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When Sally Stetson and I started our firm 20 years ago we were full of excitement, ambition and more than a little trepidation about the path ahead.  The saying, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know” certainly applied to us, but we were convinced that a highly consultative, responsive approach to executive search – which included a major focus on assessing the cultural fit of candidates – would be a success.  I think it is fair to say that the past 20 years have shown that our belief was correct, and we believe it is even more true today.

When you deliver professional services for a living, there are some things that are always going to be true:

  • The quality of the people you employ will determine the quality of the work you do for clients – which will directly define your reputation in the marketplace.
  • There is a constant, unrelenting drift toward the commoditization of professional services. As a result, one must always be adding value to service offerings to differentiate from the rest of the pack.

The other truism in retained executive search is that someone is always predicting that you are about to go out of business.

In the late 1990s, as the Internet was on the rise, there was much discussion about whether executive search firms would become obsolete.  We didn’t.  In the ensuing years, most of our clients created sophisticated internal recruitment functions so they could recruit talent without having to pay firms like ours to do it for them.  Again, our demise was predicted but never materialized.

Today, we hear how social media and big data will kill us.  After all, who needs an executive search firm when you can just buy some LinkedIn licenses and do your own recruiting?

Recently our global industry association, the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), reported the results of a major survey of 170 companies around the world that use executive search services.  They presented these clients with a series of situations associated with the need to fill an executive position and asked them in which cases they would choose a retained search firm – their own internal recruitment function, an external Recruitment Process Outsourcer (RPO) or a contingency search firm.

In eight out of nine situations, companies chose retained executive search as the most effective tool to fill their talent need, as illustrated by this graphic.

This graphic tells us that retained executive search firms are favored when the search requires the highest amount of judgement, sophistication, candidate assessment and discretion.  Or an extensive personal network in an industry or profession.  Or the ability to source diverse pools of candidates.

Although our firm uses the newest, most advanced tools and technology to enable our work, we view these tools as “table stakes” rather than differentiators.

What differentiates us is that we can convince people who are perfectly happy in their successful careers to consider a new opportunity.  We can uncover their motivations and dreams and engage them.  We can gain a sophisticated understanding of their leadership assets and liabilities and figure out if they will be happy in the workplace culture created by our client.  We can uncover their reputation in their field and in the community.  We can earn the trust of executives in highly visible roles and help them decide if it is time to make a move without putting their current position at risk.

The list of what we can do goes on and on, but the point is simple – the value we bring to our clients is far more dependent on art than science.  It takes intuition, years of experience, integrity, collaboration and a host of other elements to find, attract, place and retain the best available talent for our clients.

So maybe it isn’t a surprise that the $5.5 billion industry we joined in 1996 is now a $12.4 billion industry – with continued growth predicted into the future.

I’m guessing the next threat to our existence will be the rise of robots in the workplace.

It’s always something.

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