Has Your Head Ever Been Hunted? How Headhunting Relates to Executive Search


Headhunters, Executive Recruiting and Retained Executive Search: What does it all mean?

I have been asked by many executives, journalists and those interested in executive recruitment, what exactly the term ‘headhunting’ means? If we took the Wikipedia definition literally, senior executives may never answer the phone to an executive recruiter or 'headhunter' again: “Headhunting is the traditional practice of taking a person's head after killing him or her”. Luckily in today’s society this practice is in decline.

What is not in decline is the executive recruitment industry and the increased use of the term ‘headhunters’ or ‘executive headhunters’ to refer to executive recruiters or executive search consultants. As you can see, there are already three ways to refer to executive recruiters, not to mention the direct translations used internationally; in Germany ‘Kopfjager’, in France ‘Chasseur de Tete’, in Spanish-speaking countries ‘cazatalentos', and to further confuse, Brazilians often simple use 'Hunters'.

Whatever the language variations, the term ‘headhunting’ is used throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas to describe executive recruitment and the process involved. As a rough definition we could say, 'headhunting refers to the process of locating and placing top level candidates in executive-level positions’. This definition is applicable to both middle management and senior-level executive positions (CIO, CFO, CEO executive jobs). However, this blanket application is problematic when we consider the various industries under the umbrella of executive recruitment.

Executive Search and Headhunters: Contingency vs. Retained
There are two main types of recruitment – contingent, and retained executive search. If we look at the definitions as given by the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), we can see that headhunting has an easier application to contingency recruiting:


Contingency search firms are only paid if they successfully present a candidate that is hired by a hiring organization.

So contingency recruiters, like the old-fashioned headhunters, are only rewarded when the candidate is placed in the hands of the hiring organization. It therefore becomes clear where the comparison between executive recruitment and headhunting has emanated from. However, as mentioned above, this term is also mistakenly applied to retained executive search, and insufficiently describes the consulting process involved and the pay structure highlighted below:


A retained executive search firm receives a fee after being contracted by a hiring organization to provide a range of candidates to fill a stated position. Typically part of the fee is paid up-front and the search firm plays a consultative role and partners with their client through to conclusion of the search strategy.

When asking Peter Felix, President of the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), what he thought of the use of the term ‘headhunter’ in relation to retained executive search, he commented “Headhunting is one description of what we do – i.e. proactive recruitment. However, it is inaccurate, and without the elegance needed to describe a pretty sophisticated form of management consulting.”

In an ideal world, executives would be able to distinguish between the various types of recruiters, and understand how to approach each situation; retained search professionals would be referred to as ‘executive search consultants’ or simply ‘search professionals’, rather than the somewhat inappropriate term ‘headhunters’ . As we know, the terms ‘headhunter’ and ‘executive headhunting’ will continue to be used, however read on to understand why it may damage your own executive job search.

Building Relationships with Executive Search Consultants
The transactional and single function connotations of the term ‘headhunter’ will not help when trying to establish and maintain relationships with executive search consultants and executive recruiters. If you fail to take advantage of every contact with an executive search professional and build lasting business relationships, you could seriously hamper your executive career. In addition, search consultants probably do not appreciate being referred to as headhunters!

In summary, be aware that when a single term is used across a large and very diverse industry, there is the possibility of a loss of interpretation. Do not let the potentially damaging connotations of ‘headhunters’ or ‘headhunting’ affect your own approach to executive search and career networking.

Question: As executives, recruiters or search consultants, how do you feel about the term ‘Headhunter’?

This article was written by Christian Pielow from the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC).

BlueSteps is the exclusive service of the AESC that puts senior executives on the radar screen of over 6,000 executive search professionals in over 70 countries.Be visible, and be considered for up to 50,000 opportunities handled by AESC search firms every year. Find out more at www.BlueSteps.com.



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