Andy Shapiro, CEO of executive search software provider The Cluen Corporation, sat down with AESC’s Chief Marketing Officer, Joe Chappell, to share insights on how Cluen’s clients are managing technology, relationship management and business development during the COVID era.
JOE CHAPPELL: Andy, thank you for speaking with us. Cluen is a long-standing partner of AESC, spanning two decades. In your words, how do you feel the missions of both AESC and Cluen align?
ANDY SHAPIRO: One of the things that we love about our partnership with AESC is, like AESC, we’re so focused on advancing the needs of the retained executive search industry. Cluen is hyper-focused on having the best tools and technologies for retained executive search. And it is really rare to find a similar organization dedicated just to executive search. There are plenty of organizations in the world that focus on recruiting, but that’s very different from what executive search is all about. So we’ve been able to prove our dedication to executive search over this time span, not only in our continued partnership with AESC but also in our actions for our clients and for the industry. We’ve really been able to prove our focus here, just as AESC has.
CHAPPELL: Right. Agree that a rigorous dedication to executive search unites us. Thank you for that. So, it goes without saying, but 2020 has been a challenging year keeping us all on our toes. What are some of the best ways from your perspective that an organization can stay agile during these challenging times?
SHAPIRO: It has a lot to do with open-mindedness. In the software development world, to keep innovating, we always say that there are no ‘sacred cows’. Things that you may have been known for in business over time, you need to be ready to rethink. So, whether it’s a great process, a great feature, or whatever you have in your business, you can’t be agile unless you’re ready to rethink everything. Organizations that have embraced change in that way are able to adapt.
CHAPPELL: And are you seeing your clients adapting fairly quickly during this time? What does that look like for them?
SHAPIRO: It’s like any evolution—some species adapt and survive and some don’t. Mostly we’ve been thankful that our clients are doing okay. And now that we’re deeper into the pandemic, executive search seems to be doing fine at the moment. So talk to me in six months, but most of the market is boutique search and most firms that we work with are smart and dedicated to be doing Search at this moment and into the future. They’re forward-thinking. A lot of the current focus is on adapting to change and prioritizing business development—where are the fertile markets, where are you going to go next? That will bring growth.
CHAPPELL: Yes, the executive search profession is resilient. What do you see your clients prioritizing at the moment? SHAPIRO: Well, I think it’s about change and business pipeline. In terms of change, it’s making sure that they’re able to work flexibly from everywhere and have the right technology to be efficient. And certain technologies we’ve innovated over the past year or so include things like new web technologies for interacting with clients. That’s a technology that can make you more efficient, but it’s also a way to advance business development, to enable you to be in front of new clients in a pitch and talk about how advanced your Search firm is, how transparent and innovative you are.
And if you’re out there looking to win new business, every little piece helps. Some of our clients are very much prioritizing that business development aspect from a whole new focus. They may have focused on certain sectors in the past that were performing okay then, but in these COVID times, they may have to focus on other sectors that are stronger today. There may be a hundred organizations they need to be in front of in this sector that they haven’t focused on before. How do they develop that new business and win it? So those are some of the technology tools that we’re enhancing just this year. Things like client web interaction, automated email nurturing—we understand that most executive search professionals have thousands of relationships, many more relationships than they can possibly maintain with phone calls and meetings alone. They’re going to still have that face-to-face relationship with their key contacts using Zoom or other video conferencing tools. But there’s still going to be thousands of others who won’t have time to meet. So, how do we use technology to let them nurture those relationships?
CHAPPELL: Yes, exactly. So, in terms of business development, it is based on relationships and it’s also based on trust. In what ways are you seeing that relationship management has changed for your clients over the past few months?
SHAPIRO: In many ways, it depends on the sector. If you have a trusted client, difficult times bring an opportunity to be flexible— to accommodate exceptional needs that clients might have in an exceptional time. So it’s certainly something that we’ve been doing with our clients—being flexible and accommodating exceptional needs. Our clients are doing the same with their clients. And clients remember this, right. We’re not here for short-term relationships just like any search firm is not with their customers. If you do something extraordinary for your client, they’ll remember it.
CHAPPELL: Right. And what do you see on the horizon in terms of technology? Are there technologies that executive search firms should be planning for now?
SHAPIRO: Well, you know, we’ve been talking for years about artificial intelligence and how that saves time and can bring new answers for parts of the Search process, and new productivity. So that’s going to be on the immediate horizon. Cluen is doing more and more, incorporating AI tools and data partnerships. By the time of publication, we’ll have announced our new partnership with BoardEx. Cluen is pursuing many data integration partnerships where we align with data providers to help our clients incorporate data sources more directly into their databases.
