Insiders’ view of the world of headhunting

‘Excerpts from the life of a head-hunter’ working in the leisure/hospitality/retail sectors.

[Unfortunately such is the sensitivity of the head-hunting profession that it is rarely possible that the names of the Insiders’ clients can be divulged]


That’s quite enough of that…

8:00am Friday Apr 18 – Back to it with a jolt

After the quiet summer period it’s time to get back to business. Returning to where we left off – working on a food assignment at Whitbread. I’d been trying to contact the candidate after she left a message the previous evening all excited and desperate to make contact.

It transpires that she’d been directly approached by the CEO of a lovely London-centric pan-Asian restaurant business that is expanding outside the capital. The CEO is very well known and clearly capable of painting very rosy pictures and he promises to make contact again with her to discuss a role.

All of a sudden our shortlist for Whitbread drops to two candidates and one serious doubter.


The call comes in from the drinks-led business that I’d been dealing with to initiate an assignment to appoint a board-level operations director. As there is an incumbent in the role it will no doubt be a private and confidential (P&C) task for us, which will make the job of securing a shortlist that much harder. Typically 50% of candidates pull out of the running when the name is disclosed.


Oh yes


Our now very doubtful candidate calls to reveal that she has discussed two roles with the CEO of the restaurant company – either of which she might be interested in.

7:30am Monday Apr 20 – Things get moving

The CEO of the drinks-led business calls to arrange for me to meet with him and his HR director to formally initiate the search and to discuss requirements as well as putting together a wish-list of companies in which we could look for candidates.


The increasingly doubtful MBA candidate calls. She’s been verbally offered a marketing communications role on the board of the pan-Asian food business. The pace of entrepreneur owned and private equity-backed companies now comes very much under the spotlight.

8:30am Tuesday Apr 21 – One down, two to go

We’ve lost her! This morning she accepts the role.


Clearly I call the HR director in Whitbread and explain we’ve just lost a third of the shortlist. As disappointing as it is we are both reflective on what has just happened and realise that with the best will in the world there is absolutely no way we can move at such blistering pace. We both agree we’ll watch this space with interest. As the saying goes ‘easy come, easy go’. We also agree to go ahead with interviewing the remaining two candidates.


These times are not for everybody

5:00pm Monday May 5 – Tough time with late-night operator

Much of our research work is now complete for the operations director assignment at the drinks-led business. But sadly it does not make for great reading as there is little appetite for 3am finishes on Thursday through to Saturday. This tends to knock out nine out of 10 people with young families and attracts pre-family individuals but they don’t typically have the experience required to run a business of scale. The assignment remains P&C although the situation might change early in June.

2:00pm Wednesday May 8 – Conflicting feedback

Interviews begin at Whitbread and the feedback from the candidates is worrying. Oddly, the feedback from the HR director is encouraging! The candidates’ claim the client (who will be the appointed person’s direct report) is not engaged in the process and effectively ‘didn’t turn up’ to the hour-plus meeting. The HR director did not necessarily disagree with the candidates’ assessment and admitted the business had some work to do internally on this issue.

3:00pm Friday May 11 – Still two in the game

To my surprise both candidates move on to second interviews. The client has not been invited to these meetings – the HR director deals with it.

10:00am Tuesday June 10 – Going swimmingly

Feedback from both candidates is excellent and it is the same positive view that is also expressed by the HR director. Now we have the situation where one of the candidates suggests a different reporting line – not involving the original client – could be the only way this assignment will work.

8:30am Friday June 12 – Decisions to be made

I’m informed communications from Whitbread will reduce for the next two weeks as the company moves into hosting its regional road-shows and strategy workshops for its senior teams. Part of this will include conversations with the client who to date has not been engaged at all in the recruitment process with us.

The challenge here is the question of what stage does a divisional board level employee’s opinion and desires become more important than the business’s they are in?

…to be continued…

Sponsored column by Nigel Sapsed, director of executive search specialist Sapsed Stevens