Step 3 – Research, Research, Research

Step three is to do thorough market research. This is the step that the vast majority of people don’t do, which makes it one of the easiest ways to differentiate yourself from the competition.

Here are some reasons why this step is critical:

I.          It gives you an opportunity to work out for yourself if the sector you are researching is thriving or shrinking and to make sure you like the sound of the sorts of job you find there;

II.          It lets you identify all the key companies within the sector, as well as the decision-makers within those companies whom you could approach for a Job Interview or an Information Interview;

III.          It helps you to assess the various companies operating within the sector, so as to produce a ‘wish list’ of companies to work for;

IV.          By doing you due diligence on the sector and companies before you join you can save yourself from discovering that you don’t like it after you have joined;

V.          The research you have done will help you to talk more convincingly about why you want the job when you get to that precious Job Interview, helping you stand out from the vast majority of other candidates.

The process is also pretty similar to what Executive Search headhunters do.   The key is to not get bogged down in too much detail.

As headhunters, we often have to quickly map out a sector which is new to us.  In fact, I did this only last week, when a client called asking what I knew about the ‘US TIPS’ market.   As it happens, nothing – I had to look up the definition of TIPS on Google (‘Treasury Inflation Protected Securities’ – a form of index-linked bond, if you are interested!).   But I applied the method I will set out below and, after a day’s research, I was able to explain the shape and size of the market in extensive detail (we found 76 Companies offering some form of TIPS product; 50 based in the US and 26 in Europe, managed by around 180 Portfolio Managers – with names and biographies).  Another day’s research revealed another 18 companies and another 75 Portfolio Managers.  The third day revealed only a handful of new people and a couple of companies.  So it took me pretty much three days to map out the ‘universe’ from scratch.  That’s about the maximum time you should spend to map out any one of your three sectors.  Certainly no more than 3 days because, as time goes on, you get decreasing marginal returns on the effort you put into it (the old cliché of Pareto’s Law applies).  For the average job seeker, one to two days should reveal most of the obvious suspects; and certainly enough to get on with the next steps.

So let’s assume you want to be a headhunter; that headhunting is one of the sectors or jobs you have chosen.  How do you map it out?  Through a combination of Desk Research and Telephone Research

Desk Research

What do I mean by ‘Desk Research’?  In headhunting speak, it’s any research you can do without picking up a telephone, or talking to anyone.  These days, the Internet tends to be the key starting point – though in fact it’s an incredibly inefficient way to map out a sector and can be a huge time waster.  Just try typing ‘List of Headhunters’ in Google and you’ll see what I mean – you’ll get thousands of random hits to trawl through.  So the old fashioned, paper-based ways still work best as a starting point.

In principle, the purpose of desk research is first to identify all the companies operating in a particular market segment; and then to find out the names of the people doing a particular job in those companies.  In this case, we would want to find a list of all the headhunters in, eg. London, and then the names of the people in charge of the various practices/offices.

Phase 1:  Map and Rank the Universe of Companies

The most efficient way to research the initial list of companies is through:

