Why do headhunters exist? Why can’t an employer recruit a high-rank employee by using LinkedIn, Monster, and Indeed?

Very often, the top-talent and exceptionally-trained people who are wanted, are not even in the job market. They are happy and successful at the present jobs. They don’t post personal histories and descriptions on LinkedIn or anywhere else.

Employers don’t have the time to research companies in other businesses, make contacts and get acquainted, then broach the information that an even better position is open, and to inquire if the individual is interested in learning about it. In any case, the employer or anyone else in his company are not in a position to make such an approach. It has to be someone independent of the client company.

Here’s an example, from years back (before LinkedIn even existed). Classmate of mine from HBS, named Lou Gerstner, had become the President of American Express. Pretty high level job, very well paid. He was actually expanding American Express enormously, so that revenues and profits were rising spectacularly. He was already a wealthy man, from his employments, his bonuses, and his investments. Could have finished out his career there, diversified AE even more, and made himself a centimillionaire by retirement.

A headhunter approached him, got well acquainted, and let him know that IBM was looking for a new Chairman. From outside the Watson family, a first. The computer industry was changing rapidly, and IBM was stuck in the business mode and product structure which had made it the greatest company in the industry. But that was slipping, due to industry changes.

So they offered him the Chairman and CEO position at IBM, a company perhaps ten times the size he was then running. But with problems they could not even recognize or define. Gerstner demanded only that he should be given a free hand, to which they readily agreed.

Long story short, Mr. Gerstner totally remade IBM. Moved away from the main-frame and services businesses, got heavily into building servers and several other new fields, changed employee policies and managerial rules — and brought IBM into a new era. Once again, by a wide measure the leader. For which, one the next decade or so, he made himself far more wealthy and renowned than could ever have been possible at American Express.

No one within IBM could possibly have identified or interested or recruited Mr. Gerstner. And he certainly was not looking for a new or better job.

That’s why we have headhunters. Of course, most assignments are on a lesser scale, and the headhunter recruits the Director of something-or-another to become the new Senior Vice President of maybe a quarter or a third of some much larger company.

A very difficult job, lots of stress, lots of need for diplomacy and persuasiveness and salesmanship. And of course, research and knowledge building.

I wouldn’t say that LinkedIn and comparable Web companies are useless. Far from it. But the top headhunters don’t find much need to use them, or any benefits that they provide for doing their work.