How to get on a HR headhunter's radar

A fast-moving and unpredictable environment means solid senior HR experience is in demand. If you're looking for a career move, what's the best way to stand out to headhunters?

Brexit, the drive towards digital transformation and changes to the way we work are all driving the market for high-calibre senior HR professionals. So while it may sound counter-intuitive, now may be a better time than ever to consider a move.

"The turbulence has heightened the need for excellent leadership," says Chris Smith, a principal in the human resources practice of search firm Korn Ferry. "The profile of the HRD or CHRO has moved dramatically; the role has gained prominence because of the input it can have into issues such as talent shortages, engagement and the future of work."

Whether you're considering a move immediately or just have it on your radar, there are a number of ways you can stand out to headhunters scouring the market.

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You may not be looking for an immediate move but it pays to set the groundwork if you're thinking about a shift in career in the near future. "In order to remain competitive, HR professionals will need to ensure that they are highlighting their relevant skills and attributes across all social media channels, proactively networking and building long-lasting relationships with recruiters to keep them informed when new job opportunities become open to the market," suggests Tania Garstang, an associate director at Michael Page.

She recommends building a network of trusted recruitment partners and keeping in touch on a quarterly or six monthly-basis, even when you're not looking for a new position. "Ensure your social media and digital presence is relevant and engaging through thought-leadership articles, blogging, webinars and workshops to build your personal brand," she adds.

Focus on the how not the what

"CVs often focus on what someone has delivered, their achievements. But they can lack the character, personality, strategic impact and influencing skills," says Lisa Wormald, director of executive search at ResourceBank. "You need to articulate how you've won people over, how you've driven people. People will make assumptions that you're technically sound, but they'll want to know how you went about it culturally and behaviourally so they know whether you fit into the business. This is how you differentiate yourself." Most executive search consultants will try to establish your 'brand' through an initial conversation, so be prepared to sell yourself.

Smith from Korn Ferry advises candidates to be proactive about building a reputation - whether that's in change management, handling a tricky takeover or turning around engagement when company culture was at a low. "I'm interested in what someone's known for," he says. "I want them to back this up by showing me their experience and delivery. How did you do it and what was the result. What was the thinking behind it?"

Know what they're looking for

Being aware of the skills and attributes in demand will help raise your profile. Where we have been engaged on HR director or Head of HR positions, it has often had a bias for change and transformation with a real emphasis on organisational effectiveness and maximising performance while encouraging employee well-being through innovative engagement activities," adds Garstang. There has also been growth in demand for specialist roles in the last six to nine months at Michael Page, she reports, particularly in the talent, OD and reward space.

It's not just particular HR expertise that may be in demand; certain soft skills can help you make you stand out. Garstang adds: "We have seen a greater demand from clients looking at EQ [emotional intelligence] and the ability to manage relationships with senior stakeholders, as well as the breadth of commercial activities that HR leaders are commanding. It can be really challenging to get these things across on your CV or LinkedIn profile, which is why the most attractive candidates for headhunters do a lot of work on their personal, brand and professional profile across a broad platform of events and digital content."

Build your network

While executive search may have evolved since the days of a "tap on the shoulder" from someone in the know, the importance of networking remains. Smith urges senior HR professionals to "manage their network in a thoughtful way", reminding them that it's better to get your name out there for "what you can do, rather than what you can pontificate about". Clients will be keen to know who you are engaging with beyond HR circles, he adds. "Stay in touch with non-executive directors, for example," says Smith. "They may sit on another board and think 'I know X can solve this problem', and that could be you."

Online, cultivate recommendations on LinkedIn and if appropriate, indicate that you're available. Wormald says: "Potential employers want to see what other people say about you in testimonials. Start reaching out, make sure your profile is up to date and you've turned on the button that says you're open to opportunities."

Taking the next step

"If you are approached by a headhunter, it is because they want to talk to you to find out more about you, often for a particular client but sometimes as a general talent they want to connect with," says Garstang.

This does not mean you have to make the jump immediately, she adds: "We would recommend an early and honest conversation to establish if there is a mutual benefit for you and the recruiter and if that is the case, invest the time to have a more in-depth discussion.

"Make sure you are clear on your worth, what you want moving forward to progress your career and how quickly you want to move. Being clear on these points and communicating openly with recruiters is the best way to build a relationship that will add value." Many firms now offer career coaching and assessment, which can help you build your attractiveness for future employers, so ask them about what might be available.

In a senior HR executive role, you probably already work with a number of headhunters already as a client, so build on these relationships further. Smith says: "When we look at candidates, we triangulate between our impressions of them, objective assessments, what the market says. We should be able to find you, but there's no harm in doing some profile-raising."