Tracing back recruitment history: The first headhunter was a soldier

Headhunting as a term on a quick Google glance comes from literally taking someone’s head (with all the soulful and intelligent information) after killing them. Thankfully, in the recruitment and careers space, it is not half as brutal. Although, it’s fair to say that for senior professionals and headhunters alike, there’s no doubt that it is a competitive world out there!


I recently spoke to Marco Doth, Head of Sales at Experteer. Apart from closely working with Headhunters in the German speaking DACH region (and Experteer has thousands of partners in this domain), Marco also has personal experience in the domain, working for a large headhunter before.

This is a part of our ongoing work on bringing clarity in the Headhunter space, by talking with experts in this domain that will enable our candidates and recruitment specialists gain access to resources and interesting insights on this topic. Over to Marco for the details…

Where did headhunting for recruiters begin?

As a discipline in recruiting Headhunting began in the DACH and PAN European region. The first headhunter was a soldier. Recruitment ‘headhunting’ started directly after the World War (Two), when the soldier was able to recommend other soldiers with specialized skill sets, for instance, in machinery, tools or any other fields, directly to the industry.

Headhunting started in this fashion. There were a bunch of these ex-soldiers who had ‘special skills’ for various industry domains. It has now of course developed into a greater business in the recruitment industry at all levels with headhunters for each specific industry and functional area.

Headhunting as a discipline, or business in the field of recruiting came from North America to Europe the 1950s. After the end of World War II there was a great need for open positions in industry and politics due to the increasing industrialization and the strong technological progress.

And usually, experts were drawn from employees in the military, being matched with a large pool of matching specialities. Thorndike Deland, the inventor of “Executive Search,” introduced the concept of potential candidates getting directly onto possible positions, rather than the customary wait until potential applicants reported to job.

Thus, the term was headhunting (or executive search) in the classical sense is used for filling targeted senior positions jobs. Meanwhile, in Germany alone is the annual turnover of the personnel consulting industry about 1.55 billion Euro. (source: Quelle: BDU Studie „Personalberatung in Deutschland 2012/2013)

Headhunters are not limited to Europe and the West

It is especially common in Asia for instance in countries like China where specialist high level candidates are always headhunted and recommended to prospective employers. Headhunters are able to live up to their specialist reputation by recommending high level candidates. They are also best placed to know the strengths of the candidates and match them to the positions that suit them the best.

In Scandinavia, US and other markets it is usual to have executive senior positions almost exclusively filled in by specialized headhunters. Headhunters optimally fill these positions, matching respective candidate strengths with senior positions.

Headhunters in the DACH region can even be one man shows!

In terms of sheer size, the DACH region is led by large recruitment agencies. However, in some cases, former management executives and senior managers, are being able to use their extensive experience and expertise in an industry to become self-employed as recruitment consultants.

This ’boutique’ headhunter can potentially exist in the market with their focus on specific industries and niches. With greater experiences, these boutiques are often able to compete with bigger companies. Due to the strong salaries especially in the DACH region, smaller headhunters are also able to survive well.

Usually on an average of say 26% as a fee from the salary of the candidate. The smaller Headhunters in the DACH region place about 10-15 candidates per year to be able to earn about 60 to 100 K of annual income. With candidate salaries above 60K annually this is possible, however, in other parts of Europe where the salaries are low, bigger companies with greater volume have a higher chance of survival.

Experteer covers about 80-90% of the Headhunter market space in the DACH region, bringing them online and giving them access to a highly specialized candidate base, which is the first step in the whole value chain of the Headhunter business.

Headhunters are all about personal relationships

The business of headhunting lives on having trustworthy relationships between candidates and clients (companies). Headhunters are seen as ‘experts’ by the companies. Smaller headhunter firms have strong long term relationships with select candidates and companies and are experts in matching needs.

Even bigger executive search firms or headhunters depend on smaller specialized headhunters (by location, industry or function) as they have access to candidates with a high skill level and expertise. Big companies often use smaller headhunters to access specialized candidates. On the other hand, smaller headhunters are able to acquire candidates better with a bigger brand name behind them.

It is a win-win situation for a senior professional being able to access a variety of senior positions through a trusted headhunter partner.

Thanks Marco for your insights!

We will keep sharing snippets around Headhunters on this platform to enable everyone get further clarity on what really goes on in this space :). After all, all of us are constantly waiting to be ‘headhunted’ unless we’re already lucky to be in our dream jobs!

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