Psst! Want to Know a Secret?

A lifetime ago I had my last job in an industry other than recruitment.

I spent 1986 running a small betting shop for a big chain of bookmakers. I didn’t know it at the time but I was one of the last to do the job with nothing more than a pocket calculator and a red pen when the only place that you could put a bet on was in a licensed shop.

So I learned some things:


  • It’s pretty easy to understand the basics of sorting out bets on horses, dogs, football or whatever. Ultimately it’s basic arithmetic and you also learn neat shortcuts that your customers don’t know – you can come up with right answer faster and more accurately than they can because you know what you’re doing. Once you’ve been in the job for a while something happens in your head and you can do the sums without having to think about it. Your brain stores the algorithms in its permanent memory. It’s a great party trick to solve long complex sums in the time that it takes someone to write them down – well at the kind of parties I used to go to it was.


  • You could finish early on Saturday if the home football team lost. No matter the complex subtlety of their bet on a fixed odds football coupon, my clientele would invariably decide that Aberdeen would win no matter how unlikely that outcome actually was (in 1986/87 it was pretty unlikely) and lose.


  • If you spent 12 months trapped in a betting shop watching and listening to horse racing you became remarkably good at predicting the outcome of Flat races (National Hunt, particularly the Grand National, was a mug’s game). Mostly because you could see things like a decent horse being regularly held back a little in previous meetings to get it into races at obscure meetings  where it could get much longer odds than it should because the odds setters hadn’t been paying attention (this wasn’t legal of course and never happened), or if a decent horse had to carry indifferent riders. If you were brave enough, armed with this knowledge and £10 you could often beat the house with a quick lunchtime bet in a rival shop. The wrong pricing thing didn’t happen that often so you had to be patient too.


Once I got into the happy world of recruiting and then headhunting I kinda filled the lessons of 1986 away.

Until now.



  • It’s pretty easy to understand the basics of headhunting. Like I said in a previous piece it’s like doing a jigsaw. Once you’ve been doing the job for a while something happens in your brain and you can see patterns automatically because you have the experience of solving multiple similar problems. The good news for me is that the only way to get this ability is to actually do the job for a few years and I can’t see anyone automating it any time soon either. It’s also difficult for amateurs to replicate.


  • People have biases – as with football so with work – they can be far too optimistic or pessimistic based on their personal loyalties and opinions. To give a couple of examples: Employers tend to overestimate their brand value and underestimate the packages they’ll need to award to bring the people they want on board. Candidates tend to underestimate the risk of staying where they are and worry too much about the potential downsides of changing employers. Once you understand the biases you can give yourself and your clients and candidates decisive advantages.


  • If you research and work in a sector (medtech in my case) for long enough, you can form a more complete picture of what people’s agendas actually are. Combined with a little patience the more you understand what’s going on the more often you’ll be more right than anyone else.
Posted on: 28th August 2018 by Ivor Campbell

Into his fourth decade of search Ivor has a voice with stories to tell, observations to make and the odd picture to share. Mostly related to the day job.

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