What Does a Headhunter Really Look For?

Last Updated Nov 3, 2010 12:55 PM EDT

"The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?'"

Sigmund Freud

Freud had a pretty smooth gig. Here was a man who enticed wealthy, neurotic women to his office and -- relaxing their inhibitions with hypnosis -- encouraged them to describe their fantasies while lying on his chaise lounge. As if that wasn't enough, he profitably published these sessions...and then billed them. Still, he didn't completely get it.

We have the same problem lately with leadership. It's the hottest topic for business books of every shape and flavor, yet despite all the "five qualities this" and "seven characteristics that," we still don't get it, either. Honestly, isn't it a bit like pornography? We know it when we see it.

Perhaps leaders are simply labeled as such after the fact by what they've done. We see their trail of smoke and know in our hearts that they delivered, like the Lone Ranger. There are a few telltale hints along the way: balance sheets, stock prices, looking at who and how they hire, but mostly it's not over until the fat lady sings.

Another big question about executives in general is whether past accomplishments are even marginally a predictor of future performance in a new environment. The smart money says, "Don't hold your breath." Equally mysterious - although recruiters never stop bragging about their abilities in this area - is the art or science of reliably indicating "fit" between candidate and corporate "culture."
So let's review what can't be substantiated: leadership whatever-it-is, portability of success, compatibility with a pre-existing group. These are the great unknowns, depending as they do on time, situation and sheer luck. So what can we know? What do we at least look for?

Here's what it boils down to, in my humble opinion:

First, we like to see strong reputation within a given industry. People work together, people talk. Independent of anything else, a killer rep can open doors and move mountains. We instinctively give the benefit of the doubt to someone who has been rumored to produce the occasional miracle. And if nobody much has ever heard of you, we're inclined to suspect there may be good reason.

Next, we're holding a cool hand of cards if our candidate demonstrates impeccable character and integrity, both in our eyes and in those of her colleagues. Does the outside match what we see inside? Is she speaking from a place of authenticity, or is she "spoon feeding" us warmed-over advertisements for herself? Further, can we identify a track record of this person making tough - and not always popular - decisions? Does she walk the talk? Obviously we rely heavily on references for perspective, and I don't mean references the candidate has provided.

Finally, the all-important and most elusive piece: Seemingly relevant achievements or victories in what may (or may not) be comparable settings. Each business endeavor comes with its own set of values and challenges. There has never been an empirical "scale" by which we could gauge the potential worth of individuals to corporations. Please mistrust anyone who says there is.

Likewise, there is no consistent baseline or yardstick that factors in everything: track record, age, gender, education, sector, market conditions, rank, compensation, internal resources, company politics, reliance on outside relationships...the list goes on and on. Literally dozens of elements may impact an executive's success.

So we try to build a case - to find convincing parallels - even though our evidence is purely circumstantial. The best we can do is tally up as many clues as possible to persuade ourselves that lightning could reasonably strike again...if fate so decrees.

Maybe it's like the story about the man who's on his hands and knees, searching the ground under a streetlight. His friend walks by and says, "What are you doing there?"

"Looking for my car keys," he answers.

"Where did you see them last?" the friend asks.

"Around the corner."

"Then why are you looking here?"

"Duh," he says. "Because it's light here."

  • Mark Jaffe

    As President of Wyatt & Jaffe, Mark Jaffe has been called one of the 'World's 100 Most Influential Headhunters' by BusinessWeek magazine. His firm, Wyatt & Jaffe, works with a select list of financial services, high-tech and consumer companies worldwide and has been called one of the 50 leading retained search firms in North America.