Why Headhunters Fail

Most 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. Information about passive candidates is tucked away in myriad databases. The information is not visible to search engines. You cannot google it. The information lies hidden deep within the Invisible Web.

IDC estimates the amount of digital data will grow 40% to 50% per year. By 2020, IDC predicts the number will have reached  40,000 EB, or 40 Zettabytes (ZB). The world’s information is doubling every two years. By 2020 the world will generate 50 times the amount of information and 75 times the number of information containers.  In fact, Michael Walker, the Managing Partner of Rose Business Technologies, describes what we’re witnessing is the Rise of Data Anarchy.



Data is the Forest: Candidates are the Trees

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.  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 candidate sourcers 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.

Reach Beyond Typical Recruiting Data

There is treasure to be found in the mountain of data. The information extends far beyond typical recruiting databases and social networks. Think “Nate Silver”. (You can check his Oscar predictions here.)  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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