Challenges Facing Executive Search
I was recently invited to attend the World Executive Search Congress in London. It’s a two-day conference with a variety of speakers covering techniques, marketing, relationship building and perspectives on where the sector is and where it is going. It is sponsored by recruitment software firm Dillistone Systems, and was well organised and attended. Previous commitments meant that I could only attend the first day.
I’ve written and researched a lot recently about the challenges and opportunities for contingency recruiters so was keen to hear about the concerns from the retained market.
First impression was that there is little difference between the challenges facing the two. The triple business threats of better skilled in-house teams doing more senior hiring for themselves, client ambiguity and hesitancy on making an appointment, and how to build better working relationships with clients, are common to the staffing sector whether you are working on a retained basis or contingent. In times of perceived candidate shortages, it wasn’t a great surprise to see a number of breakout sessions around sourcing and researching. However, the focus on LinkedIn and how to get the best out of it, many approaches for searching through Google, and general tips for sourcing, produced very similar learnings to those that are usually delivered to in-house and agency recruiters.
With retained work there is a commitment to completing projects, yet keynote speaker Simon Mullins, from the US Executive Search Information Exchange, shared research indicating that up to 40% do fail. This high failure rate primarily happens because projects aren’t properly managed. Often it isn’t the fault of the search consultancy’s own process but in the way they partner with their client. The three key areas where a client shoulders the blame are a lack of clarity on the hiring need, little understanding of the realities of the market and poor timing of the search request. These seem to be common occurrences however the recruitment supply chain supports a hiring business.
Hiring executives and corporate leaders should be held accountable for the recruitment and on-boarding process, properly identifying competencies and key capabilities, and accept that the search process can be risky, particularly if incomplete information is passed on to the search partner and the candidates identified. The search firm similarly needs to be honest with clients. One problem flagged up during the day was around boutique and smaller search firms who might be telling clients what they want to hear, not fully clarifying the brief and not pushing back enough through fear of losing future business.
Many of the top priorities for search firms in 2016 concern better integration with broader talent management processes, particularly those around internal mobility and retention, talent pipelining and supporting clients with better information, and helping diversity. The latter is a key concern and several suggestions were aired, including helping with unconscious bias awareness, coaching hiring managers, understanding exactly what is being communicated about the role and, for gender diversity, interviewing only women in the first round.
Search firms do have a role to play in supporting their clients’ talent processes. Simon Mullins spoke of them as being ‘stewards of the next generation of leadership for our clients’. They have market intelligence and should be trusted advisors, supporting clients and offering the best approach. The way successful searches are measured also needs to be refined. As one speaker said “Quality of hire isn’t about length of time someone stays but what they produce and achieve whilst there. Measure what’s important”.
Measurement was mentioned a number of times and some firms are starting to use Net Promoter Score. In most cases though it is still client metrics that are collected and not those for candidates, with too many firms seeing client testimonials as the only meaningful way of measuring service excellence. However, there is some change in the air with panelists talking about the need for candidate advocacy – one said “don’t commoditise candidates, their experience is important”, whilst another concurred with “metrics on how you treat candidates as important as how you treat clients”.
The need to position as a partner and not a supplier was also a key message. Much like some of their contingency cousins, it seems search firms can too often sell rather than listen, quote fees instead of discussing budgets, offer discounts before justifying value, and focus on delivery rather than bringing fresh insights and perspectives to clients. Keynote speaker John Niland took delegates through the journey of doing higher value work, getting them to focus client conversations on the choice of approach rather than which supplier to use, shape the project requirements as opposed to meeting preset ones, and to create the approach and deliverables with their clients.
The challenges for recruiters of all backgrounds and disciplines are similar. Differentiation, positioning, the need to give value and fresh insights, and support corporate employee initiatives are common to all. Many of the topics discussed and points raised at this event were not that different to those at many other recruitment conferences, although it might be that for this audience some are not considered as often.
The challenge for the permanent recruitment supply chain is relevance. And, in a world of increasing transparency and information availability, to offer clients a service and outcome that they can’t find themselves. As John Niland illustrated, too often the focus is on which suppler to choose rather than finding the best approach to solve the client’s needs, and add value to their recruitment processes.