Headhunters not the best choice for those making big career moves

If you are changing business sector or function, alternative search channels such as your own network, social media or job sites might be more useful

Holidays often provide a bit of breathing space for private reflection, time to pause and take stock of one’s professional life. Sometimes a small tweak is all that’s needed to reboot a flagging work mojo but other times it would take a seismic shift to dispel the nagging feeling of career ennui.

As you contemplate your next move with a long, cool drink in hand, bear in mind some interesting research about career progressions from a trio of academics from Emlyon (France), Wharton (US) and London business schools. In a nutshell they found that while headhunters are useful if someone wants a promotion or more money for doing a similar job, they are not the best option for anyone looking for a big career change.

Professors Kira Choi, Matthew Bidwell and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo analysed the role of recruitment firms in managerial-level career mobility and found them to be less effective at placing people where a jobseeker wanted to segue into a new industry or function. This was mainly because their clients hire them to find candidates who are similar to the person leaving, not different.

And the higher you go up the corporate ladder, the more difficult it becomes to change industry or function because search companies dominate the recruitment market at this level.


The authors looked at how senior career paths are shaped by headhunters and found that, in general, search firms constrain horizontal moves across functions and industries. This doesn’t mean they will never consider a candidate from a different background – they will if someone has special skills or they can’t find an ideal match from within their existing pool. But it’s the exception rather than the rule.

This is relevant because good horizontal mobility can have a big influence on how someone’s career develops as these moves enable employees to broaden their skills and build more diverse business relationships.

“Even though search firms often have deep networks within labour markets, our results suggest that these networks are not leveraged to help people make bigger changes in their careers, but instead serve to provide employers with candidates coming from similar roles to the one being filled,” the authors say.

“Individuals who move jobs using a search firm experience lower horizontal mobility than those who move through other means….[and] supplementary analyses show no evidence that the job matches that are formed using search firms result in a better fit between workers and employers.”

In short, a jobseeker could have done as well or better using alternative search channels such as social media, job sites and personal contacts.

Mark O’Donnell, managing partner at executive search company Odgers Berndtson, says there’s a ring of truth to the research findings. “I’d say that 75 per cent of our clients want someone with function expertise and a proven track record in a specific area who can hit the ground running,” he says. With Odgers Berndtson typically recruiting for jobs with salaries from €125,000 it’s easy to understand why his company’s clients might want a candidate offering the comfort of familiarity, not a wild card.

“There may be a willingness to think outside the box to some extent in certain circumstances but at a very senior level few companies are overly keen to take the risk,” O’Donnell says. “What I will say, however, is that in our role as professional advisers if we come across someone who may not be a fit for a client now but could be in the future, then we will introduce them. But generally speaking, in large organisations, particular roles are a box within a bigger box.”

So, if talking to a headhunter is not going to help you make a successful transition from lion tamer to C-suite top cat, how does one go about pulling off a big move on to a different track?

“People looking to make a more radical shift – into a new function or industry – might be better off using other means; chief among them, their own network,” the academics say. “It turns out that executives who heard about their job through a search firm were significantly less likely to move into lateral-type opportunities (11 per cent less likely to successfully change function, and 7 per cent less likely to change industry) compared to those who heard about opportunities through other means.

“In our data, 46 per cent of search firm-mediated moves involved a change in function as compared with 58 per cent for moves that were not mediated. Similarly, 50 per cent of mediated moves involved a change in industry, as compared with 57 per cent of moves that took place through other means. These differences are statistically significant and consistent with our argument that people are less likely to experience horizontal mobility when moving jobs through a search firm.”

For those on the hunt for a similar role or indeed something completely different, O’Donnell says that the senior jobs market is somewhat turbulent at the moment but holding up and over the last six months, the average salary handled by Odgers Berndtson has been €182,000.

“We’re busy but could be doing more,” he says. “There is still plenty of activity but no one area is jumping out as dominating. It’s swings and roundabouts. Financial services are coming back while pharma has slowed and tech positions at our level have not really been affected by the lay-offs.”