When the headhunter calls by Roger Collis

This is an extract from Roger Collis’ forthcoming collection of management satire, titled ‘Management Man.’

Roger Collis is the author of ‘If my boss calls make sure you get his name;’ and ‘The Survivor’s Guide to Business Travel.


The courtship ritual invariably starts with a discreet phone call.

‘Are you free to talk? We’re looking for a marketing vice president for a biotech group in Geneva.’ (There follows a mouthwatering description of your dream job.) ‘Do you know anybody who’d be suitable? You mean, you might be interested yourself? Why, that’s terrific…’

With a budget meeting minutes away, you float into a Mittyesque trance. Your think-bubble fills with dollar signs and stock option forms, visions of a corner-office with a view of Mont Blanc and a lakeside house. Your ego is already basking in crisp Alpine sunshine. All of a sudden your present job has lost its savor. God, get me out of this hellhole!

Congratulations. You are being wooed by a headhunter. You’ve finally joined the movers and shakers. An etat de grace to be savored, like one of Mel Geist’s El Supremos, in the religious sanctuary of your office. Unless, that is, you have the Welshman lolling in the visitor’s chair, which somewhat takes the gilt (no pun intended) off the gingerbread. As I put the phone down, his think-bubble fills with asterisks and question marks. ‘Not bad news I hope, squire,’ he asks hopefully. (My side of the conversation has been confined to terse yes’s and no’s.)

‘Just my broker,’ I shrug unconvincingly. ‘A margin call on some pork belly contracts.’

The Welshman leers. ‘It’s a mug’s game, squire. ‘Come on, or we’ll be late for the Chairman’s budget meeting. Let’s see if you have better luck with currency futures.’ Everyone needs their daily dose of Schadenfreude.

For the next two weeks I ride a roller coaster of elation and despair as the affair develops. There are furtive meetings in restaurants and tacky hotels. It’s not easy to find alibis. My boss is impressed by my zeal (‘Bob, I have to get out in the field more often). The advertising agency is puzzled by my brief, otiose appearances at its strategically placed office in the West End. Suddenly, I need a dental appointment (the top management equivalent of the grandmother’s funeral). The deception is worthy of John Le Carre as James ferries me to Harley Street. I wait on the doorstep for the Daimler to disappear, then nip around the corner and hail a taxi.

Helen, my secretary, is suspicious. (‘That guy who won’t give his name is on the line again’) as I kick the door shut and grab the phone. And what’s this envelope marked ‘Strictly Personal’ lying pointedly on top of my morning mail? Any day, I expect to be caught in flagrante delicto in a Mayfair watering hole.

(‘Ahem, Tim, I don’t think you’ve met my chairman, and, this is Joe Thomas, our production director.’ Maybe you could fix us all up with jobs!)

For a week, I’m already in Geneva. Mental bridges are burning. So a couple of days without news from the headhunter threatens to send me into a catatonic tailspin. Dr Witherspoon checks my paranoia level and puts me on the big reds. Powerful stuff. Even the Welshman takes on a rose-tinted glow. How absurd of me to think that he’s been monitoring changes in my comings and goings on his new computer software.

And God forbid that the headhunter should suspect that I’m becoming a candidate for terminal psychosis. The art of being headhunted is how subtly you intimate that you just might be prepared to make the big switch. Headhunters are like banks with loans; they’ll never propose a job if they think you really need one. It’s a game of bluff and counter-bluff. Try not to return too many of their calls. And never ever let them think that your resume is ready for mass mailing. The right approach is a nonchalant, ‘Okay, I’ll try to put a few words together for you over the weekend,’ as you try your hand at ‘career expansion.’ This is a chance to show your creativity. As Peter Drucker was fond of saying, ‘Don’t talk to me about the death of the novel as long as we have resumes.’ Headhunters try to seduce you with expressions like ‘high visibility’ (perhaps he just means a view of Mont Blanc), ‘a unique opportunity’ and a ‘pro-active control position.’ But beware. Remember that headhunters work for their clients, not for you. They are very good at glossing over the negative sides of a job.

So ask some searching questions of your own. Test the headhunter’s creativity. What happened to the previous guy? Was he promoted? Was he fired? Did he perform a lateral arabesque? Was he one of a long line of transient incumbents? Is this a new position? If so, why was it created? Why is the company recruiting from outside? Are you being set up as fall guy in a political maneuver or as the prelude to an imminent reorganization? If you haven’t yet been contacted by a headhunter, ask a close friend at another company to have his headhunter try to recruit you. Even better, call a headhunter to discuss a search assignment within your own company. (Perhaps a replacement for your boss.)

Another option is to become a headhunter yourself. All you need is a smooth telephone manner, a few contacts and half an ounce of chutzpah and you’re in business. The Welshman is camping in my office when the clinching call from Geneva comes through. I smile enigmatically. ‘That was my broker. Good news on my career future contract.’

There’s nothing as exciting as the euphoria of going into a budget meeting with a job offer in your pocket. It’s the ultimate management tool.

My only problem is lunch with Helen afterwards.

Roger Collis - www.rogercollis.co.uk