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CAREERS: Get ahead with the headhunters

Headhunting is something corporates love and hate. They love it when it nets them excellent new people. They hate it when the headhunters coax scarce talent away and into the arms of the competition. But, for individual finance executives, being headhunted can only be good news.

What could be nicer than a call out of the blue from someone who wants just you? Even if you don’t want the job they’re offering, the idea that you were on the list is solid reassurance that you are cutting a figure in the world, that the trail you are blazing has some scale to it. Conversely, if the phone never rings, what does that say about your career to date? Worse, what does it say about your career prospects for tomorrow?

Of course, if you already have the glittering kind of career that renders a headhunter’s call a mere annoying distraction in a frantically busy day, the whole topic will be of scant interest to you – possibly until things take an unforeseen and sudden downward plunge (a not unheard of event in dynamic markets). For everyone else, however, the thought: ‘How do I get that phone to ring?’ has considerable relevance.

Ashley Summerfield, a consultant with Egon Zehnder, which claims to be the fourth largest executive search company in the world, reckons his company has a phrase that encapsulates what finance executives should do. ‘We call it ‘Active Career Management’ or ACM,’ he says. For the potential FD in industry, leaning back in his or her chair and contemplating a spot of ACM, Summerfield has some solid advice. ‘It’s really very simple. E-mail us. Let us know you exist. It immeasurably improves people’s chances of getting headhunted if we know they’re out there. Otherwise it really is a bit difficult,’ he says.

There is, however, a small catch to this. As with most things, timing is all. If you are on £40,000-a-year and facing a five-year haul before you claw your way out of the five-figure bracket, don’t bother calling just yet. Or at least, don’t bother calling Egon Zehnder – its sphere of influence begins around the £100,000-a-year mark.

‘We really can’t track people for five years or so while they develop,’ says Summerfield. ‘If they start signalling us too early, they run the risk of winding up in the ‘not relevant’ pile, and that is a very difficult pile to climb out of.’ And, he adds, even if the consultancy forgets your name and that initial, over-eager approach, the computer won’t.

In case this sounds rather chilling, Summerfield is keen to stress that those in the right bracket should definitely make a practice of keeping in relatively frequent contact. ‘We love it when people allow us to perform a quick health check on their careers by e-mailing us a resume or their updated CV every six months or so,’ he says.

He also points out that while some years ago it was not considered good practice to keep in touch with executive search companies, today it is simply good career management, and everyone should do it.

Of course, in practice, not everybody does. Some folk, through innate diffidence or – happy thought – a general sense of satisfaction with their lot, may have left their careers in the hands of fate for a decade or two. They may have taken their eye off the ball and then woken up to the realisation that they have been in one job for an inordinately long period. Summerfield has harsh words for them.

‘If you are forty five-ish in a dead-end position and have suddenly developed a sense of ambition, you’re in deep trouble,’ he says. Even if you do manage to get your name at the top of a headhunter’s ‘must call’ list, people are going to want to know what it was that made you fall so deeply asleep. Unless your answers are amazingly inventive, your career to date is going to speak a good deal more loudly than any words you can find.

What this adds up to is that everyone benefits from keeping at least a finger-hold on reality. If you have been content to polish a desk at an undistinguished SME for 20 years, waking up one day with a burning desire to be a FTSE-100 finance director is probably only going to lead to frustration.

Suzzane Woods, head of financial search at Odgers, has to pause to wipe away tears of merriment as she recalls interviews with outwardly placid types who, after years of vegetating quietly, reveal to her across the table that they are, in reality, lion tamers and crocodile wrestlers, up for any challenge.

‘Accountants have an unhappy stereotype that, certainly at the higher levels, they don’t deserve at all. But when someone comes into my office and seems to be doing their level best to live, breath and dress the part, they’re really not helping their case,’ she says. One candidate, she remembers, actually confided to her that he was a good deal more adventurous in his dress when he went out to do the grocery shopping at the weekend. The world, it seems, has a fair stock of people who have left their ACM rather too late.

Another point that emphasises the importance of ACMing your way to the heart of the sector’s leading search firms is the fact that many top appointments never appear in the jobs pages of the Financial Times or Financial Director. As Woods points out, the specialist press is particularly appropriate in the £60,000 to £100,000 vacancies category. Above £100,000, over 70% of positions are filled by searches or other means. ‘With this many jobs never being visible to the naked eye, the question of how they can get themselves noticed becomes vitally important for career-minded accountants,’ she emphasises.

