Shooting in the Dark: The Anomalies of Headhunting

The war for ‘heads’ – also known as talent – has been raging for many years and the manner headhunters ‘poach’ people is getting tougher as the prominence of human capital is growing in Ethiopia. Evidently, people are key in any organization. That is why Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of VISA, Inc., once said that an organization, no matter how well designed, is only as good as the people who live and work in it. Hence, a strategic differentiator, and challenge, for a firm is how it can attract, recruit, develop, motivate and retain its key personnel.

There exist virtuous reasons why organizations should learn the art of headhunting. Here, headhunting represents the process through which people of high merit (the best experienced person with the right skill set) are selected and positioned into new jobs in highly-specialized positions. It mainly involves hiring a talented person from other organizations, oftentimes from competitors. 

Headhunting is a different, less common way of recruitment compared to other types. The practice has been common among large companies for years, but these days many smaller organizations are also using this method to hire competent individuals. 

It is evident that unless organizations establish resilient recruitment systems, headhunting can potentially consume their working hours, screening and interviewing many people to find the right candidate. The search for a suitable candidate to fill a vacancy can be challenging. At various stages in the process, companies tend to make critical errors that result in hiring the wrong person. Proper systems help companies know that they have selected the best possible candidate through a thorough search and qualification process. Otherwise, ‘the hunt’ becomes a shot in the dark, simply a hopeful attempt to hit a target that you can’t see. 

To be an effective ‘hunter’ in the recruitment process, companies in Ethiopia must have human resource specialists who are good researchers and judges of character. Unless diligence is exercised, some potential employees may seem perfect on paper or during interviews, only to turn out to be a complete disaster later on. 

It is important that employers in Ethiopia pay close attention to every detail during their search and interviewing processes to make a successful match. With ‘headhunting’ or recruitment, there is little stealth, since ‘headhunters’ are running after some of the most sought after talent in the job market.

This can occur if a job candidate misrepresents his or her skills or if the hiring manager fails to ask for sufficient details and takes ample time to screen for fabricated resumes. Sometimes hiring managers are so impressed with a candidate’s positive traits that they downplay or disregard the negatives.  Headhunters may not be able to eliminate irrational, emotion-based responses, but can correct them by making the hiring process a group effort.

Headhunting requires due care, especially when firms seek to fill senior-level and executive positions. Employers in need of highly-skilled professionals for top positions count on the help of a strong recruitment department because the process of hiring for top jobs requires a great deal of time and effort that would otherwise conflict with the firm’s mission and objectives. Unless due care is taken, commonplace mistakes almost everyone makes are guaranteed to result in bad hiring decisions and waste time, money, and effort. 

One of the conundrums for organizations is to strike the balance between ‘make or buy decisions,’ since headhunting from internal or external sources is not as straightforward as they might seem. Although some companies are able to find success in their searches for qualified employees, many regret their choices, feeling they’ve hired someone who isn’t a match for the organization or company. It should also be reconciled with succession planning projects which can otherwise be disruptive. An outsider candidate may have an impressive résumé, but how do you know he or she will be the right fit? Conducting background checks and calling previous employers for references can save you a lot of hassle. 

Unfortunately, in Ethiopia, one hardly finds specialist job boards or sound headhunting firms that carry extensive CV databases, which can be accessed and searched to find the best candidates. 

To fill such gaps, headhunters should possess strong market knowledge and high networking capabilities. They should also have information on various experts of different companies. Companies should also differentiate between the essential and desirable qualities of candidates. This is very beneficial for them to identify the required skills for a candidate, helping to focus the process of finding a candidate. 

It is known that headhunting is a very difficult process: to get the right candidates, those responsible should have good communication skills, patience, and an interest in selecting a candidate. It requires a lot of effort, commitment and patience. Most companies in Ethiopia follow the same process for both low- and top-level positions, although “executive” recruitment concentrates on the uppermost echelons of corporate structures, offering a retained, focused and sometimes global hiring process. Here, CEOs must get out of the boardroom and participate in the frontline, as getting the right new blood is the commencement of making changes.

Headhunting companies that deliver tailor-made, client-focused services, commitment, and expertise should flourish to fill the gap. Until strong headhunters come into existence, corporate recruiting departments need to evolve. The majority of organizations in Ethiopia have their own in-house recruitment teams, although the level at which they operate differs.  The trend is that departments that were once bastions of generalist HR malaise are now specialized talent acquisition departments that hire and pull from the same recruiting talent pool. In the midst of constant changes, the integrity, the ethics and the code of conduct should not be compromised in finding the best candidates. With this, headhunters in Ethiopia should conduct a mental self-audit of own hiring practices.

Finally, companies, for their own advantage, should incorporate the right “headhunter mentality.” To attract high-caliber employees, investment in employees must be strategic. Companies should strive to become ‘the most preferred employers.’ Chances are, the companies with the best employees are also the most well known in their industry – they are the kinds of companies that people are just dying to get into. Moreover, it is essential to understand the attributes that motivate and inspire candidates and determine whether the company is a good fit for them. Companies should therefore pay their employees better. This attracts and maintains competent staff within the organization. 

Although managers should always have their eye on the talent pool, they should also work on talent development and retention. Employee retention requires a systematic effort by organizations. Creating an environment that addresses diverse employee needs is important in this regard. Good institutional culture, which is usually typified by quality of excellence, openness in communication, participation in decision making, high standards of safety, career advancement opportunities and good corporate citizenship, help a company retain as well as attract a greater pool of talent, according to human resource experts. Building this culture takes time, resources and effort. However, it has to start somewhere and can be gradual. That is why CEOs need to think, rethink and plan ways to begin and continue the process. 

A 2010 publication entitled ‘The CEO’s Guide to Top Performer Retention’ states that 84Pct of HR and business leaders believe that providing career advancement opportunities to top-performing employees is the most important way to retain them. Yet only 43Pct of organizations have put in place a systematic process for employee development, which indicates a rather serious disconnect. This means that more actions are needed to put our resources where our thoughts are.

Fikru Tsegaye

Fikru Tsegaye holds MBA in Marketing and MA in Human Resource and Organizational Dev’t. He is currently working at Ethiopian Insurance Corporation as Marketing and Strategic Management Team Leader. He can be reached at


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