Interviews – Mansur Khawar

Mansur Khawar, 30, had tried his hand at a number of things – including writing, decorating, and pupil barrister – before joining headhunting firm Armstrong International in February 1998. He tells us why the headhunting business is the one that really stimulates him

Why did you decide to become a headhunter?
It originally began as an accident. I had decided against a career at the Bar and as a result of a conversation I had with a friend and a fortuitous advert I decided it might be suitable.

What was your career path?
I had gone to university, then worked for a bit in Manchester just paying off my debts. I then went and lived in Yugoslavia working for a university as the English language editor of a periodical they published, doing a bit of teaching and trying to write a novel. The novel didn’t quite materialise and I thought I’d be a lawyer so I studied and did my law conversion course in Manchester. Then I went to Bar school and did my pupillage for twelve months. During the course of working there I realised law wasn’t the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Why did you decide that law wasn’t for you?
Oh, a million and one reasons. I was 26 and it seemed from here on in my working life would be predictable in many ways and I wanted something more diverse and transactional. And I wasn’t very good at law.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
A job is a very significant part of people’s lives, and for some moving from one job to another is quite a complex, traumatic process. As a headhunter, you become someone’s confidant. That’s fun, being able to get someone to trust you for three or four months and treat you as a really serious advisor. As you close a transaction you find that speak to the candidate every day, you meet up at weekends and you have coffee and breakfast with them. It’s like when you learn to drive – at the end your driving instructor’s really quite close to you. It’s quite an emotional wrench leaving them.

What’s the downside to your job?
The financial services are tough because bankers are in very demanding work environments themselves and therefore demand high standards from those who provide them with services.

Is headhunting a v pressured industry?
Headhunting is entrepreneurial, which involves a different type of stress from being within an organisation or a bureaucracy. It’s personality-driven work. You don’t sit at your desk poring through files and papers, you do a lot more talking, so it’s a different type of pressure, more fun, more transactional. Also, the City is a money-driven place, and every day you come in you can see whether you are making money or not, and as important, whether you are meeting the needs of your clients.

Do you ever have to ‘bend the truth’?
Not really, not if you’re good. You can’t convince someone to take a job they don’t want – ever. The difference between someone who’s good at ‘closing’ and has a real flair for it, and someone who’s not and doesn’t have a real flair for it, is in bringing two parties together when they start off with differing points of view. So your client says, “I want to pay this person x amount and give them x role,” and the candidate says, ‘I want to be paid y amount and be given y role.” If you can bridge that gap, you’ve added value.

What are the different day-to-day roles within the company?
We only have two types of people here: researchers and consultants. Broadly speaking the consultant originates the business, going to the pitch and winning the mandate, and the researcher identifies the talent pool using the internet etc. but principally by talking to people in the marketplace. The researcher will also approach the candidate over the phone. After that the consultant’s job really kicks in. The consultant does the talking in the meetings and manages the relationships with the candidates and clients.

How does the management structure work at Armstrong?
Everybody starts here as a researcher. At Armstrong you gradually, almost without noticing, take more and more responsibility the longer you’re in the job, so you’ll find that after eighteen months or so you’ll start to manage less clients but more and more candidates. Gradually, after two years, or quicker if you’re very good, you become a consultant, which means you are responsible for creating a certain amount of money. You’re responsible for winning the business and closing the business.

What will the impact of the consolidation in the banking industry be on headhunting?
It’s a big question. I think there will always be headhunters, but there will be a lot less of them. I think it will be more of a candidate-driven business than it is now. At the moment it’s still a client-driven business. When there are only four clients in the marketplace, I think the headhunter’s job will be more of an agent’s role. The firms that will thrive, I believe, are those that have the best relationships with the best people in the marketplace.

What kind of characteristics do you think you need to be a good headhunter?
Fundamentally you need to be able to establish credibility with clients and candidates quickly. You’ve got to be bright so that you can pick up stuff very quickly and be credible in front of both parties. You’ve got to be self-confident so that you’re prepared to go into a room knowing three-fifths of what you should and can convey that you know more. You need charm, you need to be able to build relationships and you need to be pretty highly organised, able to juggle twenty balls at the same time. The bottom line is that you stand and fall by your merits, the force of your personality, your ability to have an impact on people within a relatively short space of time.

Is there any training for headhunters?
There is in the bigger companies. At Armstrong there is training but it’s a bit more informal, more on the job. I think you can train someone to be a good researcher, not a great researcher but a good one. With consultants, it’s a little bit more complicated because it’s more intuitive, but you can develop people’s skills in that area.

What’s your advice for those thinking about going into headhunting?
One thing I would say is that nearly everybody comes to headhunting falls into it. If you just want to make good money quickly but then leave, do it after university. If you really want a career in it, don’t do it straight out of university, do something else first, because it’s an unusual way to make a living. You’ll also get a better job if you come into the profession at 25 or so – when you’re younger, a lot of companies will bring you in as a researcher and take that much longer to promote you through the ranks. And learn languages.

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