  • Libraries:  University and Business Libraries are incredibly useful.  They tend to stock all sorts of useful publications and directories which will help your research.  In London, the City Business Library on London Wall is excellent.  Check out your local library; talk to the librarians, ask for their advice.  They can be very helpful.  In this case, ask the Librarian:
    • do you know of any directories which list Headhunters or Recruiters?
    • Also, do you stock any Trade Newspapers or Magazines aimed at Headhunters or Recruiters?
    • Directories:  Directories are great if you can find them, though they tend to be very expensive, so you ideally need to track one down at a Library.  Sometimes these days you get online directories which can be helpful, depending on what sector you’re researching.  Use Directories to get a list of companies in that sector, and any other details they can provide (ie. Web site, switchboard number, address, no. of employees, turnover, key business area or product range, etc). As it happens, for headhunters, there’s an excellent directory called “The Executive Grapevine” which lists most of the serious headhunters in the UK, categorising them by the sectors and the job functions they cover, and by whether they’re an Agency (contingency), Search or Selection firm.  An hour with the Executive Grapevine will give you more useful information that a whole day of trawling randomly thought the internet.  So, if there is a Director, use that before the Internet;
    • Trade Publications: There is a Directory called Benn’s Media which lists every news publication in the UK.  Ask the Librarian if they can get hold of a copy for you. Check Benn’s Media to see if there are any likely-looking publications focusing on the Headhunting sector.  If you can find the name of a magazine that sounds relevant, see if the Library has a copy, or can get hold of some back issues for you (they will often borrow them from other libraries if they do  not have them in stock).  If that’s not possible, then call up the subscriptions department, tell them that you are thinking of taking out a subscription,  but could they send you a couple of recent back issues as samples to help you make up your mind.  Most trade magazines have a free trial period anyway.  If that fails, just go out and buy one – they are usually not too expensive.  The point of all this is to read the magazine, to get an impression of:
      • What is the general tone of articles (optimistic, pessimistic)?
      •  Is the sector thriving or in crisis?
      • Is the sector young and growing; well established and stable; shrinking; changing: being regulated; being de-regulated:
      • What are the companies in the news and why?
      • Which are the companies advertising?
      • Are there any people moves announcements?
      • Is there any jargon you don’t understand (if so, look it up on the web).
      • Trade Associations: there will often be some form of Trade Association which companies of a particular type belong to; or a government supervisory body which people companies have to register with (for example, the Financial Services Authority, which maintains and excellent Register of members, listing both companies and people.  As it happens, there is an organisation called The Association of Executive Search Consultants which a lot of Search firms belong to, and which lists members, so that would be a useful source of information.

Hopefully you should relatively easily find a list of all the key companies in the sector you are researching.   If the worst comes to the worst, there are always my good mates Google and Bing.

The next step is to find out enough information to be able to rank them in order of preference:

  • If you are looking to change careers, you may find smaller companies more receptive to hiring you than larger ones.  So you might rank them from biggest to smallest.
  • Or, younger, more recently-established companies.  New companies tend to find it harder to attract employees, and they also tend to be more flexible in hiring people with a diverse skillset So you might rank them by incorporation date.

The point is to come up with a list of companies ranked from 1 to however many you have found.


Phase 2:  Research the Companies

Now, having found your list of companies and given them a rough ranking based on whatever criteria you have chosen, you need to research each of them.  This is where the Internet works best.

Visit their web site (if they have one) and try to work out what they reckon is good about themselves: what is their usp?  Why do they think people should buy their goods and services?  Don’t go overboard, a few key details will do.

Now try to summarise the companies and what they do in six or seven bullet points.

Phase 3: Identify key Line Managers in those Companies

Next, you need to work out whom in the company to write to or call.  Ideally, you need the person in charge of the division where you would like to work – or the Chief Executive if it’s a small company.  Do NOT write to the HR team.  They are there to deflect unsolicited write-ins and anyway probably cannot give you the information you will need.  Hopefully the right person will be listed somewhere in the web site.  If not, you may need to move on to Telephone Research.

Your aim is to end up with a list of companies, six or seven bullet points on each company, and one or two names of people to contact within those companies.

Here’s when you are definitely going to need a small CRM system to track all this information – though you could probably get away with something like an Excel file.  You do need something you can sort and filter though, so a long Word document will probably not work.  A CRM system is best – see the section on Information Management.

Telephone Research.

At some point, you’ll find that the Internet can’t give you all the information you need.  In my sector, I reckon I can get about half the information I need from desk research.  The other half we need to actively research on the phone. It is the sign of an inexperienced Executive Search Researcher when they spend ages on desk research, and delay reaching for the phone.  Good researchers will pick up the phone soon and often.

Some people find this part scary, but it need not be if you approach it right.  We tend to give our new researchers ‘Scripts’ to use when they first start making calls.  The benefit of a script is that they don’t need to worry about what they’re going to say.  The idea is to practice reading it out load many times before you make your first call, so that it doesn’t sound like you are reading a script.  Try changing your tone of voice.  Try speeding up and slowing down.  Get comfortable with it. So.. who’re ya gonna call?

(to be continued)

Now go to Step 4 – Phone a Friend

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s