Hays Executive salary guide In 2006 executives have bided their time, choosing to wait and see where the top Olympic jobs will arise. But when the time comes, it will pay to have had one or two discreet meetings with headhunters

All is suspiciously quiet on the executive salary front. A dissection of the figures in this year’s Hays Executive salary guide reveals that little has changed since last year. However, there’s something going on behind the scenes, in the private offices and private thoughts of ambitious company leaders. Something that the statistics do not reveal … the Olympic effect.

Executives are postponing any big career moves until they know which contractors are going to be the major players in the Olympic framework. “They’re waiting until nearer to the day when the first brick is laid,” says Dan Plimmer, the senior consultant at Hays Executive, who gathered the data for this year’s survey. Those harbouring hopes of a top job are biding their time, watching and waiting. “They’re taking stock, biding their time and holding out for the right opportunity. They don’t want to make a wrong move now and miss the bandwagon.”

Richard Woods, managing director of executive search consultant MC2 Management, has already observed the Olympic effect in action: “The Games are really starting to grip people’s interest. There is almost a sense of peer pressure developing in the industry, as people ask themselves what role they will play. This is having a definite effect on career decisions.”

Top executives will not be holding out for any old Olympic project, they will be attempting to land one of the sexy projects, such as the Olympic stadium and village, which would be the making of any global executive’s CV.

“You wouldn’t want to move to the organisation doing the temporary stadium or the beach volleyball court,” says Plimmer. “Being behind one of the big projects, and getting it right, could be the pinnacle of somebody’s career. After that they really would have a global perspective. There is a taboo attached to the construction of major stadiums after Wembley and the Millennium stadium, but the benefits outweigh the risks.”

Executives are aware that making a big move now and then another “Olympic” move in a few years’ time could be a career faux pas. “Junior executives are thinking, ‘If I move now, and then again in two years’ time, it will look bad on my CV’,” says Plimmer. “That would be only two financial cycles and at that level a good executive needs to be around for at least five.”

Plimmer predicts that we will start seeing the Olympic effect on salary rates in two to three years’ time when the design and planning has finished and the contracts go out to tender. “We’ve noticed that those upstream to the contractors – those involved with the project management and design and bid process – are being offered above-market rates to get involved. It’s inevitable we’ll see a knock-on effect on contractors.”

Woods, on the other hand, believes that the Olympic effect is already being felt by contractors: “We’re already negotiating 25% pay increases on top of market-leading salaries relating to some key Olympic appointments and are handling 10 six-figure appointments relating to Olympic infrastructure and development work. We anticipate this to increase dramatically, particularly in the £60,000-100,000 middle management range over the next 18 months.”

This trend is visible in this year’s survey in mid-point companies and at junior director level. “Companies are protecting their futures by offering individuals benefits they can’t take with them,” says Plimmer. “They’ve been given equity and x amount of shares, which make it more difficult to move on. It’s almost like golden handcuffs.”

With the Olympics being such a high-profile project, firms will be looking to invest in professionals with proven ability to deliver. “The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and individual companies are going to have to entice people away, especially if they’re happy in their jobs. They’re going to have to have an open cheque book. They’ll be drawing from a small pool of UK-wide candidates.”

The headhunters

Headhunters – or “executive search specialists” as they generally prefer to be known – will play a crucial part in the Olympics, and hopeful executives will be aiming to get to know one or two of them over the next few years. Firms hoping to entice high flyers will undoubtedly use headhunters to spread their nets and draw the right candidate in, and executives who have their hopes pinned on an Olympic move will already be discussing potential opportunities in hushed phone conversations.

Companies are protecting their futures by offering individuals benefits they can’t take with them

“I’m sure there are some people out there who know exactly where their careers are going and they’ll be networking with the ODA and the major contractors who will undoubtedly be picking up some of the major projects. They’ll also be meeting with good headhunters,” says Pimmer.

Woods has already witnessed some surreptitious manoeuvrings: “We’ve come across situations where candidates have been lobbying all competing organisations, hedging their bets and increasing their chance of involvement.

“Headhunters will apply their knowledge, networking and research skills in identifying and presenting a shortlist of candidates that should wholly satisfy the brief.”

In order to stand out from the crowd ambitious individuals will plot how they can maximise their visibility. “Be featured in trade magazines and go to industry events,” advises Alan Rundle, chairman of Rundle Brownswood, another executive search company.

It is also important to stay on the right side of headhunters. “Always return the headhunter’s call. The job today may not be for you but if you are polite and take the opportunity to impress the headhunter with your vision and energy, you won’t be forgotten,” says Rundle.

Lesley Fletcher, partner in headhunter Thomas Cole Kinder, says joining networking groups and industry bodies such as the RICS and Chartered Institute of Building can make an executive stand out from the cause. “Speaking at conferences demonstrates that you are knowledgeable. Get yourself on your company’s website as well.”

But all headhunters warn that no amount of networking can replace hard work and a proven track record. “We do a lot of research behind the scenes to elicit good names from credible sources. Often a colleague or somebody more senior than you will recommend you discreetly,” says Rundle.

“We will always look to source talent on ability, not just profile,” adds Woods.

Headhunters will also have their work cut out – they have already noticed that the Olympic effect is making it harder to lure key executives away from their current roles. “We have experienced two occasions when senior directors have declined written offers on the basis that their current employer was better placed to be involved in the Olympics,” says Jamie Orr, a consultant with search consultant Ellis Fairbank.

Orr says he would like to see the Olympic effect happening sooner rather than later – that way they could put their time to good use. “I would say it is very difficult for executives to be planning long-term career moves. Those wanting to be involved in the delivery would be better served in pursuing the best project opportunities and challenges for their career right now. The best talent want to be kept busy.”

As well as dispensing advice, the executive search consultants are keen to dispel one myth – the idea that the clandestine meetings between executives and headhunters take place over brandy and cigars in private members clubs. “We still use the Institute Of Directors and some of the signature hotels,” Woods says. “But today it is more about time, convenience and the content of our conversation. Professionals are happy to meet in a local Starbucks – although often not the one nearest the office.”