Australia’s Top Headhunters Share Their Recruitment Secrets

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Recruiters are powerful workforce agents. Not only do they determine the short list of job candidates and influence the final selection, they’ve also increasingly become organisational shapeshifters, advising boards, CEOs and others about strategy and key positions, sometimes introducing hot prospects ahead of time.

The recruitment industry is characterised by intense competition and a multitude of players, from large global organisations to boutique firms, industry and category specialists and online jobs boards. A 2016 KPMG report cited the existence of almost 7000 recruitment businesses in Australia generating some $11.2 billion in revenue.

While people, skills and talents are mandatory focal points for all operators in the space, here are four recruiters who are ahead of the game.

Heidi Mason

Senior client partner – global board and CEO services practice, Korn Ferry

Specialisation: Heidi Mason breathes “rarified air” at one of the best-known leadership development firms, Korn Ferry, where clients are often global businesses, governments and not-for-profits. She sources and develops talent for board and CEO roles across the world, identifying candidates within client organisations and headhunting them from others.

Confidentiality is vital because the hiring (or firing) of big-time corporate leaders is news and has an impact on markets. “We get to know the real story behind the story,” says Mason, “but you have to be comfortable knowing that you can’t tell anyone.”

Career moves: A former accountant with KPMG, Mason is a C-suite insider who was working as the CFO of Enron Australia when its American parent, once named the United States’ most innovative company, collapsed spectacularly in 2001. After winding up the local business, she made an extreme career change, founding the CFO recruitment practice in Australia for one of the top five global executive search firms, Russell Reynolds, where she stayed for 14 years, placing hundreds of corporate leaders.

Last year Korn Ferry offered her a role that links executive search with leadership advisory and the development of candidates for CEO and board succession.

How she works: When she was invited to go into executive search, Mason thought she wasn’t a natural. “I’m not a business development person or a networker – walking into a room full of people I don’t know is my worst nightmare.” But apparently it isn’t necessary. “I’ve built a great network through the work I’ve done – interesting relationships and discussions with interesting people.”

At the top leadership level it’s about tapping into Mason’s now vast network to find the most talented performers. It’s “not about people who are looking for a job”, she clarifies. Rarely does anyone not return her call.

Executive search is part of a holistic strategic approach at Korn Ferry. Mason starts by meeting with a client’s board, preferably two-plus years before the likely start date of a new CEO. Ideally, developing CEOs is a continuum, she says. Companies should constantly be looking, both internally and externally, for their next corporate leader.

Today, in every industry, ambiguity and disruption test the mettle of corporate leaders. All face the pressures of digitisation and the power of the customer. In Mason’s sights are those who understand the impact of technology, can craft a strategy and adapt it and take people on the change journey. “It’s one thing for you to be prepared to pivot but the organisation has to be able to do that as well.”

Highs: “Helping people to think about what they’re capable of doing and how to stretch themselves to make it possible,” she says. “Sometimes it’s talking to someone about something they never thought they’d do.”

Lows: Dealing with human beings is not  a perfect science, says Mason. Even the most assiduously prepped executive appointments fall over because “it turns out someone collects wild pygmy cats that can’t be moved to London, where the job is,” she says, tongue in cheek. Or, more likely, “their spouse’s job won’t shift”.

How she knows when someone is the right fit: It used to be about intuition and the interview but these days it’s much more rigorous. “We use a proprietary online tool to test for experience, competencies, traits and drivers,” says Mason.

Korn Ferry also simulates “a day in the life of a CEO” that puts candidates in various situations: financial exercises; a town hall meeting as a webcast with a moderator and an audience asking questions; a board meeting with two bona fide directors; and a media interview with cameras, hot lights and a scenario that changes throughout  the day. Korn Ferry’s international team gets involved as scorers so the candidate’s performance can be judged relative to a global group. “We give feedback,” says Mason, “so we can judge over the course of a day if they’re active learners and see how they respond to stress.”

Tim Henry

Partner – executive search, Peoplecorp

Specialisation: In addition to managing the daily business at human resources (HR) recruitment firm Peoplecorp, Tim Henry places senior and executive HR candidates across all industries.

Career moves: Networking through rugby friends helped Henry, an English literature graduate, land his first job in HR recruitment in London, where he worked for six and a half years with global firm Frazer Jones before transferring to Sydney in 2007. Four years later he was headhunted by Sydney firm Peoplecorp to help grow the business.

Since Henry joined in 2011, the number of client-facing roles at Peoplecorp has increased from three to 14. Another measure of success is the client mix, which ranges from big financial services organisations, including Macquarie Bank and Commonwealth Bank of Australia (with its 800-strong HR function), to Transport for NSW and not-for-profits such as The Fred Hollows Foundation.

How he works: “The good thing about working in HR recruitment is your candidates become your clients and your clients become your candidates and around it goes,” says Henry, who is known as a master networker and people connector.

Under his watch, value-added initiatives have included a pro bono undergraduate program that places final-year university students with clients for work experience (which is proving its worth as those interns rise through the ranks) and, for HR directors, monthly networking lunches featuring expert speakers. There’s also the HR Collective, which brings 15 businesses together to share their experiences and approaches and connect with boutique specialists in the field.

Highs: “To me, our greatest achievement is the retention of our people,” says Henry. “The recruitment industry is extremely competitive and can have a relatively high turnover but in the past five years no-one has left Peoplecorp to go to a competitor in Australia.”