And by the way, Joe, as a result of our partnership with AESC, we were introduced to BoardEx, a great example of how our partnership is a success for us, but also provides mutual value to other AESC partners, members and clients, all operating in a shared ecosystem.
CHAPPELL: Right, an entire ecosystem. That’s a great word for the wider AESC community. BoardEx is of course an official AESC partner as well. That’s fantastic. We look forward to hearing more about that partnership. So, you help your clients manage their relationships, but of course, you’re also helping them manage their people data. How do you help your clients get it right and avoid common mistakes?
SHAPIRO: Well, forget about mistakes around compliance, which is a whole other thing. One of the most common executive search data management mistakes is over-engineering. Cluen has worked with literally thousands of executive search professionals. And it’s very tempting when thinking, ‘Oh, how are we going to manage this data,’ that we are going to set a plan from a managing data perspective. There are so many choices. There are so many things you can do, so it’s tempting to do more than you need. So, the pitfalls of executive search databases are frequently over-engineering and not keeping it simple. One of Cluen’s guiding principles for our clients and our product is to figure out what’s needed and how to defend what’s needed. You know, if someone says, I need it, why do you need it? How does it give you a return on investment? How does it increase productivity? And if there aren’t great answers to those questions, then you’re better off keeping it simple, saving the time and having one less thing to manage and get right. Our systems are very flexible, so clients can choose complexity in the areas that really call for it—but that can be dangerous. The key— keep it simple.
CHAPPELL: Makes sense. Help them understand what they need versus what they thought they needed.
A lot of the current focus is on adapting to change and prioritizing business development—where are the fertile markets, where are you going to go next? That will bring growth.
SHAPIRO: With any tool, let’s use Microsoft Excel as an example, you go in and say, ‘Oh, they’re 15,000 functions of this tool, let me decide how my team is going to use it by looking at each one to decide whether I like it or not.’ No, it’s not the right approach. The right approach is work with an expert. An expert who’s done it many times and align it with your business need so that you can run your business smarter.
CHAPPELL: Right, of course. Absolutely. As you know, we do an annual survey of AESC members to gauge what are trends in our profession? And repeatedly, time comes up as the greatest challenge for Search professionals. So how are you helping your clients save time?
SHAPIRO: I think the answer there is rules-based automation. And here’s what I mean by that—in the past, we would focus on saving time from administrative stuff, productivity. And that is, ‘Oh, I do this task. It takes 10 clicks. I can make it two clicks. I can make it one click.’ Our entire current generation of technology is focused on zero effort, 100% automation based on preset rules. So, if you can decide how you want it done, you never have to think about it again. In terms of capturing emails related to a client or a candidate, zero effort, 100% automation, you set the rules. You never think about it again. Client status reports—big time saver. We spent years reducing it less and less to zero. You set the rules. How quickly can you get those insights about who used to work at a certain company—that used to be a reporting exercise. Now it’s just there. The system pushes it to you. And that’s the kind of paradigm we’re in now. How many of those tasks related to a classic retained search process can we bring to full automation, but based on rules. So it’s not like Cluen tells you how you should do it. You set the rules and it just happens.
CHAPPELL: And that’s helping everyone involved in the search process from researcher to consultant, et cetera. SHAPIRO: Right. And then they can choose how they want to better use their time. So it’s just giving the flexibility to step away from these time-intensive tasks.
CHAPPELL: And focus on better uses of their brainpower. What do you see as some ways that executive search firms can best position themselves for success post COVID?
SHAPIRO: I think it’s like any economic cycle that we’ve had in the past. I mean, it’s different, but similar in that having great technology, the best infrastructure possible, and everything else we’ve spoken about, like strong client relationships, a robust business development process, and pipeline, that is all key. Fill up the pipeline now, and after COVID, there will be things coming out of that pipeline. And importantly, staying agile— the ability to zig and zag if the world changes, which it’s proven that it does.
CHAPPELL: And it will again, certainly. Well, thank you. Any parting words of advice that we’ve not already touched on?
SHAPIRO: I would reemphasize that open-mindedness. Be ready to embrace change and spend some time to learn about things you might not know about. Even if you’re not ready to change infrastructure, talk to Cluen, talk to BoardEx, and talk to other providers in the space just to know what’s even happening out there. So if one day you need to change something, you’re aware of the possibilities.
Cluen has decades of recruitment database development and implementation experience spanning six continents. Our technology helps organizations nurture important relationships, track historical data, and win new business. Cluen's browser-based solution, Encore, is used by executive recruiters, legal recruiters, in-house talent acquisition teams, government entities, universities, and venture capital/private equity firms all over the world. Our experts are here to share their expertise in relationship-driven recruiting and data management, regardless of which software you use. Contact us today for more information or visit www.cluen.com.