Research is at the very core of executive search. In the context of a headhunting project, research is concerned with identifying the right candidates to approach over the course of a project. This is normally undertaken by a Researcher (although titles can vary). The Researcher position is typically a fairly junior role in the context of a headhunting firm – often providing an entry point for graduates coming into the industry. That doesn’t mean, however, that all Researchers are inexperienced – it can be a role that takes many years to master and some headhunting professionals enjoy research so much they choose to spend their entire careers specializing in it.

So how do researchers find the right candidates?

Firstly, it’s essential that the researcher understands the type of candidate profile that the client is looking for. They could be briefed by the Delivery Consultant or Partner they are working with on the assignment, but it’s usually better practice for the Researcher to be included in all client briefings so they can hear the guidance directly and ask any pertinent questions.

At the core of a lot of research within the headhunting industry is the “Target Landscape” – a document created by the headhunting firm that maps relevant companies by sector. Let’s imagine a headhunting assignment for Amazon – an online retail business. Looking in other online retailers – such as Walmart or Zalando would make sense. As might looking in similar online categories – travel, fintech, marketplaces etc. The Researcher will create a list of companies by sector – with perhaps 20 or so companies in each one – perhaps providing a segmented list of 100 companies, depending on the search specifics.

Once the Target Landscape has been created, it is the Researcher’s job to populate the headhunting firm’s project management software tool with the appropriate candidates. This software organises the list of candidates identified and will be updated as the headhunter talks to candidates and as they advance through the process. This software provides the central repository where the project is managed and where all the important information is stored.

So how do researchers find candidates within those companies?

One very logical method is to look through previous assignments (within the headhunter’s recruitment software) for relevant candidates. That could also entail asking colleagues within the firm (who aren’t directly working on the new project) for recommendations. This might lead to a handful of interesting ideas, but it’s rarely enough in isolation to provide sufficient candidate options.

Researching the Target Landscape, company by company forms the core of a lot of the research for headhunting assignments. The internet has made this much easier with Google and Linkedin (in particular) providing excellent information on candidates that can be found with some careful searching. Central to this is using Boolean Logic to form search strings that enable you to find the right candidates quickly. These often involve using “AND” or “OR” strings to make searches much more specific. For example on Linkedin, you could easily construct a search string like this;

Title Field: Marketing AND (“director” OR “Head” OR “vp” OR “vice president”)

[The purpose of the director / head / vp string is to narrow the search around a certain level of seniority – if a candidate hasn’t held this level of title before they are unlikely to be senior enough for a headhunting assignment]

This could be complemented by also searching against a particular company. Unsurprisingly;

Company Field: Walmart (or whatever)

The Researcher can then just change the company name as they go through the Target Landscape systematically. But this isn’t the only way you can find candidates on a tool like Linkedin.

Another way is to use keyword searches. Let’s say that we’re looking for a Marketing Director with an excellent understanding of digital marketing. Instead of narrowly looking in one particular company, we can narrow the field by using keywords instead;

Title Field: Marketing AND (“director” OR “Head” OR “vp” OR “vice president”)

Keyword Field: (“digital marketing” OR “performance marketing” OR “search engine marketing” OR “SEM”)

So the two main methods of online research using tools like Linkedin are;

  • Structured Target Landscape candidate identification, company by company
  • Complementary keyword searches that might find candidates the Target Landscape has missed (no Target Landscape is perfect)

In headhunter parlance, finding candidates for projects is often referred to internally as “ID” – identifying candidates. Looking at candidates from previous assignments is called “skimming”.

The third route through which candidates can be found is often called “sourcing”. This means talking to someone in the industry who isn’t likely to be a candidate themselves – they might be too senior or in a different function – to see if they can recommend anyone. This is usually done with friends of the firm. Whilst this is labour intensive, and won’t provide a huge quantity of candidates, it can be a great way to find a few highly relevant candidates.

The Researcher role can be a very interesting one as each project is a puzzle, and the opportunity to try lots of different, complimentary ideas to solve the problem – sourcing, skimming, different search strings and so forth.

In many ways, research forms the core of executive search. Without research, there would be no candidates. Whilst the Partners and Delivery Consultants might have more client interaction, and be more senior, these chefs would have no meal to prepare without a well stocked larder of candidates courtesy of their researchers.