Demanding more from Executive Search

Demanding more from Executive Search

Before I go on, the first caveat I’d like to put around this blog is that it isn’t an attack on the practice of Executive Search. In fact, it’s far from it. Search is one of the core services the business I work for offers to our clients, I’m passionate about it and firmly believe in the art of well executed search. I’ve worked with some of the best over the past decade, and I love seeing a search delivered flawlessly (especially when it’s one of my team who are delivering it!).

The second caveat is that when I refer to ‘traditional’ search providers, I’m referring to businesses who know what they’re doing when it comes to carrying out a search with rigour – they take a research led approach to identify and engage with the best senior talent in the market and are able to assess the level of capability and cultural fit to their client effectively. These ‘traditional’ suppliers will generally charge what has become the standard 25%-35% fee against base salary (if you’re lucky) or on total first year compensation (if you’re not so lucky), generally paid in three parts on a retained basis.

What I am definitely not referring to are those recruitment agencies who generate most of their revenue through fees on a contingency basis but sometimes get lucky by persuading their client to retain them on a relatively senior recruitment exercise but do then not go above and beyond their usual processes of desperately trawling LinkedIn and other online databases, and then when they don’t deliver realise why they don’t get retained work on a more regular basis.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, I’ll go on…

Following a client meeting the other day in which the Head of Talent for this particular bank was making her views known around not one, but two, failed retained searches, which had been worked on by one of the more ‘well known’ names in the search world, I got to thinking about the last positive conversation about a traditional search provider I had and I couldn’t think of one. Not one.

What those I speak to are frustrated with generally isn’t in fact the ability of traditional search providers to fill a hiring need necessarily but rather the lack of anything remotely ‘value add’ to justify the fees being charged. I’ve been a client myself of these types of business in the past and it never ceased to amaze me that I was never given anything other than a candidate long list and short list with supporting notes around the candidate’s fit for the role I was hiring into.

Given the number of conversations that are held with key talent in the market when a search is carried out (or should be), if the consultant is asking the right sorts of questions, there will be an inordinate amount of information that comes through those conversations that could be of serious use to you, the paying client.

Think about it, your Search Consultant is talking to a Managing Director of a Business Unit in one of your competitors about a potential opportunity with your company. Apart from the potential career move they could be obtaining information regarding strategy, change programmes underway (and the thinking behind them), recent transformation efforts – what worked, what didn’t, and why – market perceptions, perceptions of your brand – both as a business and a potential employer – recommendations and referrals on to the best talent within their network, the list goes on…

All of this is exactly the type of insight that can give organisations a real competitive edge. It might mean the Search Consultant needs to spend some more time than they normally would just drilling the candidate around their appetite for career move and their suitability for the role you’re hiring for but so what? You’re already paying them a significant fee. Demand more.

Unfortunately, the Executive Search industry is one that has in actual fact changed very little over the decades. One of the big global players introduced a cost model in the 1960s that has pretty much stayed the same. Have you ever wanted to hire more than one candidate from a shortlist and been told by your search consultant that you would need to pay another placement fee? I’ve never understood how that can be justified. The Search Consultant hasn’t been asked to invest any more time, the additional candidate has come through the process you have already paid for.

Frustrations around lack of value add and often unjustified fees  are just some of the reasons that more and more businesses have, over recent years, explored the opportunity of bringing exec level hiring in house and it’s a pattern that we are seeing more and more of, admittedly with varying levels of success. Yet, the traditional Exec Search industry seems to not want to change to adapt to the demands of their customer. In what other industry does that happen? Again, I can’t think of one.


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