Career management: How to get headhunted

Looking for a top job? Why not let the top job look for you? examines what you can do to attract the interest of...

Looking for a top job? Why not let the top job look for you? examines what you can do to attract the interest of headhunters.

If there is a single watchword for getting yourself headhunted, it's "visibility". All the headhunters agree - if they don't know who you are, they can't put you forward.

Consequently the first step is to make yourself known in the wider IT world, and to make sure others perceive you in the way you are aiming to project yourself. Recommended avenues for self-exposure are conferences, the press and the IT industry "cocktail circuit". Headhunters keep a watching brief on all such channels of exposure.

Conference call
Securing speaking engagements at conferences not only establishes you as an authoritative expert but it means that publicity material about you, including photographs and biographies, is sent out ahead of the event, points out Nick Marsh, director of European technology practice at resourcing services group Harvey Nash.

Therefore make sure you have a high-quality photo of yourself ready to use at short notice or you'll end up looking like the Neasden Axe Murderer in the conference brochure. Also make sure well ahead of time that the career details you supply are accurate.

Robina Chatham, independent consultant and visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management, says be picky about which conferences you speak at - check out the calibre of other speakers and the expected audience.

Once you've secured your place on the platform, don't score an own goal by failing to prepare a truly memorable presentation. It's essential to put in the effort or you could end up doing more harm than good to your chances of advancement by appearing on the speakers' platform.

"Speak at practitioner conferences - but do it well!" Chatham sums up.

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Media exposure can work wonders too. "Get yourself quoted in the press, make a name as an industry source, especially in core articles," advises Marsh. "We track all that."

Informal networking is crucial in creating effective self-exposure and enhancing your reputation. The "cocktail circuit" can range from purely social invitations such as sports events - preferably the "right" kind of sports such as rugby, golf and Wimbledon tennis, advises Chatham - to IT directors' clubs.

What about deliberately drawing attention to yourself by contacting headhunters? You might have thought this was a total no-no, but in fact most headhunters are happy to be approached - as long as they're approached by someone they're likely to want.

Certainly it's something encouraged by Geoffrey Forester, chairman of technology practice at international executive search group Odgers, Ray and Berndtson. "Why not be proactive?" he says. "It's part of your creative personal marketing."

Brinley Platts, business development director at the IMPACT Programme, a leading network for CIOs, agrees. "You have to think of yourself as a product launching on the market, so do your market research and promote yourself," he says. "There's no room for embarrassment - if you're no good you won't get placed."

Platts says if you do approach headhunters, you must be prepared for them to use you as a source - to recommend other potential candidates for them. You should also be aware that if you get a call asking you to recommend someone for a post, it could be you the headhunter is sounding out. "You can be quite upfront about asking him or her," says Platts.

Plot your career course
He also considers it quite acceptable to alert headhunters to tell them "I'm likely to be on the market in l8 months, and here's what I can do".

That kind of forward planning should be part of your ongoing active career management. You should know what opportunities are likely to arise and then map these to where you want to be in six to 18 months time.

"Keep yourself constantly aware of what people are looking for and what chief executives are saying are the key skills. Keep checking the Sunday Times," advises David Taylor, president of IT directors group Certus.

You should also check out the headhunters as well. "The book Executive Grapevine lists all executive recruitment agencies in the UK," says Marsh. "There are no more than 20 big headhunters, so focus on them. Below are another 20 or so smaller second-tier mixed headhunters and executive search groups, which are fine for being headhunted the first time. Then there are 5,000 or more third-tier agencies."

He is blunt about what level to pitch at. Top-rank headhunters, he warns, "only deal with candidates on salaries of more than £60,000 a year". So if you're not there yet, stop sitting by the phone.

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