Why Headhunters Fail and What to Do About It
Last updated Apr 30, 2021
by Krista Bradford

Why Headhunters Fail

Most traditional retained search headhunters do not have recruiting research expertise. Headhunters would rather focus on “more important” things like reeling in the next client. There’s a reason. Headhunter compensation is closely tied to how much business they bring in. Headhunters are rewarded for their sales skills, not their research expertise.  And, in the Age of Information, that’s a problem. This lack of research expertise often causes executive search to fail.

Executive headhunters often delegate recruiting research to someone else. That someone else is usually a secretary or junior associate right of college. That’s why most search firm “researchers” lack serious recruiting research expertise. Lacking expertise, they don’t know how to find the best candidates. As a result, the executive search fails.


The Rise of Anarchy in Candidate Data

There’s been an explosion of data on candidates, companies, and industries. The data are scattered like buckshot across the Internet. Information about passive candidates is tucked away in a myriad of databases. The information is not visible to search engines. Headhunters cannot simply google it. The information lies hidden deep within the Invisible Web and is only accessible with recruiting research expertise.

Over the past 10 years, the amount of digital data has increased from 1,200 to 59,000 exabytes (EB). And this number is predicted to grow at increasingly larger rates. By 2025, the IDC predicts that we will have 175,000 EB, or 175 zettabytes (ZB) of digital data.
The amount of data predicted to be created over the next three years will be more than what has been created in the last 30 years. Without data research expertise, it is easy to get lost. As early as 2012, Michael Walker, the Managing Partner of Rose Business Technologies, was able to describe what we’re witnessing today as the Rise of Data Anarchy.


The image shows the exponential growth of digital data by region. The figure predicts that China will account for neearly a fourth of all digital data in 2025.  The UNited Staes in predicted to account for roughly one fifth of all digital data in 2025.

Image from Forbes, November 2018

Data is the Forest: Candidates are the Trees

It is counter-intuitive. But the more candidate information there is, the harder executive search becomes. Headhunters lack the skills needed to separate the signal from the noise.  In fact, most search firms have not altered their processes in more than half a century. They simply have not dealt with the rising tide of information.

Most recruiters cannot see the forest for the trees. Yes, amazing executives are but a Google search or a LinkedIn connection away.  But the sheer volume of names is a problem. Too many wrong candidates get in the way of those who are right. Moreover, we live in an age of data chaos. Unstructured data lacks context. Without recruiting research expertise, you don’t know how many potential candidates there are at target companies. Consequently, you don’t know when you can stop trying to find them. That lack of perspective dumbs down recruiting, making it more costly and less effective.

Even after your headhunters have developed a long list of executives for a search, they are not candidates — at least not yet. The heaving lifting of “candidate development” remains. You must still determine whether a prospective candidate is qualified, interested, able to relocate, and, yes, sane. In other words, you cannot download a list of the best candidates, at least not yet. But gifted recruitment researchers can produce such a list.

Headhunters Need Recruiting Research Expertise

There is treasure to be found in the mountain of data. The information extends far beyond typical recruiting databases and social networks. Think “Nate Silver”. (You can check his Oscar predictions here.)  Or think “Peter Brand”, played by Jonah Hill in the movie Moneyball. They make a compelling case for leveraging information to make recruiting smarter.

Consider what data might tell you who the best candidates are. Baseball has batting averages that measure performance. Every industry has its own statistics. Every industry has RBIs (Runs Batted In) and ERAs (Earned Run Averages). Crunched in the right way, those statistics can lead to incredible game-changing hires.

What to Do About It

So next time you need an executive headhunter, go for a nerdy search practice with data expertise. Look for recruiters who know how to harness the power of data. Seek search firms and research firms who are proponents of smarter search. Hiring an executive search firm without recruiting research expertise is setting your search up to fail.


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