Like Summerfield, Woods believes that it is most important for ambitious people to take the initiative. ‘Finance people can be an understated crew. The belief that all you need to do to get ahead is to work hard and do a good job is all very well, but companies these days want strong interpersonal skills. If nobody knows you exist, what does that say about your people skills?’ she asks.

Headhunters do a great deal of homework themselves, but being mere mortals, they tend to notice the very best people who are out there doing things that lead to them getting themselves noticed in the right quarters. ‘For a vacant plc FD position, we are always very interested to know what people in the City think of a candidate. If it is a particularly customer-focused company, we want to know what the marketing people in the candidate’s organisation think,’ Woods says.

With political skills becoming more important all the time, being able to work across functions is critical. So an excellent move for anyone with an upgrade path in mind for their career is to focus on forging links outside the finance silo. Network with the marketing crew. Go yachting with the sales folk. Take the analysts out to lunch. All this is good stuff. What is not good is when the headhunter asks you what other people think about you, and you reply: ‘Other people?’ That is no good at all.

‘Political ability in an FD means that person is more likely to make CEO. Negotiating the leap from FD to CEO is as much about interpersonal skills and leadership capabilities as it is about vision and knowledge,’ Woods says. And luckily, for most people, political ability is an acquired skill. The more you work at it, the better you get.

If you do happen to be stuck in a rut, both Woods and Summerfield have the same advice. ‘Consider an MBA,’ they say. There is nothing like an MBA for refreshing a stalled career. ‘One of the great things about a stint at Harvard, or the London Business School, or Henley Management College, is that the finance executive gets at least three months away from the desk and away from the daily grind. They get to mix with their peers. They return with a better network of contacts and a great deal more confidence. All this is important,’ Woods says.

She also advises would-be candidates to make sure that their appointments are press released and picked up, preferably by the FT and Financial Director. Another good idea, she suggests, is to write articles or to get innovative projects you’re involved with used as case studies in the press. ‘Get out from behind your PC and learn to think outside the box. Be creative,’ she recommends.

Summerfield makes an even simpler point. If you want to be considered, get to know people who know headhunters and convince them of your merits, he advises. ‘A good part of my job is about being on the phone all day to people I know, asking them who they know who would be good for this or that position,’ he says. It therefore follows that making yourself visible to the source of those leads makes sound sense.

Professional and sector associations are also important, Woods notes. Attending events is useful because headhunters often stop by to scan the register of attendees and to run an eye over the current crop. ‘Like the Men in Black, we may not be noticed, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t there,’ she jokes.

If there is a gap in the market where candidate visibility is at its lowest, Woods suggests, it is in the region of the early-30s financial directors of the future. Many of these people are to be found lunching with venture capitalists and extending their network outside their function, with a ready eye open for the more entrepreneurial route to the top.

Not everyone, of course, is convinced that executive search companies are all that relevant in the redefined world of the Internet. Bruce Page, a director of, a new Internet-based recruitment company, argues that the Internet has already started to short-circuit the rationale for headhunting. ‘Until now, headhunting has been about filling a vacancy discretely, without telling the world and his wife via a newspaper advert that you had a hole in that position. The Internet now gives companies exactly the same kind of anonymity,’ he argues.

By acting as a discrete match-maker between potential applicants and potential employers, the Web could cut the headhunter out the frame, he argues. Just now, he concedes, companies like his are only nibbling at the bottom end of the market; but this is just the beginning. Finance professionals will increasingly look to the Internet as a way of testing their marketability.

Suzzane Wood sees the impact of the Web rather differently. She points out that companies dashing for an IPO are a rich source of business for executive search companies right now. ‘We recently had to interview 20 candidates in three weeks to find an FD for a company with an IPO scheduled three months off,’ she says.

Far from being a dying industry, executive search has never enjoyed a healthier market, she argues. And from the candidate’s point of view, the logic is clear. If you are not in this game and everyone else is, the odds are not on your side – unless, as we said before, you are already a star in your own right.

See also box-out on how the headhunters find you…

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