Smoke, mirrors and head-hunting

2008

If you're serious about getting to the top of the corporate ladder, the chances are that somewhere along the way you're going to need the services of a head-hunter.

Between them, the top talent brokers control access to the boardrooms of many of the world's largest corporations, not to mention plenty of smaller and up-and-coming ones.

So who are these powerful individuals? BusinessWeek has sought to find out with its list of the world's top 50 most influential headhunters.

More than half (31 out of 50) of the big hitters in the head-hunting world are from North America, but the number based in Asia is rising quickly.

A few big name-firms dominate the list. Korn Ferry has seven representatives in the top 50), while CTPartners and Spencer Stuart both have five.

But look for the substance behind BusinessWeek's list and you'll be looking for a long time. They say that they "considered a number of factors in selecting these 50 executive recruiters, including their individual reputations; their years of headhunting experience; the global scope of their recruiting practices; their accessibility and responsiveness; their high visibility within the client markets they serve; the recognition they enjoy within their firms and/or global executive search communities."

All of which is very mysterious and head-hunterish, but it's not exactly the most scientific of evaluations, is it? You might be one of the biggest names in the business, but there's no way of knowing whether that's because you doing a great job for your clients or just a great job at managing your own profile.

Still, at least the list mirrors the veil of slightly "cloak-and-dagger" secrecy that head-hunters seem to love wrapping themselves in.

Which makes it is all the more surprising to find that one of the top three firms on BusinessWeek's list, CTPartners, is so confident that it recruits the best candidates for the job rather than simply the most available that it publishes an annual audited candidate "stick rate" which measures whether a candidate placed by the firm has remained with the client they were placed with.

Its rate for the 18 months between January 2006 and July 2007 was 92 per cent. A pretty impressive figure, you might think – but then, given the percentages head-hunters charge, so it should be. Engage any executive search firm and at the very least employers should have every right to expect that they're going to end up with the right person for the job as well as one who is planning to stick around.

But without this sort of transparency, how can employers know they're retaining the right firms for their search? Or is that the real reason most head-hunters love the smoke-and-mirrors stuff?