Making the Switch from HR to Headhunter

Martin Yate By Martin Yate August 29, 2017
Making the Switch from HR to Headhunter

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.   

For the past 20 years, I've managed HR for a boutique management consulting firm. But I've discovered what I'm really good at and like to do is find the right person for the right executive-level job. In other words, I want to start a career in executive recruiting—I want to be a headhunter. 

I've recruited and hired dozens of executives for both short- and long-term contracts and have an extensive network that I've diligently cultivated over the years. I know that's only part of what makes a good executive recruiter, and I've seen many headhunters struggle and eventually flop. 

What advice can you give me to help make a smooth and successful transition from HR to headhunter?

Working as a headhunter or executive recruiter would be similar in some ways to some of the work you do now, and it does offer the potential for much greater financial reward. However, you noted that you've seen "many headhunters struggle and eventually flop" and would naturally want to avoid that fate.

You have doubtless used executive recruitment/headhunter services over the years and already have a frame of reference for the world represented in such a career change. However, you should be aware that while you are in corporate recruitment, yours is a very different world from that of the headhunter. It is easy to think that because you have corporate recruitment experience that it would be an easy transition. But as someone who has successful experience in HR and headhunting, I can promise that the daily reality is the difference between night and day.

The Headhunter's World

Headhunting is a very sophisticated field of sales that demands drive, critical thinking, determination, fast processing and communication prowess. Plus, you need a clear sense of self and a bone-deep understanding of the difference between someone rejecting your services and someone rejecting you; this is essential for survival in a field where there's an unbelievable amount of "no" answers among the "yes" answers.

As a headhunter, your income will depend on productivity, and that will be based on your ability to first find paying clients and then find qualified recruits. You spend your whole day on the phone developing clients and recruits that match each other's needs. It's a world of almost constant cold-calling. 

Headhunters make a lot of money because they are arguably the most sophisticated salespeople in the world. They must find two separate parties (client and recruit) to complete a sale and then sell them to each other, with the kicker that both parties are thinking, feeling human beings and both parties communicate directly with the headhunter. No other sales professional must deal with such complexities. 

Still Here? 

Your visceral, gut reaction to this will be a good guide as to whether this is an option worth pursuing. If you are still here, maybe the answer is yes. Now, I would recommend leveraging all your headhunter contacts and asking them to talk to you about the realities of the transition you are considering. 

In this conversation, focus on learning the guts of the job, determining how your existing skills will help, and uncovering what new skills you'll need to develop. Combining these goals in one conversation helps you gather information and get the word out that you are interested and have relevant qualifications—especially your understanding and experience in navigating the selection process on what would be the client side of the desk. 

I'd be surprised if your networking did not lead to some interviews. If the interviews go well, you should ask to spend a couple of days job-shadowing someone doing the work you would be doing. This would benefit your decision-making abilities just as it would help bring that company closer to a firm offer. 

HR and headhunting are somewhat similar, but headhunting is far more challenging, which explains the greater financial rewards. There's no free ride in any profession. 

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. 



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