Neil Johnson, ACCA Careers editor

Being approached by a headhunter can be a life-changing experience – if you’re open to it. Businesses employ executive search firms – the term that many recruiters prefer to go by – to quickly fill senior, high value and difficult-to-recruit roles. As a finance professional in a currently very tight recruitment market, it can be worth knowing a little about who might be calling you out of the blue, how they operate and how you can work with them, whether or not you are looking for a change.

‘Clients are paying us to circumnavigate a particular area locally or internationally, whatever the discipline, sector or geography,’ says Derek MacFeate, founding managing partner at Scotland-based MM Search. ‘We’ll thoroughly understand what they’re looking for, and then it’s a no-bar search in terms of who we’ll go after.

‘Candidates should choose two or three firms to work with, thereby fostering deeper, more productive relationships’

‘It’s more than just going to a database or putting an advert out there; we’re going around the different industries and pertinent individuals to find somebody who’s not necessarily looking or in the market. Most people will take the call confidentially, and then a lot of the time we need them to sign non-disclosure agreements so we can discuss the role.’


Assuring confidentiality is a crucial element in forming a trusting relationship, says Elise Tok, senior consultant for commerce finance at Robert Walters Singapore. ‘This is so potential candidates feel secure about exploring new opportunities without compromising their current employment. Ultimately, it’s all about creating a safe space for the candidates to have an open conversation with the recruiter, and respecting that the candidates have the final say in their career decisions.’

Tok tries to establish a rapport and trust with candidates through active listening and showing genuine interest in their background and career aspirations.

‘I take my time to understand the career aspirations of candidates and offer a consultative approach throughout the process,’ she says. ‘I will also share market insights and industry trends with candidates to help them gain a broader perspective to make informed decisions. Through the conversation, I can then identify their career ambitions and present compelling opportunities that match their aspirations and interests. This can then help the candidate to see the value and potential of making a move.’

‘It’s about exploring potential opportunities and isn’t necessarily tied to an immediate move’

You never know

You may be happy in your current role when a headhunter calls, but it can pay to hear them out, as they can be valuable sources of insight and advice. After all, you never know what is around the corner, or how your career path or life might change. A good headhunter will make their approach in a way that does not make you feel uncomfortable or nervous.

Murray Robertson, director of Michael Page Philippines, uses a blend of approaches, including referrals, networking and direct contact. He says: ‘We understand the potentially sensitive nature of job transitions, especially for those who are currently employed and may not be actively seeking a new role. We adopt a no-pressure strategy; our goal is to establish a long-term relationship rather than a single transactional interaction.

‘It’s always about exploring potential opportunities that could align with their future career aspirations, and this isn’t necessarily tied to an immediate move. We prioritise creating a comfortable, respectful dialogue that allows potential contacts to consider new possibilities at their own pace.’

‘You should make yourself visible through social platforms such as LinkedIn’

Ear to the ground

You can also be the one to approach executive search firms. You do not need to be on your way out of the door of a current role. You may just want to keep your options open, to have a connection to recruitment market movements, to understand and benchmark your value, and to remain aware of emerging opportunities.

Fabrice Coudray, managing director for executive search at Robert Half, says: ‘In order to stay on our radar, you should make yourself visible through social platforms such as LinkedIn, where you can build your brand by sharing relevant views, project participation and career information that could lead you to new opportunities. However, headhunters will only come back to you when they have received a mandate corresponding to your profile, which means it may take some time before you see results.

‘Also, make sure you share relevant information about your professional development and career, and show the reasons why you are listening to the market again – for example, strategy changes at your current company, or a shift in governance. Only discuss publicly available information about your company. Respecting confidentiality is not only crucial for your existing position but is also a good quality to demonstrate to the executive search firm.’

Favour the few

When choosing recruiters to work with, Robertson advises being selective. ‘Rather than scattering your efforts, we encourage candidates to choose two or three firms to work closely with, thereby fostering deeper and more productive relationships.

‘It’s also crucial to spend some time familiarising yourself with the market before setting your priorities. Identifying your motivations and what you genuinely value in a position is also essential, as this helps us align your aspirations with the right opportunities.’

Once you have a selection of recruiters you are happy with, stay in touch, but don’t be pushy. Touching base once a quarter is best, says Coudray.

More information

Visit the ACCA Careers website for news and advice on your next career move