A perfect match

The role of a headhunter involves a multifaceted approach to sell an opportunity, understand who the right candidate is, and encourage them to accept the role. Marcella Cronin explains how the process works

We have all been at parties when the dreaded question has arrived: "And what do you do for a living?" How nice it would be to say designing cathedrals or carving ice-sculptures. Sadly, insurance work is more mundane and some people do anything they can to avoid mentioning the 'I' word - insurance will rarely make a person sound like the life and soul of the gathering.

That said, when asked what I do for a living, I always reply that I work in the insurance industry, even though 'headhunter' or 'executive search consultant' may sound more interesting. Good headhunters are integral to their clients' success and we are justified in feeling very much a part of this industry and its future.

What exactly does a headhunter do? How do they earn their fees? And what impact and benefit does the market gain from their involvement? The difference between a search specialist and an agency that relies on a database of registered candidates can be hard to fathom.

Let us dispel some of the mystery surrounding headhunting work. There is a lot of hard graft involved in searching a particular market and building up a picture of suitably-qualified and skilled individuals. The art of the craft is adding value to the process and this sometimes means convincing a client to make alterations to the role and personal profile based on our knowledge, as headhunters, of markets and the capabilities of individuals in certain sectors.

On occasion, headhunters have to overcome any negative aspects of a role.

That means more than just skillfully selling an opportunity, it means understanding who the right candidates are and devising the right way to approach them. It may also mean encouraging clients to take a braver view and consider going outside of the insurance market for a solution.

How easy is it to track down the talent the insurance industry is crying out for? It is important to note that clients are being more demanding regarding the skills and qualities they are looking for. This is a good thing, because the only way the industry will improve its performance is by raising the bar at every opportunity. As long as this is coupled with the budget to pay the salaries necessary, we would advise clients to be as brave as possible regarding where talent is searched for. It is not unusual for headhunters to move key people from intermediary to insurer or, indeed, insurer to intermediary, which has become more commonplace.

So what would prompt a headhunter to look outside the insurance market?

Often we are given a more open brief on human resources, marketing and finance positions, where knowledge of insurance is not essential and where a fresh perspective can be seen as an advantage. And without the involvement of recruitment professionals, many of these individuals would not have considered the insurance industry.

The key is to gain access to the best individuals for the role, not just the candidates that happen to be on the market. And do not confuse the detailed, bespoke and exclusive service of the search consultant with the proactive networking approach of some agencies - the two services are very different and clients should make sure they understand what they are getting. A significant amount of research and market-mapping supports the search process, and that information is readily available to the client company.

When should the market be using headhunters? When you are looking for senior or key personnel; when you cannot afford to get it wrong; when circumstances surrounding the appointment are sensitive; and when you are looking for the same person everyone else is and you need an edge.

Chosen candidate

Delivering a shortlist of exceptional candidates for some of the roles headhunters are assigned is no mean feat. The positions are often in niche sectors where talent is in short supply, or in circumstances where the client is looking for a replacement following the unexpected departure of a senior individual.

In cases where we believe clients will not be successful in filling a particular role, the headhunter's job is to explain why. We can then work with them to reshape the role and perhaps focus on the key competencies necessary to perform it well. It is vital we fully understand the circumstances surrounding the recruitment exercise, no matter how sensitive. Once we are aware of all the relevant facts, we can guarantee that the process is conducted as confidentially as necessary.

As headhunters, the better we understand our client, its culture and its business plans, the better we can tailor the search process to identify the most suitable individuals.

So forget any old hang-ups regarding the cost and delivery time-scales of recruitment search. It is sometimes more expensive than other recruitment methods but the service is more comprehensive and proactive and the hand-selected candidates are exclusive to clients during the assignment process.

The trend of using searches outside of board appointments has been the most significant feature of the insurance headhunting market over the past few years. It is possible to deliver a swift result at this level, but the key is the market knowledge of the selected search firm, as suitable candidates will often not be visible using traditional search methods.

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