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A Headhunter’s Guide to Identifying Candidate Sources

It is important to prepare a formal task plan to guide yourself through the search for Mr. or Ms. Right. This guide serves as a road map in developing the proper approach to conducting research suitable to the particular assignment. The task plan need not be voluminous or complicated. Its purpose is to define the various activities and sources of information to be used in completing the research.

Most task plans consist of at least four major elements:
  1. Selecting likely industries
  2. Identifying target companies
  3. Sourcing for specific individuals
  4. Time schedule
Selecting Likely Industries

The first step is to select likely industries.

You should look first at competitors of the company for which you are recruiting. But keep in mind that other related industries or, in some cases, totally unrelated industries can also be likely sources for the talent(s) that you are seeking. These should be discussed with all parties involved in the search. A wide selection of target industries will broaden the pool of potential candidates. But focusing on more than just one industry can be very time-consuming. To best understand where to look for candidates, it is helpful to think of circles representing places to look.

As the main goal is generally to find the best possible candidates in the shortest period of time, when selecting likely industries, it is best to concentrate on the center of the logic of concentric circles where direct competitors are located, then similar or parallel industries. Finally, if this is not sufficient, look at companies that utilize the product or service provided by the client company for which the search is being conducted.

A good place to start digging for information when selecting target industries and likely industries where your prospects might be located is the library. Modern libraries not only have vast amounts of information on companies, but also trained information specialists who can be extremely helpful. These modern librarians are usually experts at finding the appropriate industry codes for your search, in addition to having available information sources for free.

Identifying Target Companies

If you are using an executive search firm, you must understand that some industries are dominated by one or two major companies, which may be off-limits (previous or present [within the last two years] clients of the executive search firm). If this is the case, then use the logic of concentric circles: First look at parallel industries; then look at companies that utilize the product or service. Be aware that a professional headhunter can always source someone at the client company, just not recruit anyone.

When identifying target companies, you will frequently find that subsidiaries are listed only by name and location. Sometimes they are not even listed. Because your Ms. Right could be in a subsidiary not listed, you need to do some digging. Investigate the annual report of the parent company. You can obtain the information from this report either by getting online and checking out the company's Web site or by calling and asking them to send the annual report, which should have the appropriate addresses. When you have them on the phone, you must get them to tell you what you need to know. The second step is to call the subsidiary and conduct the regular identification (ID) work, to obtain the names and titles of the people who interest you. When you receive the annual report, you can double-check the information to ensure its accuracy. Sometimes the annual report contains information about key executives at the different subsidiaries.

Sourcing for Specific Individuals

The third major element of the research task plan is to track down specific individuals who might be appropriate candidates. In this part of the process you are very dependent on using published reference books and directories and speaking to third parties (sources) to identify potential candidates.

Once the research task plan has been developed and reviewed by all involved parties, it can be used both to guide the research process and to monitor progress. Based on this task plan it should be possible to estimate the amount of time required to complete the various parts of the process (see the discussion under "Time Schedule").

The different sources that you can use in the search include:
  1. Direct competitors (see concentric circle)
  2. The respective association for the industry
  3. Your own network (previous searches)
  4. Journalists representing industry magazines or newspapers or other experts
Many people feel that one of the most important sources, and a place that should be contacted immediately, is the appropriate association for the particular industry where the search is being conducted. This source will know of the different directories that exist, including potential membership books. Because sources are the experts, they can be helpful in pointing you in the right direction. In large countries such as the United States, directories exist that list all of the associations in the country, while in smaller countries such as Norway or Sweden, you must look in the yellow pages of the telephone book.

After the target industries have been selected, you must identify specific companies where potential candidates can be found. It is important to understand how the company size affects the search and at what level your target person is located. If the company with the recruitment need is looking at a target company of the same size, the target person in this company should be located one level down. On the other hand, if your target company is smaller than the company for which you are recruiting, you can focus on the same-level position.

When the company for which you are recruiting is extremely popular to work for, such as Harley Davidson, these rules do not necessarily apply. Normally the thinking is that you approach people to whom you can offer something better. In other words, put yourself in the shoes of the candidates. Why change jobs? What is the catch? Keep in mind that the various companies might be using different titles for the same position. If you are dealing with just a few companies, be careful not to contact too many people in the same company without some pre research.

If possible, all target industries should be identified with the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code. For a complete breakdown and explanation of each SIC-code group, consult the Standard Industrial Classifications Manual, published by National Technical Information Service (NTIS). It is also important to keep in mind that certain industries or segments are so specialized that you will not be able to find the exact SIC code. In that case, you have to go for the parent group and then do a manual sorting. (Note: At this writing, the SIC codes are being replaced with NAICS [North American Industry Classification System] codes. Manuals for both SIC and NAICS codes can be obtained through the NTIS Web site at sic and, respectively.) As a rule, the more selective you are in your search, the more selective (specific) your results will be. In order to be specific, you should, if possible, know:
  • SIC code (industry code; found by looking up the company for which you are recruiting)
  • Size of the company (range)
  • Geography (location of target company)
Important: When looking for target companies, use more than just one directory or source. Keep in mind that one directory might be missing important information that you can find in another directory

All countries have published directories with key information on the major companies in the respective country. The information providers in each country sometimes offer a variety of media where you can access their company information.
The most common media are: CD-ROMs, Books and the Internet

In addition, sometimes the providers offer manual consulting services, meaning that for a certain cost they can do the search job for you (finding companies).

Time Schedule

The fourth element is the time schedule. Every step of the process must be completed as quickly as possible. But, it is still important to set goals as to when you should complete each step. The faster you get going, the better you feel. A fast start-up is the goal. It is important to concentrate on compiling the target list before you start the calling, as this will save you time. Then, if you plan to undertake a mailing, it should be done immediately. If you plan to ease up, it should not be until after the mailing.

Note: In every search it is important to work backward from the completion date. This means that if you are using an external executive search consultant and he or she has promised that you will be presented with a candidate four weeks after the start of the search, the executive search consultant should meet that person at the latest three days before that date. This in turn means that the individual must have been identified and fully developed seven days earlier (telephone interview before the face-to-face interview). In order to meet this goal you must have approached all the people on the target list at least once in less than two weeks from the start of the search. Only in the first parts of the search do you have full control over time and process. It is harder to control the activity that goes on after the prospect has been interviewed face-to-face, because this is when the major decisions for both parties have to be made. It is always difficult to predict how much time people need to think things over, and how many people you need to see before you make a decision. Also, the negotiations between your company and the candidate regarding terms can sometimes be lengthy.