Expert View: The City loves Lucy, but they're too close for comfort

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The Independent Online

"There's a girl called Lucy on the line, she says it's ... (ahem) personal."

I'm sure my Pa loves these moments. For me, taking the call is always a case of trick or treat. For Lucy is rarely a personal call. Nine times out of 10, she will turn out to be one of that tribe of lesser spotted Sloanes who earn a wage stuffing investment conferences and training courses with hapless punters. But sometimes Lucy will, deliciously, metamorphose: "Christopher, my real name is not Lucy but Samantha ... and I'm a headhunter."

It's that time of year when calls like this are going on all over the City. The bonus cheques have been paid (or are about to be paid), the pay rises determined, and in this, the ultimate money culture, no one is ever really happy or immune to the concept of "maybe I could be getting a little more".

No one. A survey published last week found a rather surprising 76 per cent of financial professionals were actively seeking to move jobs at present. OK, ambition's a good thing, but "actively" - what's wrong with everyone? The same survey found that 66 per cent were wanting to move up in pay and position, with investment banking and asset management being the areas of greatest discontent. Which is interesting, because with the FTSE sailing through the 6,000 mark and playing spot the next bid, these are the two hottest sectors on the other side of the supply and demand equation. This season may well be Samantha's best ever.

The exact number of headhunters operating in the City is not known, but I have heard estimates as high as 200. That is because this is one City profession where you really don't need a lot of capital. Thus, while the big headhunters such as Russell Reynolds, Egon Zehnder and Whitehead Mann remain permanent features of the market, a parade of talented individuals is constantly spinning off from well-known brand names to go it alone.

The big houses have sought to combat this by broadening the nature of their services, with noticeable effect. The headhunter of pre-Big Bang days tended to be old school tie and male. Nowadays, many more are women; one of the most successful, Carol Leonard, has gone on record explaining: "Men will tell women things they would never think of mentioning to other men." Headhunters become privy to an extraordinary range of secrets, from top management succession planning to the intimate details of people's private lives.

The new breed of headhunter carries out much more due diligence and associated tasks such as psychometrics. The logic is obvious: people who marry on the basis of hearsay and a couple of meetings are regarded as precipitate and foolish. Above all, headhunters are now playing more of a consultative role, getting particularly close to chief executives and senior management to provide an external sounding board. In this regard, they are encroaching on the HR director's role, and becoming leaders in management change within businesses.

But getting too comfortable can be equally dangerous. Apparently, 85 per cent of City firms do the majority of their recruiting through a single headhunter they have known for many years. In these cases, the risk is that firms will simply replicate themselves, recruiting new talent only in their own image. This is easy work for the headhunters, but long-term survival for financial businesses requires constant dynamism and diversity. Too many firms can end up as "pale, male and stale".

Headhunters do have a tendency to round up the usual suspects for a search. Specialist knowledge is a pre-requisite, of course, but it can be found by looking sideways for a candidate, thinking more about an individual's skills rather than whether they are currently doing exactly the same role sought by another player.

Let's face it, though, until the City moves to a transparent and complete market in talent, you should still take Lucy's calls.

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