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Being a Headhunter

Mohammed Mirza, Luxury Recruit’s CEO, was recently interviewed for the forthcoming March edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, where he provided insight into the nature of the Recruitment and Executive Search industries and what candidates can do to stand-out. We thought you would enjoy reading a transcript here.

How long have you been a headhunter/recruiter?

I have been in the recruitment and executive search business for about ten years now. I started my career working in the jewellery industry as a salesperson. When my, then, employer mentioned they were looking to take on more staff, I enlisted a few people I knew to join the company. I quickly realised I was better at helping companies hire talent than working for them myself. I started out recruiting staff into retail and sales roles with luxury brands but bit by bit I started being engaged to find talent for more senior positions. I am now fortunate to work with some of the most famous and exclusive brands in the world to help them fill all sorts of roles, from creative director to CEO and board positions. I have gone from being a one man band to having an ever growing team split between London, Hong Kong and New York and whilst I focus most of my time on executive search (for senior positions), I am still very hands and closely involved with our contingent recruitment practice.

What companies have you headhunted for in the past?

It probably won’t surprise you that I can’t go into too much detail about the specifics of the roles I have been engaged to fill, but suffice to say I have worked with many of the most recognizable luxury brands in the world – I can mention a few of the big ones, like Dior, Chanel, Ralph Lauren. I am also particularly proud of my close working relationship with many of the biggest names in the high jewellery industry. I have placed senior management and creative directors at some of the best-known jewellery houses. Aside from being engaged to go to market to find talent for specific roles  I also try to be very proactive and work with candidates to help them land their dream roles – I guess this is the opposite of head-hunting as I strategize with candidates where they feel they would be best off and then I go to market with their profiles, actively creating opportunities for them (rather than waiting for my clients to come to me with a brief). I try to bring both sides together and align everyone’s interests. This approach has worked well so far.

Where do headhunters such as yourself, look/go to find potential candidates for a job?

Whilst I do use the plethora of resources out there (from LinkedIn to our job board on www.luxuryrecruit.com), I find the best source of information on talent is the industry itself: I spend the majority of my time meeting with industry professionals, whether senior leadership or candidates looking to move positions, discussing their careers, the companies they work for and how they get on with their colleagues. You quickly get a feel for who is doing what and as my industry focus is relatively narrow, you hear the same names repeated often. I guess the take-away is that one’s reputation will always proceed you. I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining a good relationship with one’s team and competitors as well, whether senior or junior – word gets around quickly in our industry and I place as much weight on the insight and opinions of entry level staff as senior management. In fact, you can often tell the most about a candidate (and the company they work for) by speaking to the most junior member of the team.

Aside from ‘word of mouth’ and building my network face to face, I do make considerable use of LinkedIn and my company website. I receive about 10k new candidate registrations a year on my job board and I read every single CV submission. My team and I use keywords to categorize and file the CVs for easy retrieval later as of course we can’t remember the specifics of every profile we get, so it’s important that the key features of a profile stand out to us so we know where to put it. My advice to candidates is always the same – get the key points across at the top of the page. I usually suggest the candidate provides a one line summary of their ‘franchise’, what they do and why they are good at it, followed by a couple of bullet points outlining their key value addition. Of course, we are all diverse, nuanced and multi-skilled, so trying to summarise a lifetime of work into bullet points can be an uncomfortable or reductive experience for some people, but generally most employers like to filter by professional experience before diving into candidate fit and personality.

I also use LinkedIn a lot and here more than anywhere else being very clear and structured when laying out one’s experience is key. I want to see the facts of where you have worked, what you have done and how well your work was received. Self-promoting waffle about how wonderful a person you are is not relevant to my clients (at least not if it comes from the candidate themselves). When I am conducting a search I usually know what I am looking for in a candidate – experience doesn’t necessarily always have to come from within the luxury industry and some of the my most successful hires have come about from candidates in other sectors (such as automotive or finance) looking for a change of scene and having a transferable set of skills, such as sales or merchandising. What marks these candidates out though is that they are able to clearly flag up where they have been successful in their current positions and why their skill-set or experience is transferable. The most successful candidates tend to stick to the facts and have a clear idea of the direction they should be heading and why.

Can you give some really specific tips on what would make someone stand out to you via their LinkedIn profile?

It may also sound obvious but candidates can help make themselves stand-out by having a wide network and base of connections especially to key figures within the industry and sector they want to move into – I am more interested to see that you are connected to a regional senior manager of a company than following Bernard Arnault for instance. Endorsements are also a handy barometer of a candidate’s contribution (particularly from senior leaders) – whilst it can be embarrassing to ask for endorsements from colleagues it does at least show a willingness to seek recognition, which is important in the luxury industry which is so heavily sales and performance driven. Even if you are not always active in the industry you want to move into, demonstrating that you have done well and been well regarded in your current role whatever that may be is always going to be more compelling than merely providing a superficial gloss of interest – I would always advise my candidates to focus on networking within the industry at key events and focusing on doing well in their existing job to build a tangible track record as opposed to spending too long reposting articles or liking every blog post they stumble across.

