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Plucking out the right people is harder than it looks

By Simon Creasey

Finding good-quality staff members is time-consuming and it can be a costly process. You may have to wade through dozens of covering letters and CVs from applicants, many of whom don’t fit the requirements of the post, to find a suitable candidate.


The situation becomes even more challenging when it’s for a senior management role. You may find plenty of people who look good on paper, but when it comes to the crunch they don’t provide the right fit.

This is why sometimes the best plan of attack is to headhunt. To specifically target individuals who have the exact qualifications and track record you are looking for.

But how do you draw up a shortlist of potential candidates, how do you make that initial approach to them and what sort of help can recruitment agencies provide in this area?

For many people headhunting isn’t a topic that they like to openly discuss because it has lots of negative connotations associated with it.

“Headhunting is one of those funny things that everyone complains about until they want to do it,” says Dani Novick, managing director of print and packaging recruitment specialists Mercury Search & Selection. “The bottom line is if you headhunt and acquire a particular person/skillset you’ll be happy, but if you have a valuable member of your team headhunted and they leave you’ll be unhappy. There are no rights and wrongs – it is just a fact of life like competing for business.”

This latter point is an important one because many business owners might think that a good way to compete for business with rival companies is to steal their best staff, but Novick advises against this. 

“Just as buying a competitor in order to gain their turnover rarely works well, poaching sales staff expecting them to deliver up their turnover is a recipe for disappointment,” she says. “We often hear sales directors asking of sales execs ‘how much business will they bring with them?’ I personally would never give a figure much less guarantee it. If you headhunt someone in sales what you are buying is their knowledge, their contacts and their ability to sell. The result is a combination of those factors and your business offering and certainly isn’t a salesman bringing their order book.”

That’s why Novick says that employers who are considering headhunting members of staff from direct competitors should exercise caution. 

“I know people will say ‘I would say that wouldn’t I,’ but there are some very good reasons to utilise a specialist headhunter rather than approaching directly,” says Novick. “It is our experience – and that of many clients – that a direct approach to a competitor’s member of staff can be too ‘in your face’ and spook the target putting them off. Most often the result is that the target pumps you for information and then goes off to tell their boss. This is because there is an often misunderstood power dynamic at play.”

Bad impressions

She also says that if a print boss starts approaching people who work at a rival business they will immediately assume that their rival is in a weaker position and sense the opportunity to go for the kill. 

“It’s an opportunity to probe this rival – ‘why do they want/need me? What is their weakness? How can I take advantage of them?’ The result is them seeing it as an opportunity to be more successful in their current role rather than considering a risk moving somewhere else,” says Novick.

So if poaching star talent from rival businesses is a non-starter what’s the best way to start compiling a list of potential targets? 

“You look for equivalents in your industry and you do a lot of research work in terms of browsing social networks so that you can start putting together a list,” says Nigel Williams, managing partner at recruitment experts Page Overton. “If you sit at a computer long enough and look hard enough at an individual and their social media accounts you will start to dig up useful information.”

Williams says that every search begins with a clean sheet of paper and then he starts filling up that piece of paper with possible names. Long lists might be whittled down two to three times – depending on the number of potential candidates – before he will start conducting more intensive vetting interviews with candidates. Only after verifying the veracity of all of the candidates does he present the final short list to clients.

This verification process is vitally important as it ensures that candidates match the criteria the future employer is looking for and it’s also one of the hardest parts of the recruitment process according to George Thompson, joint managing director at Harrison Scott. 

Experience and expertise

Thompson says verification requires years of industry experience and expertise and he cites a recent example, that he was personally involved in, to illustrate his point: “Only last month one of our clients wanted us to headhunt an account director from a print management company, but with the information we had on the target, we knew that the individual was nowhere near the standard our client assumed he was just because he worked for a quality company,” says Thompson. 

Thanks to Thompson’s knowledge the account director was ruled out.

Once this verification process has taken place it’s time to make an initial approach to shortlisted candidates, which also requires a specific skillset. Whoever is doing the recruiting has to really sell the opportunity to the candidate to pique their interest, according to Williams.

“You have to describe the ingredients of the cake,” he says. “So here is a cake, this is how it’s built, these are the conditions, are you interested?”

That’s if you manage to make it that far. Thompson says the tricky bit is often getting someone to pick up the phone in the first place.

“For the top people in the industry to want to take your call, you need years of experience and a solid reputation,” believes Thompson. “This would explain the reason that new headhunters find it so difficult to make inroads in print and the absence of any of the very large recruitment firms. These companies specialise in many different sectors, but don’t have specialised staff to serve the print sector.”

And that’s why unless you’re that rare print boss who has lots of spare time on your hands it usually makes more sense to appoint a specialist print headhunter who can do all of the hard slog and guide you through the process to make sure you don’t make any costly missteps from the outset.

“Many employers are tempted to make direct approaches because they have heard of or come across a particularly individual and then they go off and target that person,” says Novick. “As recruiters we work with clients to go back to basics: what are the skills, knowledge and contacts you are looking for? From that we draw up a plan for our research looking for those attributes rather than making a bee-line for a single individual. Once the search is complete we can then offer the client the opportunity to compare a range of individuals with their respective mix of skills, knowledge and contacts. This choice brings the power back towards the employer.”

The discreet service offered by recruitment agencies is key if you are planning to add a new machine or product, while a clumsy headhunting attempt may scupper your advantage. “If you are planning something new you are pretty much going to have to let the cat out of the bag to your competitors, whether they are interested or not. Alerting your competitors to your plans before they are off the ground may not be great for business,” says Novick.

Despite the words of warning from recruitment experts some print owners might still think that they are capable of headhunting a member of staff and they may well be right, but for the vast majority of bosses this process is too laborious and time-consuming. You also don’t want to make the mistake of hiring the wrong persons because in the long run it can be equally as costly again to get rid of them. That’s why recruiters who have worked in the sector for years believe that the best plan of attack is to appoint a reputable business to manage this process for them.

“The bottom line is that there is no doubt that employers can approach people directly and potentially save a recruitment fee,” says Novick. “However, they are unlikely to have as broad a choice and the target candidates hold all the cards in any negotiation if it gets that far. More likely, however, is that they will have to give up valuable information with a relatively low chance of success.”

So the next time you start thinking about tapping up that rising sales star from the print business just around the corner from you, it might be wise to pick up the phone to a recruitment expert instead. 

This article originally appeared in PrintWeek.

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