Not so long ago, Monica Shaw was a junior doctor in dermatology working at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the United Kingdom. In 2006, she decided to leave the wards, taking a medical advisory job at a pharmaceutical company and later expanding her role through a string of other jobs in the pharmaceuticals industry. This year, at 36, Shaw was named vice president, global franchise medical head at Stiefel, a GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) dermatology company, joining the company’s London offices. Apart from her young age, what makes Shaw’s most recent career move unusual is that she wasn’t looking for a job when she got the offer. How did Shaw become a senior executive at one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies without even trying?


CREDIT: GSK/Kalpesh Joshi
Monica Shaw

Late last year, Shaw received a call from a company called Egon Zehnder, which she had never heard of before. “The only thing that hooked my interest was that they’d spoken to my old boss, so it wasn’t a cold call,” she says. If her boss had spoken to them and mentioned her name, she figured it was worth listening. Egon Zehnder turned out to be an “executive search firm”—often referred to as a “headhunter”—and Shaw found herself in the enviable position of being on their radar. Executive search firms are on the lookout for people, including scientists. They mainly fill top-tier jobs in industry, but they are also used for senior academic roles.

There's no point in actively trying to get headhunted—it either happens or it doesn’t, and it’s beyond your control—but that doesn't mean that you can't study the qualities people who do get recruited possess, and try to develop them in yourself. Such qualities will greatly improve your odds of succeeding at a high level, even if a headhunter never hears your name. And if they do happen to learn about you, that can be a very nice bonus. 

On the hunt

Executive search firms hunt down the very best people for a specific role. The jobs headhunters work to fill are often very senior, or they require unusual or very specific expertise that’s hard to come by.

When a list of desired skills and experience is so rare and exacting, banking on someone with the right profile looking for a job at the same time an employer has an important vacancy is unlikely to yield results. Executive search firms, then, tend to focus on “passive” candidates, who are happy in their jobs and aren’t necessarily looking to move. That’s exactly the position Shaw was in. She had only been in her previous job for about a year when the call from Egon Zehnder came. She wouldn’t have made the move to GSK, she says, had it not been an exceptional opportunity.

Shaw is unusual in that she was “headhunted” relatively early in her career, but otherwise her experience is typical of those recruited by executive search firms. What gets candidates noticed, executive recruiters say, are special skills, an excellent reputation among peers, and visibility.

How headhunters work

After an executive search firm is given a brief for a position, it starts gathering names of people who might fit the bill; at the start of a search, that list can contain hundreds of names. It then gets whittled down to the best candidates, mainly via conversations with former colleagues and bosses, others working in their field, and the candidates themselves. In conversations with the candidate, interviewers ask whether the candidates are interested in the position and explore whether their personal attributes, expertise, and interests are a good match for the position. Some executive search firms use in-house psychologists to help assess how well candidates fit the profile outlined by their clients.

Being identified by a headhunter is not a guarantee of a job offer. Only a handful of names will be presented to the client company, which will make the final decision on whom to invite for an interview and whom to eventually hire.

Heard it through the grapevine

How can you make it onto that headhunter’s list? Not by trying, or not by trying directly. Just try to be excellent and visible, come what may.

The headhunter may find you as a result of presentations you’ve given, papers you’ve written, events you’ve participated in, or your online presence. But personal recommendations and word of mouth probably play the most important role in helping executive search consultants identify talented individuals. Headhunters spend a lot of time on the phone, calling contacts and finding out who the top people are in certain fields. “We generally find that the same name will be referred back to us three or four times, so we know that that person is well known,” says Melanie West, a consultant specializing in the life sciences sector in the London offices of executive search firm Odgers Berndtson. Headhunters are after people like that.


CREDIT: Odgers Berndtson/Natalie Hall
Melanie West

Apparently, Shaw had such a reputation. Apart from one former boss, she doesn’t know who referred her; she only knows that her name came up several times in Egon Zehnder’s research. One thing that may have played a role is the determination she showed when looking for her first job outside the clinic. “Even before I moved into the industry, I spent a long time cold-calling people in companies,” she says. “Just to have a chat with them, see what their roles were like, what they were doing, what they found useful,” Shaw says. In her current role, she occasionally receives such calls herself. Making those proactive moves helps you build a strong network and demonstrates great initiative and enthusiasm, she says. Those qualities help mark you out among companies as someone to keep track of.

Alongside possessing the experience and skills the headhunter’s client is after, it’s important to show strong leadership, and to demonstrate that you are capable of holding a senior post. “We often find individuals early in their career are not empowered in their roles to display the full scale of leadership qualities,” says Sven Petersen, head of Egon Zehnder’s Information Technology Officers Practice in the firm’s London office. “But boy do they have potential.”


CREDIT: Egon Zehnder Ltd/Joanna Scheffel
Sven Peterson

A big part of a headhunter's role is to be aware of up-and-coming talent, but the talent—the candidate—has to do her part by finding opportunities to demonstrate what she can do. “Ultimately, any headhunter looks at achievement,” Petersen says. “It’s not about where you went to school, or your grades; it’s about what you have done.” If, as a Ph.D. student or postdoc, you demonstrate that you’ve built a team, launched a project, created strong collaborations, shown some entrepreneurial skills and aspirations, or made a mark in industry, you’ll have a better chance of making it onto a headhunter’s radar.

But just doing it isn’t enough; you also have to be seen. “Whenever possible, try and get yourself involved in speaking engagements, doing white papers; make yourself visible within your profession to make sure that the things that you are doing get seen,” advises John McLean, managing partner of the Global Life Sciences Practice at Witt/Kieffer, a headhunting firm focusing on health care, higher education, life science, and not-for-profit organizations. Petersen agrees: “Expose yourself a bit, be the face of X or Y,” he says. “You have to be a bit courageous at times.” Ultimately, “you have to be known for something,” says Connie Hampton, founder of Hampton & Associates, Scientific & Executive Search Services.


CREDIT: John McLean/Witt/Kieffer
John McLean

Behind the scenes

Bottom line: Don’t worry about getting on a search firm’s radar. If you’re excellent at what you do and making a name for yourself, they’ll probably notice. While it won’t hurt to get to know one or two headhunters—they can often be found at conferences, networking and talent-spotting, or simply at the other end of a phone line—your efforts are best spent cultivating expertise and the leadership skills that will mark you out for higher-tier jobs.

Headhunters are discreet. They work in the background, researching and building up a picture of their targets before they approach. But once they hit you, it can be career changing. “It’s been hugely positive,” Shaw says. “It was a very nice way of finding a role that was perfect for me, and because I wasn’t actively looking, it gave me the ability to think things through properly, to really focus on what was important to me as a career.”

Top Image credit: G.Grullón/Science

Anna Lewcock is a science writer based in the United Kingdom.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400203