How To Recognize A Good Headhunter


Whilst it is almost impossible to recognize e.g. a good dentist (confirms my friend Carsten, a good dentist), this is much easier when you ask yourself the question how to recognize a good headhunter.

Here are the 3 triple x questions to recognize a good headhunter and help you understand if the recruiter in front of you is likely to be able to help you or not:

  1. X as in Expertise: How well does the headhunter know his/ her client/ candidate, the industry or at least the position/ candidate s/he represents? This will directly influence the quality of work and career advice delivered. Some recruiters do not even have the basic information, vital puzzle pieces you need to know to take a decision with such an impact on you. Ask these questions to sort the wheat from the chaff: What is the position’s/ candidate’s history, the reason for the vacancy/ the candidate’s real interest in the position? Who are the direct competitors of the company they recruit for, what are the current trends the industry is undergoing? How does your headhunter find his/ her candidates? How well can your headhunter describe the candidate’s personality/ the culture of his/ her client? And how does s/he resume your conversation and the job brief/ your key motivators??
  2. X as in Experience: Are you in front of a specialist or a generalist? Sector or industry specialization both co-exist. Even though being a generalist is nothing bad, some sectors like IT or insurance are very specific and it is not easy to understand how these areas tick. How many years has your executive search consultant been working in this industry and what exactly did s/ he do? “Recruitment” can mean temp staffing, interim management or direct search. Every market and every approach is completely different. And how many candidates has s/he recruited by the way in his/her career? These questions give you an indication of you are in front of a real professional or not.
  3. X as in X-Factor: The first two points are tangible and measurable but this is not the case with point 3: does your headhunter listen to you, give advice? Is s/he critical and maybe corrects what your perception of the market is? Does s/ he keep promises (“I call you back on Friday”), briefs you before client/ candidate meetings, stresses positive as well as critical parts of the candidate/ the job? These are the soft factors and they will determine if you keep in touch in the long run or not. Most headhunters are able to make a good first impression but few can establish a lasting relationship based on trust and with the goal to create a win-win alliance with you.


Use the “3X Expertise, Experience and X-Factor” to recognize a good headhunter, find and test 2-3 search consultants, keep in touch with them and talk to them on eye-level to a) manage your own career wisely and b) find the best talent in the market for your team.


Jorg Stegemann
Jorg Stegemann - Headhunter, Certified Coach and Business Writer - is the CEO of Kennedy Executive Search. Apart from running Kennedy's company blog, he writes for Forbes, BBC and other media.
  1. Rosa Reply

    Don’t overpromise and then under deliver, that’s what must be avoided if a trusty and reliable relationship between the headhunter and the candidate should be built up.
    When looking for a job, a candidate relies on the headhunter’s expertise of course, but far more on his good feeling and intuition on the candidate’s abilities and skills so far that, no further reco’s or so many interviews should be needed.

    • Paolo Reply

      Good morning Rosa, I’m an Italian manager. What do you think about various tests for understanding the manager’s capabilities?

      Some years ago one of the most important american headhunters and famous in the world told me during an interview: “You are capricorn, ascendant virgin….you are the maximum mix for a manager….” from that time I read …..my horoscope.



  2. Kenneth Reply

    These are good and at least start a deliberate evaluation. But many of the points in two cannot be verified. I would rather talk to references and not bother with questions that cannot be substantiated.

    • Jorg
      Jorg Reply

      Thanks, Kenneth. References (I wrote on reference check here) or better recommendations are indeed a very good way to answer that question. I tried to boil it down to three questions. Do you have other suggestions or comments on how to determine the quality of a recruiter?

  3. Trish Reply

    Excellent article !

  4. Vince Reply

    Jorg, I also agree with Kenneth that clients and candidates define a good headhunter. Reputation is critical and that is developed (or lost) through what you deliver (or don’t deliver) to clients.
    I think good headhunters:

    – Are knowledgeable in the sector and up to date with current issues
    – Don’t over promise and under deliver
    – Are willing to challenge the client about the position
    – Work to develop long term partnerships with clients
    – Work with candidates to understand their career aspirations
    – Put honesty and integrity first

    • Paolo Reply

      Vince, I’m an Italian manager I took in charge a different roles as manager in my career. A lot of time the recruiters explained me : role, problems to solve, etc ., nobody told me which kind of environment there was in the company, for instance : what job style had the managers working with me. Many times I found a great image outside the company, but a bad environment inside. What do you think about this simple clear matter?


  5. Alain Reply


    With your 3 triple x questions you have perfectly described some keys points of recruitments.
    Your advices to select the right headhunter are quite fruitful, and most decision makers in companies have interest to follow them.

    Best regards

  6. Christine Reply

    Jorg, thanks for these interesting advices.
    It’s different when you are a candidate or a client.
    It’s true that during my job search only 2 consultants took their time to brief and train me before an interview with the client. In a lot of recruitment offices I guess they don’t have enough time to do their job properly.
    However when I worked with consultants as a manager to find people for a position in my team they were good to advice me.

    • Jorg Stegemann
      Jorg Stegemann Reply


      Thanks. I hear the same but I strongly believe that no difference should be made in treating a candidate or a hiring manager: In the end, the difference between both is only that one is looking for a new challenge today – and the other one tomorrow…

  7. Jeremy Reply

    Spot on Jorg. X-pertise, X-perience and X-factor are some of the most valuable differentiators among industry leading recruiters. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Johnny Reply

    Sorry guys; time to play Devils Advocate on this one…. Where do you work? Where are you pulling your talent pool from? I’m in San Antonio, Tx. If I had 2 candidates with comparable skill sets, and one of the candidates responded as Jorg had; whom should I submit? If your talent pool is stagnant and the candidates call the shots, this editorial is on point.
    We are in match making business. I’ve been on the “headhunting” side as well as dealing with our customers, who actually pay our bills and keep us in business. Take a wild guess who is most important in my book. No income is made unless a need; a Job Order, is given first. Sorry guys, this is 2014, and you are not the only pro in your field.

  9. Ruth Kramer Reply

    I don’t seem to have much luck with Recruiters getting back to me with serious job opportunities. Maybe it’s because I am not paying them directly. After all, nothing is for free right?

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