Article

Paula Sáenz López 29 March 2021

How Public Speaking Has Made Me a Better Headhunter

As an undergraduate at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, I chose to major in Political Science. At the time, my choice was driven solely by my desire to “understand society better”, and so I selected courses drawn from different academic streams such as Law, Philosophy, Sociology and Economics.

Back then, I did not know what path my career would take- or that I would even get into Executive Search. But now, as a Headhunter with a cutting-edge firm like LS International, I look back at my choices with enormous gratitude. I interact extensively with potential candidates, shortlisted candidates and client executives from different nationalities, cultural backgrounds and organizational cultures. In this context, my academic foundations have helped me engage with people more easily and forge strong personal relationships.

But I owe my career growth even more to what I learnt by being an active member of the university’s debate circuit. Courses in Public Speaking taught me important concepts such as critical thinking, structuring and presenting arguments convincingly, and utilizing the range of verbal and non-verbal resources at my disposal to communicate effectively. I got to apply all this knowledge and convert it into know-how when, as a member of the Debate League, I participated in numerous university-level debates.

Each debate was structured as a 30 minute “battle” between two teams with three members each. The topic would be announced by the judges only 30 minutes before the start of the contest. The winning teams would progress to the next round; the last two teams standing competed in the final round. In two of the three years, I was a member of teams that made it to the finals- an achievement I am very proud of. However, I am even more grateful for and proud of the many life-skills I learned from my debating experiences.

 

Here are four specific learnings that I bring to bear on my work every day:

  • Throw yourself into it: Fear and the self-doubt it causes are often the biggest roadblocks we all face both in personal and professional life. The solution lies in facing our fears and jumping into the pool. Something that needs to be done needs to be done; procrastination can only worsen the situation because we grow more fearful and typically end up with less time than before, which leads to more stress. I have found repeatedly that the attitude “I can do this” is a very powerful armour and provides a high degree of protection from stress. In life, as in the debates, one will never have 100% ideal information. The key is to start and build on the fly as you ask the right questions and get more information.
  • Know your audience: Each candidate or client is different, just as each panel of judges was, during the debates. You will not have perfect or complete information always, but watching their body language when others are speaking, helped you gather some insights. The same is true of the candidates and clients I interact with. Each one has different needs, expectations and fears, and as a head hunter, the better I understand them, the more effectively I can address them.
  • Don’t rush, and make your body language your ally: We all think much faster than we can speak. This can lead us to forget our lines of thought. Sometimes, waiting for a response means staying silent for as long as 30 seconds. What you do not say is as powerful (sometimes even more) than what you do actually say. Slow, deliberate communication gives you a few extra seconds to collect your thoughts and structure your arguments better. In my experience, doing so always boots your confidence, which the other person picks up on. When speaking with head hunters, clients want the assurance that you can deliver the right candidates; similarly, candidates also want to feel sure that you can offer them the best opportunities in the industry/role/ company/location you seek.
  • Practice, practice, practice: We got only 30 minutes to prepare for each debate. Similarly, there is limited time available before every client or candidate interaction. But what I used to do then (and do even now) is to imagine what I would say or how I would rebut the opposition’s arguments. This helped me anticipate questions and objections so that I was be ready with the relevant information and counterpoints. Even now, I analyze each call after it’s over to identify what went well and what could have gone better. I use this analysis to prepare better for the next interaction (with the same or another candidate or client). Just as a good debater needs “stage presence”, a good head hunter or corporate executive needs “executive presence”- a key component of which is how we communicate. And as a famous sportsperson once said, “the more I practice, the luckier I get”.

 

Here are six specific ways in which my learnings from my days as a debater have enabled me to become a better head hunter:

 

  • Stronger critical thinking ability and more thorough research skills allow me to look at new possibilities to identify candidates and engage with them.
  • I am more open to different points of view and remain unfazed when someone expresses a different view: in fact, I add this to my list and use this to prepare better in the future.
  • Sharper ability to advocate points of view with greater persuasiveness enables me to respond to objections and pushbacks with greater poise and effectiveness.
  • As a head hunter, a lot can depend on the first call with a candidate or client. The need to think on one’s feet and respond quickly and with confidence is a skill that I acquired and developed during my debating days. It is a useful skill that I put to good use even now as an executive search specialist.
  • Overall, I am more confident than I might have been, especially when engaging with senior-level executives. This allows me to present LS International’s differentiated approach and rationale for approaching that individual in a more effective manner.
  • Fail fast, but learn fast: As a debater, I did not win every competition. Similarly, not everything that I do as a head hunter has succeeded. But I am now well-positioned to learn from my experiences and improve constantly. I apply this to all facets of my life.

 

PS: I cannot honestly claim that I “understand society better” now, but thanks to public speaking and debating, I can say with confidence that I am a much better Headhunter than I otherwise would have been. And there’s no debate about that!