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RIP Headhunters? Hold the Kleenex..

Rod horiz“We’re trying to be the Uber of recruitment”. You’ve probably heard that one if you’re an observer at the thinking end of recruitment and if you’ve been to any sort of networking event and you haven’t been in a medically induced coma for the past year. And if you were in a coma, just before the lights went out, you probably heard someone claiming to be the AirBnB of recruitment.

We’ve been chewing over this one for the past ten years at ExecutiveSurf. OK so AirBnB or Uber were still in training pants ten years ago, but we’ve been grappling with the idea of how to take executive search – the label headhunters give themselves – and bring in into the digital age using the wealth of channels now available, not to mention the new ones that crop up daily.

I worked in an internet incubator (remember those?) a few years ago and we trawled through hundreds of business plans. My job was more focussed on evaluating the people side, but I would always take a look at the widget, the service, the idea. There was a lot of, “We’re the new this, the new that”. But it was incredibly difficult to pick a winner. There was merit in a heck of a lot of these aspiring businesses but was there a common thread? I can’t tell you I found one.


Plan b: hindsight.

Universal truth number one: Mark Zuckerberg never said we want to be the new Google. Travis Kalanick of Uber never said he wanted to be the new AirBnB. Brian Chesky of AirBnB never aspired to be the new Facebook.

The way they tell it – and there’s no evidence they’re rewriting history – they all went out to solve a problem, which until then, technology had not allowed anyone to solve. The problem was old and the technology caught up to the point where the solution was staring them, and probably no one else – in the face. Then all that was needed was a vision, hard work and a backer that was prepared to see an awful lot of burn before they saw return.

So please, stop trying to be the Uber of recruitment already!

There are thousands of players chipping away at steps of the recruitment process from sourcing software to applicant tracking, integrated CRM systems to matching and analytics software. Hats off, LinkedIn took a massive chunk of value chain and published it on line. For a wily old headhunter like me, that made life easier. Profiles for most of the world’s executives became visible pretty much overnight.

So if seeing all the potential candidates in the world is now possible, what’s left? Why didn’t LinkedIn completely blow the headhunters away? The problem is connection. Not virtual connection, real connection.

Headhunters all over the world will tell you, the core skill is in matching culture with culture. And you can’t do that without full background research on both candidate and company combined with structured professional face time. A great headhunter will take the time, a lot of time to get to know their client. It sometimes takes years. And they mirror this with astute and exhaustive selection against criteria they know will weed out the bad guys.

I’m sure these words will come back to haunt me but from where I stand, I can’t see technology replicating this, the connection that comes when humans meet. Besides anything else, we like to meet. People still pay a premium for this connection and understanding and let’s say it, the pleasure that it brings. The problem is the size of the premium that companies have to pay for that face time. That annoys me.

So if the problem is a buyer/seller market that resolutely refuses to substitute the good old handshake with an algorythm, and the result is a hugely distorted pricing model, what’s the solution?

Me, I’d go for a platform that connects headhunters who really know their clients or even in-house recruiters themselves with researchers who really know their candidates. The winning platform would be one that allows these groups to interact in a trusting and controlled environment over the long term.

Ahem, that’s what we’re building at ExecutiveSurf. We’re trying to be the Uber of recruitment you know…

by RB

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