The 'war for talent': The gatekeeper role of executive search firms in elite labour markets

James R. Faulconbridge*, Jonathan V. Beaverstock, Sarah Hall, Andrew Hewitson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

79 Citations (Scopus)


Recent years have been characterised by the increasing encroachment into policy and academic debates of discourses describing knowledge and weightless economies and an associated 'war for talent'. In this paper we argue that these current discourses and their description of 'talent' and the challenge of finding it fail to do full justice to the complexities of contemporary elite labour markets. We argue that the rise of executive search firms. headhunters, as labour market intermediaries and their tactics for defining and managing contemporary elite labour recruitment practices is too often ignored. We show that executive search firms control elite labour recruitment processes through two forms of power-relation: one in the labour management process where relations between clients and executive search firms are structured by power resources constructed over time; and one in the labour market itself where definitions of talent are promulgated by search firms. thus determining who does and does not classify as a talented individual and who is admitted to the networks that provide access to elite executive positions. Building on insights from interviews with headhunters in Europe we reveal the strategies producing these positions of power and suggest these have led to a geographically inscribed, hierarchical and exclusive 'new boys network' in elite labour markets, something which supersedes the 'old boys network' associated with elite labour recruitment in the past. This leads us to suggest that more attention needs to be paid to how the geographies of elite labour are affected by both discourses that construct power relations and the role of geography as a resource that is empowering but also disempowering. (C) 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)800-808
Number of pages9
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2009


  • Executive search
  • Headhunters
  • Elite labour
  • Knowledge economy
  • Power


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