Feb 14, 2008

Lucy Kellaway tears into headhunters

Lucy Kellaway, the bête noire of buzzword users, trains her acerbic pen at the headhunting profession:

Modern headhunters spout as much guff as management consultants, but without the excuse. Consultants have to, to hide the fact that it often isn’t clear what they’re selling. Headhunters are selling something pukka so there’s no reason why they can’t come right out and say so.

Korn Ferry describes itself as “The premier provider of human capital solutions” and the other big firms are no better. Heidrick & Struggles boasts that “as innovators we are actively redefining top-level search to encompass complementary services”. Michael Page’s approach goes for bathos: “Our journey starts when we see a difference between where we are today and where we want to be,” it says on its website.

Last week an acquaintance told me he had just employed one of the world’s largest headhunting firms to help him find a new managing director. He received an introductory e-mail from the firm that began: “As a Leading Total Talent Solution Provider we have some special assessment tools to help identify the ‘right’ candidate.”

The only important word here – right – has acquired inverted commas, while the rest seems to have been produced by an automatic buzzword generator. All the above words are dismal, but the word “talent” is the worst. Most people aren’t terribly talented at all. And once you start talking of talent, it’s only a hop, skip and jump to “talent pools”, with the dangerously misleading idea that schools of talent are swimming around, just ready to be fished out by the headhunter.

With the e-mail came attached a “Leadership Advantage Toolkit” containing 66 characteristics that might be desirable in a leader, including “dealing with paradox” and “organisational agility”. These had to be rated according to “mission critical”, “important” and so on.

This is a low trick. It is about making clients think they are buying rigour in the hope this will make them less likely to protest when presented with the inevitably disappointing shortlist of candidates.

In fact headhunting is both simple and difficult. The theory is simple: there are good managers and not-so-good ones. Alas, most are fairly mediocre, as managing isn’t easy. Choosing the good ones has nothing at all to do with 66 carefully weighted competencies: it is more a matter of finding three. The ability to think, the ability to act, and (most important) the ability to get others to act.