Not so long ago, Monica Shaw was a junior doctor in dermatology working at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the United Kingdom. In 2006, she decided to leave the wards, taking a medical advisory job at a pharmaceutical company and later expanding her role through a string of other jobs in the pharmaceuticals industry. This year, at 36, Shaw was named vice president, global franchise medical head at Stiefel, a GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) dermatology company, joining the company’s London offices. Apart from her young age, what makes Shaw’s most recent career move unusual is that she wasn’t looking for a job when she got the offer. How did Shaw become a senior executive at one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies without even trying?
Late last year, Shaw received a call from a company called Egon Zehnder, which she had never heard of before. “The only thing that hooked my interest was that they’d spoken to my old boss, so it wasn’t a cold call,” she says. If her boss had spoken to them and mentioned her name, she figured it was worth listening. Egon Zehnder turned out to be an “executive search firm”—often referred to as a “headhunter”—and Shaw found herself in the enviable position of being on their radar. Executive search firms are on the lookout for people, including scientists. They mainly fill top-tier jobs in industry, but they are also used for senior academic roles.
Ultimately, any headhunter looks at achievement.
There’s no point in actively trying to get headhunted—it either happens or it doesn’t, and it’s beyond your control—but that doesn’t mean that you can’t study the qualities people who do get recruited possess, and try to develop them in yourself. Such qualities will greatly improve your odds of succeeding at a high level, even if a headhunter never hears your name. And if they do happen to learn about you, that can be a very nice bonus.
On the hunt
Executive search firms hunt down the very best people for a specific role. The jobs headhunters work to fill are often very senior, or they require unusual or very specific expertise that’s hard to come by.
When a list of desired skills and experience is so rare and exacting, banking on someone with the right profile looking for a job at the same time an employer has an important vacancy is unlikely to yield results. Executive search firms, then, tend to focus on “passive” candidates, who are happy in their jobs and aren’t necessarily looking to move. That’s exactly the position Shaw was in. She had only been in her previous job for about a year when the call from Egon Zehnder came. She wouldn’t have made the move to GSK, she says, had it not been an exceptional opportunity.
Shaw is unusual in that she was “headhunted” relatively early in her career, but otherwise her experience is typical of those recruited by executive search firms. What gets candidates noticed, executive recruiters say, are special skills, an excellent reputation among peers, and visibility.
Heard it through the grapevine
How can you make it onto that headhunter’s list? Not by trying, or not by trying directly. Just try to be excellent and visible, come what may.
The headhunter may find you as a result of presentations you’ve given, papers you’ve written, events you’ve participated in, or your online presence. But personal recommendations and word of mouth probably play the most important role in helping executive search consultants identify talented individuals. Headhunters spend a lot of time on the phone, calling contacts and finding out who the top people are in certain fields. “We generally find that the same name will be referred back to us three or four times, so we know that that person is well known,” says Melanie West, a consultant specializing in the life sciences sector in the London offices of executive search firm Odgers Berndtson. Headhunters are after people like that.
Alongside possessing the experience and skills the headhunter’s client is after, it’s important to show strong leadership, and to demonstrate that you are capable of holding a senior post. “We often find individuals early in their career are not empowered in their roles to display the full scale of leadership qualities,” says Sven Petersen, head of Egon Zehnder’s Information Technology Officers Practice in the firm’s London office. “But boy do they have potential.”
Behind the scenes
Bottom line: Don’t worry about getting on a search firm’s radar. If you’re excellent at what you do and making a name for yourself, they’ll probably notice. While it won’t hurt to get to know one or two headhunters—they can often be found at conferences, networking and talent-spotting, or simply at the other end of a phone line—your efforts are best spent cultivating expertise and the leadership skills that will mark you out for higher-tier jobs.
Headhunters are discreet. They work in the background, researching and building up a picture of their targets before they approach. But once they hit you, it can be career changing. “It’s been hugely positive,” Shaw says. “It was a very nice way of finding a role that was perfect for me, and because I wasn’t actively looking, it gave me the ability to think things through properly, to really focus on what was important to me as a career.”