The Value in Search

13 May 2021

Why would any business engage an Executive Search firm?

Surely there is plenty of information just waiting to be looked up on the internet? Finding the ideal person for a senior appointment should simply be a matter of entering the right keywords into Google and then calling them - shouldn’t it?

The internet has disrupted many things, and done so with such rapidity and to such an extent, that it is only reasonable to ask why Executive Search seems to have been immune. In truth, it hasn’t. If anything, it has changed more fundamentally in the last ten years - and beyond all recognition over the last 25 - than any of the other professional services.

In the 1990s, before the internet (yes, I was in Search then) clients delighted at the detailed sector analysis, market intelligence and candidate profiles that the Researchers of Executive Search firms collated in the initial stages of every Search. A veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of their world would be compiled as part of our work and land with a thud on the desks of clients eager to know more about their competitors, to be pored over and marvelled at. However, it was the discussions with the Search Consultant that defined the direction of the Search, to focus on those who would be the best fit and bring the greatest experience to the client’s boardroom. Numerous discrete telephone calls, several confidential discussions and often some considerable time later the Search Consultant would recommend a shortlist of just a handful of candidates to the client, and submit reports highlighting issues to cover at interview.

But now, all that data, all those profiles, all that market intelligence, all analysed in every possible way on a plethora of webpages is all free. Accept a few cookies onto your PC and you will know in mere seconds what any diligent Researcher at a reputable Search firm would have previously taken weeks to garner from telephone calls, professional journals, newspaper articles, public records, trade publications, conference papers and confidential references. So, why have Executive Search firms not just winked out of existence? How do they justify their fees, which are just as much as they ever were?

Here's why:

  • Good information is still a vital foundation, of course
  • Search is not (and never was) just about the research process
  • The real value of Search is in the consulting

A database cannot ask penetrating questions of a client, cannot challenge misplaced assumptions, nor can it help inform and shape the precise requirements of a client’s need. Later in the process, it cannot make a compelling case to a potential candidate. An algorithm cannot listen carefully and note the nuanced responses, inner hopes and career aspirations of those approached. It certainly could not confidentially and professionally consider and advise on whether there is likely to be a meeting of minds between a candidate and a client. It would be very unlikely to suggest innovative and ‘different’ options. Because, people are not just keywords and data points.

It is noteworthy that consulting-led Search firms are in rising demand, despite all that free access to online data. Interestingly, the stereotypical ‘Headhunters’ with their ‘little black book’ of names and numbers of ‘contacts’ in any given marketplace are noticeably on the wane.

The value of an Executive Search firm is no longer simply ‘who we know’ in our network, but in ‘how we work’ as trusted advisors.

Andrew Guy
Partner, UK


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