“I don’t like conforming to predetermined structures that have been defined by others – I want to determine things on my own through a creative process,” says Debbie Goodman, founder and director of Jack Hammer Executive Headhunters. Creativity is something that comes naturally to this woman who had an unconventional start in the business world.
Goodman worked as a professional contemporary dancer and choreographer for 10 years and qualified with a law degree, although she never pursued a legal career. Dancing was always her passion, but it didn’t pay the rent and she eventually decided to leave the arts and look for a corporate job. A recruitment agency took her on as a headhunting consultant, a role that suited her well.
After two years of learning the ropes, she decided to go it alone – first setting up a headhunting business with a partner, then in a joint venture – before eventually forming Jack Hammer, which has managed to capture a portion of the highly competitive headhunting market, in spite of being a newcomer. “At the top levels of executive headhunting, the industry is dominated by old and established players, and international and local groups with strong credentials,” says Goodman, commenting on the early challenges she faced.
“I have had to work my way into that top space as a younger woman without any ‘old boy’ connections or networks. These were challenges, but they were exciting ones; I never saw any of them as stumbling blocks.” And while it might not seem immediately obvious, Goodman’s long history of creativity stood her in good stead in overcoming these challenges. “In whatever I have done in my life – choreography, dancing, theatre management, entrepreneurship – I have always subscribed to the power of creativity. In many ways I’m doing the same thing in business as I did in dancing – creating something out of nothing.”
Creativity is central to the way Jack Hammer does business; this has allowed the company to differentiate itself in important ways. “I don’t like to say we offer something completely different because the end result is the same: we find people to fill roles. And while I can’t claim to know how every other headhunter in the market operates, I believe our process and methodology of finding the right candidate is different.” Jack Hammer doesn’t rely only on its existing contact base and network to source candidates: “We go further than just looking at people who we already know are out there.
An incredibly labour-intensive process allows us to drill down to reach the candidates who aren’t necessarily widely known and might be slightly below the radar, but who are up-and-coming gems.” Jack Hammer’s team-based approach to sourcing candidates also sets it apart in an industry where most consultants work alone to individual targets. “Consultants engage with clients and bring in the brief, and then work with a cohesive project team of researchers and headhunters to find appropriate people. These candidates are further screened by the consultants before a shortlist is compiled. So we go through a four-phase screening process before candidates are presented to the client,” explains Goodman. Finding good headhunters for her team in an industry where it’s common practice to enforce restraints of trade is not easy.
But Goodman knows exactly what she’s looking for. The overriding factor for her is a track record of success – and that can be in anything. “A passionate person who threw themselves into something and had to work really hard at it to achieve success has the right attributes for future triumph in almost any arena and certainly in this industry. Passion, talent, discipline and hard work equal success. Aptitude is not enough if you don’t have the self-discipline and tenacity to do what is essentially a repetitive job,” she says.
Unlike its competitors, Jack Hammer doesn’t require consultants to sign restraints. Instead, it relies on positive reinforcement to keep good staff. The normal commission-based structure is once again complemented by an imaginative approach to incentives. Apart from individual vouchers, prizes and five-star local and international getaways, a notable example is an incentive where the entire team worked to a target so that all could take turns to enjoy a reward. In another, the team aimed to make its target so that it could make a financial donation to a particular charity.
When asked what the most promising careers in South Africa are currently, Goodman replies: “It’s an impossible question to answer, although there are obviously some industries that are more lucrative than others. But what I can say to people making a choice about their career is don’t base your decision on what other people tell you or how much money you will earn. Find something that you really love and that you’re excited about, work hard at it and you will be successful.”
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