The Era of the Talent Advisor

This is an extract of an article originally published in Issue Six of Executive Talent magazine. Click here to read the full article.

The profession of executive search consulting spun out of management consulting in post-World War Two America. The pioneers of the profession, who had experience working at McKinsey and Booz Allen, heeded the words of Edwin G. Booz, who once said: “Often the best solution to a management problem is the right person.” As the likes of Sidney Boyden, Gardner W. Heidrick, John E. Struggles and Spencer Stuart created their own executive search firms, they retained the skills and style of working that they had learned in their management consulting days: credibility, reliability, responsibility and discretion. Their desire was to help clients execute their business strategy by identifying the right people to deliver. These early executive search consultants were renowned for their understanding of what their clients’ needs were, and were seen as a key for breaking up the “old-boys network” that had come to dominate hiring for management positions.

Now, almost 60 years later, executive search is an $11 billion profession globally and is recognized by clients around the world as the most effective way to identify and attract the best executive talent. But the profession is evolving, and in order to go forward, it is following the path of the profession’s forefathers by partnering with or adding leadership consultants. “We’re seeing a big shift in the market,” says R.J. Heckman, Vice Chairman, Leadership and Talent Consulting, Korn Ferry. “Not that long ago, many clients would choose to have their executive search and leadership assessment done by separate organizations…While finding and recruiting the right executives is critical, today’s companies also need someone to help with finding out more about their leaders for tomorrow.”

Considering executive search firms’ stature as executive talent experts, it is perhaps natural that they would evolve to include services like succession planning, executive assessment and cultural assessment. But, as Richard Metheny, leader of Witt/Kieffer’s Leadership Solutions Practice, explains, this diversifying of services is driven by client demand. “Every service we have – whether its succession planning, onboarding, executive retreats – has come about because our clients have requested it. This isn’t about bringing in more business to the firm; it is about meeting our clients’ needs.”

While the emphasis is still on solving clients’ issues with the strategic use of talent, by expanding their offering, executive search and leadership consulting firms can enhance the traditional value proposition of identifying and attracting the best executive talent. Aimee Williamson, Executive Director, Leadership & Succession – Australia at Russell Reynolds, says: “Increasingly our engagements are reflecting a deeper and more strategic advisory component, for example in long-term CEO succession, large development programs and at business turning points like industry disruption and M&A. Leadership assessment today has taken on a life of its own distinct from periodic searches. We find ourselves embedded as business partners of our clients – the regularity of our conversations might surprise some.”

Bolstering the profession with leadership consultants

But while leadership advisory services and executive search may occupy the same space in terms of the level of seniority that they are concerned with, they are two distinct and specialist professions. Krista Walochik, President of Talengo, says: “It is crucial to identify service experts and bring them into your firm. It can change your market approach and increase your client loyalty.”

Indeed, executive search firms have bolstered their ranks with leadership consulting experts from management consulting firms, HR consultancies and independent leadership consulting firms to ensure that they have experts in everything from psychology to organizational development. Many of the individuals quoted in this edition of Executive Talent have had long careers in other professional services firms before joining an executive search firm, either to lead or enhance a growing leadership consulting division.

For Eva Carloni, CEO and Founder of TRUST Partners, the evolution worked the other way around. “We started out as a leadership advisory business and had created a lot of knowledge from doing so,” she says. “We knew our clients, we knew their culture, and that made it easier for us to think about finding the right executives. We haven’t found it at all difficult to align the two services.”

This example demonstrates the symbiotic relationship that can be created between executive search and leadership consulting – ultimately elevating the results in both fields, as Russell Reynolds’ Williamson explains: “Companies are seeking a greater level of depth and insight about candidates, with the objective of minimizing risk, and maximizing return when making critical talent decisions – whether that be hiring, succession planning or talent development.” 

This is an extract of an article originally published in Issue Six of Executive Talent magazine. Click here to read the full article.