Lows: Letting people down is the hardest part of the job, says Henry. “By the time you get down to the final few candidates for a role, you’ve invested months in a search. As great as it feels to tell the successful person they got the job, you also have to tell the runners-up that they didn’t. I’ve had very senior people in tears when I’ve broken the news – and it doesn’t get easier.”

How he knows when someone is the right fit: As well as understanding the needs and culture of the client, gut feeling has a lot to do with it. “About half our clients ask us to put candidates through psychometric testing,” says Henry, “but I couldn’t honestly say there’s a higher degree of success as a result.”

Good recruiters also play devil’s advocate, pointing out considerations to candidates such as a long commute or travel away from home. “If we put a person in a permanent role and they leave within six months, we have an obligation to find the client another person for free. We’re staking our reputation on the success of the placement.”

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Zoe Crouch

Senior consultant – data science, analytics and insights, Talent International

Specialisation: Zoe Crouch recruits for global organisations, SMEs and startups in the exponentially expanding, candidate-scarce fields of data and analytics.

Career moves: Crouch graduated from the University of Exeter with a degree in Spanish and mathematics. In 2013, straight out of uni, she landed a job in the fast-moving market insights field at Resources Group in London.

Her career gathered momentum with the big-data wave. She transferred to Sydney in 2017 before working for Talent International, a tech-focused recruitment agency that has grown since 1995 from a startup in a Perth garage to an operation with 300 employees and 17 offices across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the United States and Britain.

“In five years I’ve gone from placing people working with small sample surveys of maybe 1000 to those working with 10 million customers and huge datasets,” says Crouch.

How she works: Fast. “We’re not just working with [job] briefs. When we find a gun data scientist, there’s an entire client base who’ll want to see them.” Clients with projects lined up for the next few years want to meet hot talent, even if they don’t immediately have a role for them. “And for high-level data scientists, it’s not just about their technical skill set but also big-picture thinking and the ability to translate insights into strategy.”

Crouch casts a wide net, sourcing candidates from LinkedIn, Seek, Talent International’s database, referrals and data science meet-ups. She applies the company’s “people first” ethos, building relationships, networking and understanding clients’ brands. “Recruitment conversations come second. It’s more of an organic approach and less about matching skills and CVs.”

When a client briefs her on a role, Crouch works backwards: “We ask, ‘What’s the problem you need to solve?’ We help them shape the role then work out who’s the best fit.” With candidates, “it’s about helping them build a career rather than [placing them in] a specific job we’ve got.”

Highs: Good candidates are in such high demand that satisfaction comes from placing them before they’re nabbed by another company, says Crouch.

Lows: What is known as “candidate control” can be tricky, she says. “We need transparency; are they attending other interviews? And sometimes employers don’t understand how demand has flipped the market – they need to sell their company to candidates, not the other way around.”

How she knows when someone is the right fit: “I try to find out what makes the candidate tick, their values, what environments they work best in. I spend half the time talking about non-work-related things to get a reading of their personality and how well they’ll align with the client’s culture.”

With the emergence of artificial intelligence (see “Mean machine” overleaf), the human element of Crouch’s work is a hot topic. “It’s freeing up time for relationship building. But a computer will never be able to determine if someone is the right fit.”

Apitha Ganeshalingam

Principal consultant – Lime Resourcing

Specialisation: Recruitment to recruitment (rec2rec), a fiercely competitive niche, is where Apitha Ganeshalingam focuses on mid-level roles, typically placing candidates in large recruitment firms and boutique agencies. Why don’t recruiters find their own recruiters? “It takes too much time in such a candidate-short market,” she says.

Career moves: With a degree in social science (psychology) and an insatiable curiosity about people, Ganeshalingam worked in business-support recruitment in London before moving to Australia eight years ago and discovering Sydney’s lively rec2rec market.

Because of a skill shortage, Australia’s recruitment industry has been dominated by British expats, Ganeshalingam learnt, though recent changes in visa requirements are reversing that trend, prompting recruitment firms to train up locals.

How she works: Working a “360 desk” in a boutique agency means running the entire recruitment process, from taking the job brief to placing a candidate and following up. Like many other salespeople, recruiters receive a base salary that is boosted by commissions and bonuses. Ganeshalingam, who places five or six people monthly, also negotiates commissions of 20 per cent of a successful candidate’s annual salary.

“When you’re given a brief, on average you might put feelers out to 50 people before getting two or three responses. The network you need is massive,” she says. The process could take a day or a week to headhunt for a specific mid-level job and months at the top end.

Highs: “Billings are one measure of success but you can change someone’s life, literally turn it around, with the right job,” says Ganeshalingam. “It’s very rewarding.”

Lows: “People often talk about the recruitment industry as ‘champagne and razor blades’. One day you’re celebrating and the next day it all goes wrong – despite your best efforts, your top candidate for a role drops out. Many people struggle with that and burn out but you can overcome it by creating a pipeline and juggling a lot of jobs.”

How she knows when someone is the right fit: Recruitment is fundamentally based on personality rather than skills, suggests Ganeshalingam, who has also worked the Dubai and Melbourne markets for Lime Resourcing and returns to the United Kingdom this month. Forget phone calls, emails and text messages – she insists on face-to-face interactions, either in person or by Skype. “You must see how someone carries themselves, their mannerisms, expressions and reactions. Are they corporate, edgy or more eclectic?”  

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