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Why Headhunters Fail and What to Do About It

 Why Headhunters Fail

Most traditional retained search headhunters are not candidate sourcing or recruiting research experts. Headhunters would rather focus on “more important” things like reeling in the next client. There’s a reason. Headhunter compensation is closely tied to how much business they bring in. So search firms hire retained search partners who are strong in sales. Headhunters are rarely research experts.  And, in the Age of Information, that’s a problem. The lack of research expertise causes executive search to fail.

Executive headhunters often delegate recruiting research to someone else. That someone else is usually a secretary or junior associate right of college. That’s why most search firm “researchers” lack serious research expertise. Lacking expertise, they don’t know how to find the best candidates. As a result, headhunters fail.

How do we know this? When headhunters hit the wall, their client companies come to us for help. (See How to Crush Candidate Sourcing.) We have witnessed the work of the headhunters who have come before us. It isn’t pretty. In every failed search, the recruiting research was haphazard. We’ve seen the existing lists of potential candidates that failed to produce a hire. The executive mapping was riddled with holes. The candidate sourcing lacked discipline. Worse, in every instance, headhunters missed top candidates standing in plain sight.

The Rise of Anarchy in Candidate Data

There’s been an explosion of data on candidates, companies, and industries. The data are scattered like buckshot across the Internet. Much of the information about passive candidates is tucked away in databases. The information is not visible to search engines. Headhunters cannot simply google it. The information lies hidden deep within the Invisible Web.

The Rise in the Volume of Data

In addition, digital information is no longer measured in bytes or kilobytes or megabytes (MB) or gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB) or petabytes (TB) or exabytes (EB). The era of the zettabytes has dawned. A zettabyte is a multiple of the unit byte that measures digital storage, and it is equivalent to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 1021 bytes. Most headhunters can’t wrap their minds around the volume. It is virtually impossible to picture. Worse, executive search consultants are not prepared to wrangle so much data.

“The total amount of data created, captured, copied, and consumed globally is forecast to increase rapidly, reaching 64.2 zettabytes in 2020. Over the next five years up to 2025, global data creation is projected to grow to more than 180 zettabytes. In 2020, the amount of data created and replicated reached a new high. The growth was higher than previously expected caused by the increased demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as more people worked and learned from home and used home entertainment options more often.”

— Statista Research Department,

The Volume of Data

The volume of data created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide from 2010 to 2020, with forecasts from 2021 to 2025 Source: Statistica

Executives Headhunters Need Data Expertise

It is counter-intuitive. But the more candidate information there is, the harder executive search becomes. Headhunters lack the skills needed to separate the signal from the noise — the winning candidate from the hundreds of millions of candidate profiles on LinkedIn alone. In fact, most search firms have not altered their processes in more than half a century. They simply have not dealt with the rising tide of information.

Most headhunters cannot see the forest for the trees. Yes, amazing executives are but a Google search or a LinkedIn connection away.  But the sheer volume of names is a problem. Too many wrong candidates get in the way of those who are right. Moreover, we live in an age of data chaos. Unstructured data lacks context. You don’t know how many potential candidates there are at target companies. Consequently, you don’t know when you can stop trying to find them. That lack of perspective dumbs down recruiting, making it more costly and less effective. (To learn how to bring order to data chaos, check out The Definitive Guide to Org Charts.)

Even after your headhunters have developed a long list of executives for a search, they are not candidates — at least not yet. The heaving lifting of “candidate development” remains. You must still determine whether a prospective candidate is qualified, interested, able to relocate, and, yes, sane. In other words, you cannot download a list of the best candidates, at least not yet But gifted recruitment researchers can produce such a list.

Headhunters Must Reach Beyond Recruiting Data

There is a treasure to be found in the mountain of data. The information extends far beyond typical recruiting databases and social networks. Think “Nate Silver”. Or think “Peter Brand”, played by Jonah Hill in the movie Moneyball. They make a compelling case for leveraging information to make recruiting smarter.

Consider what data might tell you who the best candidates are. Baseball has batting averages that measure performance. Every industry has its own statistics. Every industry has RBIs (Runs Batted In) and ERAs (Earned Run Averages). Crunched in the right way, those statistics can lead to incredible game-changing hires.

What to Do About It

So next time you need an executive headhunter, you for a nerdy search practice with data expertise. Alternatively, partner with a recruiting research firm that enables you to harness the power of data. Yes, subscribe to software and services that leverage artificial intelligence and people analytics. But your work does not end there. You still need search partners that know how to think about the data. Headhunters that lack that expertise are set up to fail.  Seek search firms and research firms who are proponents of smarter search.

For more, check out our Eye-Opening Executive Search Research Video.

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Krista Bradford

Krista Bradford

Founder and CEO of Intellerati | The Good Search. Retained executive search headhunter. Former investigative journalist. Wife of saxman. Mama of MD. Co-worker of Hamlet the Corgi. TikTok addict.View Author posts

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