Meet Our Headhunters

What compels an individual to read 100 résumés a day and scour the Earth for tribologists? Mark Jaffe and Tara McKernan explain

If you had a nickel for every child who dreamed of becoming an executive recruiter one day, well, you probably wouldn't collect enough for a cup of Starbucks (SBUX) Pike Place Roast. Yet these professionals, familiarly known as "headhunters," generated $9.55 billion for their industry worldwide in 2010, according to an estimate by the Association of Executive Search Consultants, which has 300 member firms representing 6,000 executive recruitment professionals.

Mark Jaffe, owner of Minneoplis search firm Wyatt & Jaffe, started contributing advice to Bloomberg readers via our Headhunter Hint feature when it made its debut in February 2010. His path to executive recruiting was accidental. "I grew up with a dad who was a CPA, so it was kind of a given I'd get an office job," he says. "I started out as a wholesale office-supply salesman and then as an auto parts salesman. I was good at these jobs, but I hated them."

After going to work for his father as an accountant, Jaffe got friendly with folks from at an executive search firm down the hall. Their war stories about offers and counteroffers intrigued him, so he gave recruiting a try. "I asked the recruiters, 'What part do I have to play when I'm doing this?' They told me, 'Just be yourself,'" Jaffe recalls. "That's the most durable and reliable advice I've ever heard."

When the Curtain Parted

Soon Jaffe scored his first big coup, finding a chief packaging technologist for Pillsbury. "I just happened to catch the right person at the right moment when Pillsbury was at the height of desperation," Jaffe says. "Pillsbury said, 'We don't care how much it costs—just do it.' I found a successful candidate at PepsiCo (PEP) in Purchase, N.Y." He persuaded the candidate and his wife, who also worked at the cola maker, to relocate to Minneapolis.

"The curtain parted and I saw all the machinery in the universe and how I could change things," Jaffe says. "Getting this couple to move from New York to the Midwest felt like changing the course of a river. It was the drug that got me addicted."

Jaffe started the boutique firm Wyatt & Jaffe in 1988 (partner James Wyatt retired in 2002). He began specializing in placing senior-level execs in technology companies after Polaroid retained him to find a tribologist, a specialist who studies and advises on wear and corrosion. The jobs he fills are often so esoteric that only half a dozen or so viable candidates exist in the world. "They'll be one person in Texas and another in Switzerland," he says. "It's the equivalent of being asked to find a left-handed Armenian brain surgeon." Recent placements include Tom White, worldwide director of operations and R&D for fiber optics at Avago Technologies, and Warren Cohn, senior vice-president and private client adviser at U.S. Trust.

Lured Away from French

Tara McKernan, who began contributing to Headhunter Hint this fall, started her career even further from the executive recruitment field than Jaffe did. After earning a master's degree in French literature at Boston College, she worked as a translator for the Maghreb Arab Press in Rabat, Morocco. Next she enrolled in a New York University doctoral program in French-Arabic political studies. Then a summer job she took at an executive search outfit intervened.

"I loved working with people and the feeling of making a difference in their lives," McKernan says. "I dropped out of the PhD program and never looked back." She went on to found the boutique agency Manhattan Search Group, which she sold in 2007. Today, McKernan serves as an executive vice-president for the search firm DHR International and is based in Stamford, Conn. She specializes in the fields of hospitality, consumer products, life sciences, and professional services. Among her recent successes were placing the new chief operating officer of Wal-Mart (WMT) India and the head of international sales for Cynosure (CYNO).

As far as the best job-related advice she's received, it comes from one of her current co-workers: "Surround yourself with people who have strengths that you don't possess."

Shooting 'Em in the Head

McKernan finds having to break bad news to candidates the most difficult part of the job. "You spend so much time pumping people up for interviews and telling them how to write up their CV and coaching them," McKernan says. "I'll present a slate of candidates to an employer, and I think all of them would be great." She delivers disappointing news gently and over the telephone, never by e-mail.

Jaffe takes something of a tough love approach. "I give direct and unvarnished feedback to candidates," he says. "I find the compassionate thing is to shoot them in the head—rather in the body and let them slowly bleed to death. They may feel a flash of pain at the beginning, but they get over it quickly."

Most of the positions Jaffe fills carry compensation packages worth "north of $500,000." McKernan's successful candidates get packages valued at $250,000 to $1 million and can include such perquisites as personal drivers and airfare to visit friends and family back home for executives who relocate internationally. Headhunters of McKernan's and Jaffe's stature routinely collect fees based on one-third of the successful candidate's first-year cash compensation.

Whether you're a child or adult, that's the stuff dreams are made of.

Click here to see a slide show featuring 25 of the best pieces of advice from the Headhunter Hint column.