the senior level at which we operate and the essence of the relationship with the client. Recruiters work on contingency. A head-hunter's services are secured by a client against payment of a retainer. Another distinguishing factor is that recruiters will advertise positions in the media, usually on a no-names basis, expecting candidates to apply not knowing which company they are being considered for. We research, identify and directly approach suitably qualified candidates and then assess them. I am strongly of the view that it is discourteous to approach a prospective candidate without disclosing the name of his/her possible future employer. I'm amazed at how often this occurs even among head-hunters.

What is the worst part of your job?

As an intermediary it is often frustrating to find myself between employer and employee when decisions are protracted. You need to manage expectations on both sides. Another difficult situation I am constantly faced with is when people approach me looking to me for a change in job or career. I have to make them understand that we, as head-hunters, are largely assignment-driven and not always able to assist.