How to work with a headhunter: 10 tips (plus a bonus one)  

Advice from Sue O'Brien OBE, managing partner at Ridgeway Partners executive search 

1. Find a headhunter who you like and trust.
The earlier you can do this in your career, the better to build the relationship.

2. Always return their calls as soon as possible.
Even if you don’t want that particular role, it’s a chance to get to know them for future. Besides, headhunters will naturally prioritise those candidates who are more accessible and keen to work with them.
>>& the men do it! Sue finds men get back to you within 24-48 hours; only around 30% of women phone back within two weeks.

3. Know what type of role you want to do.
Don’t simply ask what they have on the books - you wouldn’t go to an estate agent asking for ‘a house to live in’, after all. Consider what size or business structure of organisation you want and be able to explain why in terms of what you can bring to it.

4. Own your decision to seek a non-executive role.
Sue’s bug bear is candidates who come to her saying ‘someone else suggested I take on a NED role’. Why are you following that suggestion?

5. Consider how you come across to the headhunter – what notes will they be taking about you?
Most recruiters have two groups of candidates: ones that are ‘looking around’ and ones they ‘need to place’. Decide which group you want to be in and make sure your enthusiasm, ambition and skills come across accordingly. See the previous two points!

6. Don’t be disheartened about being seen by a researcher or a consultant
They hold a lot of power in who is passed to the partner.

7. Always ask to look at the role brief and find out about the rest of the board.
This will help you work out how likely you are to be considered seriously. For example, if you have a live executive role and there are others on the board who do also, it’s less likely you’ll be selected.

8. If a role isn’t right for you, do pass it to another woman in your network.
This will help the headhunter, who will then be more likely to help you in return. Also, it will help you keep out of Madeleine Albright’s ‘special place in hell’ (for women who don’t help other women).

9. Don’t be shy about not having previous board experience.
Having a pool of new, fresh candidates helps the headhunter commercially to win new business – especially women, as diversity is in demand.

10. Don’t be a ‘grateful NED’ – consider carefully if a board is right for you.
Meet the chair and the chief executive and go with your gut. A board role is a commitment of 3 -6 years so it needs to be ‘right’. Leaving a board early in your term can damage your prospects of getting subsequent roles.

& finally … Don’t be precious about being a ‘token’ woman.
In all her years of recruitment experience, Sue has never known someone recruited for their gender alone. It may be one factor, but your skills and ability to do the role count for far more. Besides, diversity of thought on the board is a genuine business need which delivers results.