A healthy perspective on executive search

Helen Buckingham’s career has taken her across many different areas of the health and care sector in the UK over the past 30 years. She joined the NHS as a graduate trainee originally in a finance role, and has progressed to senior executive roles in strategy, analysis, partnership and systems working. Her non-executive work has also focused on the health sector, particularly in her appointment as Chair of National Voices in 2020, where she has worked hard to amplify the voices of its members as the demand for their services increases inexorably.

As a sector specialist adviser to Saxton Bampfylde’s Healthcare team for the past two years, Helen has been on the ‘other side’ of the table, gaining a perspective of executive search and sharing her experience and insight to enhance the talent pool and provide an invaluable insider view. She has shared her learnings and observations for the benefit of those considering or working with headhunters and provided useful tips to improve the process and network opportunities for organisations and candidates.

After many years of experience on the client and candidate side of the table in Board level executive searches, it’s been fascinating to support the healthcare practice at Saxton Bampfylde for the last two years. It has given me insights into headhunting from the point of view of the one doing the searching. Putting all my experiences together, there are three key things I’ve learned.

The quality of the process matters almost as much as the outcome.

Remember that Maya Angelou line: “people will never forget how you made them feel”? It’s true. And it plays out in each of the client/search firm/candidate relationships. For the relationship between headhunter and client, everything goes much more smoothly if there are clear points of contact at each end and clarity of accountability for the various steps in the process. The job description and person specification should be neither too vague nor too restrictive, but don’t throw in the kitchen sink with every last level of detail. Take the advice of the search firm on how to word your person specification and your advert to attract the most diverse range of candidates. And remember that evidence shows including salary information during recruitment can attract more candidates and reduce pay inequalities.

For a candidate, nothing beats regular human contact! Working together, search firms and clients can ensure that candidates are kept informed through the process, and that shortlisted candidates have a good sense of issues that panels want to explore with them so that they can be well prepared. If there are unexpected changes or delays in the process, keep candidates informed, don’t leave them feeling that they have to push for information. Of course, candidates shouldn’t be spoon fed either, but ‘do as you would be done by’ is a good maxim. That way, even disappointed candidates retain a positive impression of both search firm and client organisation.

Know why you want to use a headhunter, and value what they bring.

Headhunters do two main things for employers. Firstly, they widen the field of potential candidates through their networks. They’ll keep up to date with what’s going on in your world, who’s who, and who might fit the bill for you even if they’re currently working in a different sector. Lots of employers say that they want a really diverse range of candidates – and then they go on to specify a very narrow range of past experience which they’re willing to consider. If you really want to diversify your team – and you should – that might mean thinking more broadly and focusing on future potential, as much as past experience. Headhunters can help you with that.

Working with a search firm gives you access to impartial advice on the quality of candidates backed by a strong knowledge of what the market has to offer.

Secondly, they take care of the legwork. They’ll handle all the practicalities from placing adverts to fielding candidate calls, and, where relevant, running things like psychometric tests and longlist interviews. They’ll have the difficult conversations with disappointed candidates, and they know how to give constructive feedback. The return on investment for the fees which headhunters charge can be many times the opportunity cost of a DIY approach -and remember that low cost isn’t always best value.

But also know when not to use a headhunter. If you want to have a really close involvement in the process – perhaps you know you want to talk to prospective candidates; you want to run your own significant stakeholder engagement in the selection (don’t underestimate the thought, time and effort that takes, by the way); you’re clear about your ability to reach potential candidates; you’ve got the resource to run a process, then you might not get best value from a search firm. That’s OK!

It’s a long term relationship, not a one night stand.

This doesn’t mean that, either as client or candidate, you should find one search firm and never talk to anyone else ever again. But the more you can build your relationship with a search firm over time, the better they will get to know you, your needs, and what you have to offer. So don’t just call them up when you have a vacancy to fill or you’re on the market yourself. Read and respond to things they put out on social media, contribute to their thought pieces, attend their events. If nothing else, you’ll make an interesting set of contacts yourself.

Making the right senior appointments is one of the most important things a Board does. It’s worth taking the time to do it well.


Championing outstanding leadership in Healthcare

At Saxton Bampfylde we know the importance of game-changing leadership appointments for the health and care ecosystem. Our dedicated team are proven partners in supporting critically-strategic appointments at the most senior Executive and Non-Executive levels in the Health & Care sectors. From start-up healthtech businesses to leading NHS Trusts; from private healthcare businesses to national institutes and emerging NHS system leaders.

Our recent Track Record Includes:

  • Sue Ryder, CEO
  • St George’s, Epsom and St Helier Hospital Group, Group Chief People Officer
  • General Dental Council, CEO
  • West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, Executive Director of Strategy and Transformation

Contact us

To find out more about our work, contact Alex Richmond, Head of Health Practice


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