Should I stay or should I go? The Power of Headhunters - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #233

Should I stay or should I go? The Power of Headhunters

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We can learn much from recent research about the behavioural aspects of top executives when approached by search firms. It suggests that the decline in corporate loyalty – prevalent among lower level employees since the downsizing era of the 1980s – has spread to the upper echelons as well.


This research examined the decisions of executives over whether to continue in their current roles or explore the new opportunities presented by a leading search firm. It found that 52% of the high-level personnel contacted agreed to be candidates for positions outside their company.

Does this mean we have become less loyal as employees in the 21st century? And are those at the leadership level just as guilty of ‘jumping ship’ as those lower down the ranks? The study points to a “yes” to both questions, but these patterns of behaviour are an almost inevitable consequence of change. The decline of lifetime employment has meant a move away from the old organization-led notion of career planning, to one where we ‘do it ourselves’. And the rise of executive search firms has helped reinforce this shift of focus towards individual career planning. Indeed, this study showed that the number one trigger for job search for executives is receiving a call from a headhunter.

Some of this ‘disloyalty’ could be attributed to plain old curiosity, as opposed to a real desire to leave the company, because this is a reactive career process as far as the executive is concerned. They don’t initiate the call, but unless they agree to be considered, they will find out very little about the job in question.

The question of loyalty depends to a certain extent on how an organization is managed. Allegiance will clearly be lessened if employees are regarded as dispensable – they will look after their own careers, regardless of how high they are in the pecking order. Conversely, and not surprisingly, the findings showed if the company has a reputation as being a good place to work, executives are less likely to say “yes” to the headhunter. A company that is doing well and has a positive social reputation will be harder to leave. 

How long you stay in a job can also impact on your likelihood to search. The more experience you have with your current employer, the less uncertain you are likely to be about your future there. Positions outside the company are less likely to interest you.

On the other hand, uncertainty within the company that might affect future security – restructuring, mergers or acquisitions, changes at the top – can spur your decision to look elsewhere.

Breadth of career experience also appears to have a large bearing on how likely an executive is to become a potential candidate. The more focused the executive role is, for example in marketing or planning, the narrower the possible opportunities elsewhere. Knowing their field of knowledge well and the potential opportunities therein, such an executive is less likely to talk to the search firm.

In contrast, executives with more broad experience – whether gained internally, geographically or by moving across companies – are more likely to engage in job search, according to the study. It is easier for them to leave because they haven’t developed such strong ties to their organization. A broader set of experience also opens up a broader set of opportunities.


The research suggests a few recommendations for organisations and the individual:

  • Do you retain an executive search firm? If so, ask questions about the way it headhunts – the research suggests that executive search firms tend towards a conservative approach, under-representing minority groups in favour of ‘defendable’ candidates. Question your search firm to see if its pool of candidates from large, well-performing organizations is disproportionately high. Ask it how it would try to attract a diverse range of candidates, for example, women, non-white applicants, older professionals, those from smaller organizations, etc.
  • Manage your top talent. Review your executive education program to encourage your high-achieving executives to stay. They are investing time and effort in improving their skills, so offer them programs they want to do, before they decide to leave. Whether it is promotion, or gaining experience on new projects, give them a chance to develop their ambition. Or risk losing them.
  • Keep those with broad experience engaged. A striking aspect of this research was that although moving your top executives around – whether through rotational assignments or international postings – is a good way to develop them, it is also these employees that are most likely to consider leaving. So quiz them about how happy they are in their roles, and go ‘the extra mile’ to make them feel part of the organization.
  • What if it’s you who takes the call from the headhunter? Flattering it may be, but tread carefully. Do not underestimate the time and effort involved in preparing for interviews and seeking references. Consider whether the job is really any better than your current role. Be careful your job searching is kept confidential, as it could undermine your current status. And do not use the proposed package as a way of leveraging a higher salary where you are – that could seriously affect your reputation and prospects for career advancement.



Understanding Executive Job Search. Peter Cappelli & Monika Hamori. NBER Working Paper No. 19295 (August 2013).

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Idea conceived

August 1, 2013

Idea posted

Oct 2013
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