Becoming an Executive Headhunter

So, you want to become an executive headhunter? How do you become part of the industry? Most people enter the headhunting industry through one of two routes;

  • They join in an entry level role and spend most, if not all of their career in the headhunting industry. We might affectionately call these individuals “lifers”.
  • They join later in their career from a different industry.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Those who become an executive headhunter early in their career get the benefit of deep experience in the industry. By working their way up through the industry – usually with research roles providing a helpful entry point – career executive headhunters will usually have considerable experience to leverage by the time they reach the more senior level roles in the industry.

There’s a lot of learning on the job in executive search as there is in any industry – knowing how to pitch different companies and roles, learning how to assess candidates across different functions, how to manage candidates and clients through processes and so forth. Challenging searches provide great learning experience, especially for relatively new headhunters.

The downside of being a “lifer” when it comes to a career as an executive headhunter is that your experience, by definition, is fairly narrow. By always (or mostly) having worked in the industry throughout your career, it’s harder to have conversations with candidates and clients where you really understand and empathize with them compared to a headhunter who has worked in industry in a similar role. Furthermore, executive headhunters with industry experience may well have a useful personal network of potential clients and candidates they can leverage in the role.

So executive headhunters from industry are likely to have impressive sector and functional knowledge in their area, as well as a useful network of contacts compared to “lifers”. There are, however, a few potential downsides in joining headhunting firms from industry. The first is that you won’t be sure that the industry is for you in the long-term. Make no mistake about it, headhunting can be a grind at times, and can create a lot of pressure and stress. You might be desperately looking for candidates in a tough market with a demanding client getting increasingly impatient for results. Executive headhunter roles are less about cocktail parties and more about thoroughly mapping markets for customers using tools like Linkedin. It’s much less glamorous in reality than many people from the outside might imagine.

The other major disadvantage to coming from industry is that it takes time to become familiar with how headhunting works – whether that’s research, candidate approach, interviewing candidates or winning projects. There is a learning curve for everyone new to the industry. The older and more senior you are when you start in the industry, the higher the expectations are when you join. Being a graduate researcher is one thing, being a Partner-level hire straight from industry with business development targets is another. Expectations can be high and difficult to meet due to inexperience. Furthermore, will “lifer” colleagues always appreciate a highly-paid new arrival with zero headhunting experience?

It’s not better or worse to come into executive headhunting early or late in your career – both have their pros and cons.