Salary Negotiations: How to Mess with a Headhunter's Head

May 1, 2008

Salary negotiations are often quite tricky in executive search.

First, clients vary widely when they discuss 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, all organizations share the basic goal of hiring the highest caliber candidate at the lowest compensation possible.

Candidates, on the other hand, start with the knowledge of their current compensation package and a sense as to how fair it is relative to others. But that does not even begin to tell the story on what guides 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 current work/career situation. When looking at a potential new job, someone who is unhappy is likely to make tradeoff decisions, including compensation, in an effort to get happy, while someone who is relatively content with their current job or employer has little pushing him to tradeoff considerations of any sort.

‘Pull’ dynamics, on the other hand, refers to the attractiveness of the opportunity on the other side of the fence. A juicy opportunity with an outstanding or ‘hot’ company is one such gravitational pull as is a long-awaited promotional 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 little push and limited pull has little choice but to attempt to buy the candidate’s affections. You will see this often in companies with challenging founders whose reputations force them to pay well above market value to attract quality candidates who consider it danger pay.

Since headhunters know that the success of a search hinges on the push/pull dynamic, they read it carefully throughout the course of the search. They may even try to influence it by gently emphasizing the importance of some variables over others. But the headhunter has to be careful since his 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 quality of decisions tmade by them.

In my own practice, I work hard to try to serve the interests of both client and candidate. I make sure that the parties ask the questions of each other that need to be asked in order for good decisions to be made. I insist on certain process steps that reduce the risk of mistakes. I probe the push/pull dynamics carefully and I try to give balanced advice. As a result, I am usually able to garner the necessary trust and openness to do my job.

But a few times per year, I will encounter candidates who manage to mess with my head. 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, 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 compromise my 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. Some of us are pretty good at nudging 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.