Is the rest of their online presence important? Any practical tips for nailing this?

The luxury industry is of course very big and significant but does tend to operate through silos. Cliques form very quickly and word gets around. I cannot stress enough the importance of ensuring that candidates maintain a good reputation and solid self-presentation across all channels, whether in real life or through digital networks. The last thing you want to do is miss out on an opportunity by not doing yourself justice on one channel.

Is attending industry events vital? Do headhunters, such as yourself, look for talent at these? If so, how do you get spotted?

I think that building a network is key – I am giving away a bit of a trade secret here, but in many cases my clients already have an idea in mind of a candidate they would like to work with, either because they have met them before or had a tip-off from an industry colleague. My role as a head-hunter under these circumstances is to provide a mixture of due diligence and risk management for my client – they may have an idea that someone could be a good fit for a role, but they need a confirmation. When this happens I always provide the same level of rigor, if not more so, when assessing candidate suitability. So, networking opportunities and building a wide and support network in general is key. I am not so worried about whether a candidate speaks or contributes at these events, but I do feel it is important they go – it shows willingness to integrate and is crucial to getting one’s name out there.

What about getting your name in print? Do you look for people who have written opinion pieces in newspapers/blogs?

I think it ultimately depends on the quality of the candidate’s contribution – if I come across an article or a blog which I feel has been well written, it will certainly make the professional stand out in my mind as someone I should be talking to. However, if what I read is sub-par it can turn me off from working with a candidate who otherwise might have a great profile. I would generally advise candidates to focus on doing a really good job, whatever that might be, rather than spending too long self-promoting. I would never advise people to deviate from their core focus. It can come across as a little hollow.

Do awards and accolades matter? Again, are these easier to win than people might think?  

Again, it depends on the relevance to the industry and the candidate’s ideal role. Being a Forbes 30 under 30 for something or rather may be cool, but it may not be relevant to a sales or operations role within a highly-focused industry.  Having something more tangible, like a recognition for sales-performance, even if in a different industry sector, may be more relevant.

If you get approached by a headhunter what tends to be the process after that? Do you go for an informal coffee or is it a formal interview?

I always respect and appreciate people’s time and so I try to provide as much context into why I am contacting them as possible. However, many of the engagements that I work on are confidential so I have to be careful about what I say to candidates initially. As a rule though, I like to meet with anyone I who I feel has a great profile in advance of presenting anything specific to them. This lightens the tone of the introduction and allows me to get to know them and what they want without restrictions or agenda. It’s a two-way thing – I like to know what they are looking for first and then I can keep them in mind for any roles I am engaged to fill. On time sensitive briefs, I am usually a bit more direct and provide an outline of the role and the type of client, often though without giving away the name initially. If the candidate is happy to speak further, we usually get together for a face to face meeting which tends to be more formal. Either way, I always let candidates know in advance of meeting what the tone will be. With executive search, the roles tend to be substantial and the hiring process a little more complex. I work hand in hand with candidates to ensure they are equipped to interview for the role, so candidates don’t need to worry about making an overly formal impression in front of me – I am on their side.

How can you tell if a headhunter is really serious about you? Are they ultimately getting paid to find the right candidate and so may meet with people to fill a ‘quota’ who don’t really stand a chance?

When conducting a search, my interests are always aligned with my clients (the brands) first and foremost. They pay my bills. It is not beneficial to anyone if I present irrelevant CVs and profiles to them. Therefor if I put a candidate forward for consideration, it is because I think they would be right for a role. In addition, I pride myself on having long term working relationships with the candidates I work with – many of the candidates I have placed have gone on to engage me to build out their own teams. The executive search industry has no time or use for filler, so if a head-hunter approaches you it is most likely because they feel you would be suitable for an opportunity.

Are there any things that would put you off someone you have headhunted when you initially meet them?

I try to keep an open mind when meeting with a candidate, even on a time sensitive brief – they may not necessarily be right for the role I am actively working on at any given time, but they may be great for something in the future. So I try and get a feel for where the professional’s strengths and weaknesses lie and where they feel they would best be placed. I take a consultative approach to working with candidates – often they have a very clear idea of where they should be heading with their careers, a gut feel, and that is great, I can take that into account. Some candidates may however benefit from a degree of guidance, encouragement and perhaps even gentle ‘pushing’ to consider new avenues. As long as a candidate is good at what they do, that is all that matters to me.

Are you put off if someone is hard to contact?

Nope, it is my job to get hold of them. I have used all sorts of methods over the years to reach the right people. Going the extra mile is what this about (but, if you want to make my life easier, having an email address listed does help).

If you don’t spot a job that suits you under our jobs sections, please submit your CV using CV Drop or get in touch anyway so that we can keep you in the loop about new opportunities as they come up.

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