Salary Negotiations: How to Mess With a Headhunter’s Head

Salary negotiations are often quite tricky in executive search.

First, clients vary widely when they outline target salaries. Some carefully lay out the compensation band for a given position, while others suggest they will pay whatever it takes to hire the right person. Some are sincere while others are not. Salary ranges are material for us since we can recruit the very best person we can find at the salary the client wants to pay, or we can recruit the very best person we can find, period. At the end of the day, organizations share the goal of hiring the highest caliber candidate at the lowest compensation possible.

Candidates, on the other hand, start with their current compensation package and a sense as to how fair it is relative to others and their own sense of self-worth. But that alone does not guide their approach to compensation in a typical executive search. For this you have to look to the subtle ‘push/pull’ dynamics in play.

‘Push’ refers to the overall happiness or unhappiness of the candidate with his or her current work/career situation. When looking at a potential new job, someone who is unhappy is likely to make trade-off decisions, including compensation, in an effort to find happiness, while someone who is relatively content with their current job or employer has little pushing him or her to trade-off considerations of any sort. Needless to say, unemployed candidates have a lot of push to deal with.

‘Pull’ dynamics, on the other hand, refers to the attractiveness of the opportunity on the other side of the fence. An exciting opportunity with an outstanding or ‘hot’ company is a gravitational pull as is a long-awaited promotion opportunity into a new company. Meanwhile a company known to have high turnover, poor leadership, high travel or commuting requirements, or whose prospects are viewed as limited will have little pull by which to moderate compensation expectations. A client faced with limited push and pull has little choice but to attempt to purchase a desirable candidate’s affections. You see this often in companies with ‘challenging’ founders whose reputations force them to pay well above market to attract quality candidates who consider it danger pay.

Since headhunters know that the success of an executive search hinges in part on understanding the specific push/pull dynamics at play, they try to read them carefully throughout the course of the search. They may even try to influence them by gently emphasizing the importance of some variables over others. But the headhunter has to be careful since his or her ability to act as an effective intermediary depends on the level of trust with each of the parties concerned. Clients must trust that the search consultant is taking steps to help them hire the right candidate at the lowest cost possible while candidates must also trust that the headhunter’s interests include the decisions made by them.

In our practice we work hard to try to serve the interests of both client and candidate. We make sure that the parties ask the requisite questions of each other for good decisions to be made. We insist on certain due diligence to reduce the risk of hiring mistakes. We probe the push/pull dynamics carefully and try to give balanced advice. As a result, we are usually able to garner the trust and openness to do our jobs well.

But a few times per year, we encounter candidates who manage to mess with our collective heads. These candidates walk the line between cooperativeness and guardedness, always expressing the appropriate level of interest to keep the search moving forward, yet never fully revealing their true intentions. These candidates are poker players who are difficult to read, yet conduct themselves with a professionalism and class that begrudgingly impresses. They always appear to be one step ahead, and in control. They are thrifty on specifics about their present while specific on what they will need for them to move. They are, more often than not, the ‘A’ players.

These candidates make it difficult to predict the likelihood that an offer will be accepted if one is extended to them and as a result they challenge our ability to act as an effective advisor to my client. By clouding the ‘push-pull’ dynamic they also tip the negotiation scales in their favor and they are usually rewarded with superior compensation offers. By the manner in which they conduct themselves, they give evidence of strategic negotiation skills that the client will invariably benefit from if the candidate ever joins them. Unfortunately you never know until the very end if that is going to happen.

Want to mess with a headhunter’s head? Walk that line and remain in control. But be careful. We work hard to nudge candidates off those lines and only a few candidates a year are able to pull this off. They just happen to be the best ones.


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