From Behind the Scenes to the Front Lines
The primary role of an executive researcher is to create a search strategy and find a set of first-round candidates that meet the criteria set out by a client. It has always been hard, and it has always been important. But executive research is not immune to disruption and the pace of change. To meet the demands of an evolving role, researchers are developing new skills and adapting to new challenges. In the process, they are building rewarding careers and proving their value.
Jane Griffith, a 2008 alum of the AESC Certificate in Executive Research, began her career in executive research and is now a partner and National Diversity leader with Odgers Berndtson, Canada. “Ten, 15 years ago in Canada if you did executive research, you were just doing name generation research, digging and entering the information into the database, but never actually having the external call with candidates or potential candidates.” She says, “I started my career in pure name generation research. It wasn’t that far off from going to the library to look for things in indexes.”
Rachel Roche, founder and president of US-based Smart Search says, “It could not be more different now.”
Today’s executive researcher has a broader responsibility, is using advanced tools, and is creating sophisticated strategies.
According to Vishnu Nair, Head of Research, Ichor Leadership Search, New Zealand and a 2015 participant in the AESC Certificate in Executive Research, “A researcher certainly has the opportunity to transition to client-facing work. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve found that I’ve progressed beyond my original role description of just working at a desk and producing a report, to actually being part of client briefings, supporting the delivery of an engagement and working shoulder-to-shoulder with a consultant on delivering a search.”
Darryl Mills is Head of Research, Hattoneale, Sydney. She describes a researcher role that is client facing and in close partnership with the executive search consultant. “Often the researchers accompany the partner to take a detailed briefing from the client, so that everyone working on the assignment is clear on exactly the nature and scope of the role, the skills and any nuances required in terms of background, experience, skills or cultural fit of candidates.”
Regardless of the search firm, executive research has moved firmly out of the backroom and onto the Internet.
Griffith adds, “Today the definition of researcher can also include that initial screening telephone call, reviewing the resume and the dossier, and passing it onto a senior consultant or partner and determining if a candidate is applicable for the search.”
The expanding range of an executive researcher’s responsibility is largely dependent on the search firm. Nair explains, “There are some firms where there is a clear distinction between the consulting team and the research team. At Ichor, there is a greater degree of fluidity and overlap between the two areas. This ultimately means that the consultants get increased support from the researchers and the researchers in turn tend to be able to grow and broaden our perspective further by developing a nuanced understanding of what the client is looking for, by participating in key discussions about new engagements.”
Regardless of the search firm, executive research has moved firmly out of the backroom and onto the Internet. “Researchers can gather vast amounts of information about people online, and their research is becoming much more tactical and focused,” Griffith says. “Instead of reaching out to 120 odd people who may or may not be appropriate for a role, now with online tools researchers can search prospective candidates’ articles or publications, the boards on which they have served, and more. Researchers can be more strategic, and possibly find more relevant candidates in a shorter time period.”
Developing a curated list of candidates today takes a new kind of researcher, with new skills. Mills says, “Increasingly researchers are having to become multi-talented, with knowledge across a much broader range of industry sectors and job functions. Now, if it’s something like a Chief Customer Officer they need to be able to assess the candidate’s capabilities across marketing, customer service, operations, and digital, whereas in the past things have been much more linear and single-faceted.”
Researchers are (digitally) savvy
Shattering the antiquated perception of the backroom team that studied library science, executive researchers (and librarians) are trending younger, with better digital skills and often a greater grasp than partners have of the very technology that clients are seeking to bring into their organizations. Executive researchers must be able to leverage online tools, understand social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and applications that track the activity and influence of prospective candidates.
In addition, digitally savvy researchers know how to communicate with candidates who prefer mobile communication technology to email: apps like WhatsApp, and WeChat. Especially in emerging economies, the tools for sourcing are changing fast and researchers need to stay updated.
Researchers are resourceful
In addition to deploying the latest technologies to identify and communicate with candidates, sometimes researchers have to get creative. Griffith explains, “What happens when there are individuals who aren’t on social media platforms? When the request is ‘get a balanced slate of candidates’ our response cannot be ‘we can’t find any qualified …’ I think 15 years ago we could have said ‘we can’t find any qualified women for that role’ but that doesn’t carry any water anymore. Our job is to find those people.”
15 years ago we could have said ‘we can’t find any qualified women for that role’ but that doesn’t carry any water anymore. Our job is to find those people.
There are also executives who have sparsely populated profiles. Finding hard-to-identify candidates or details about more private executives may require some digging. According to Nair, “You can find various facts and figures on who they are, but the canny researcher will spend the time and the effort to obtain information from sources that are not necessarily always on hand.”
“That is what leads to research intelligence: the ability to actively ‘mine’ one’s networks to obtain additional information in the course of a potential search,” he says.
For example, Nair says, “If we are leading a search for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, we would expect to build our research map through conversations with a range of individuals associated with the bank, apart from our core client—this could include former Governors, Board Chairs, Directors as well as key stakeholders including members of the Bank’s current senior leadership team, and so forth.”
“Engaging in these discussions provides additional depth, richness and context to the research we conduct for a particular appointment. Triangulating the information that emerges from these various discussions, allows us to build an accessible set of options for approach, that we can then discuss with our client.”
The resourcefulness that researchers leverage ultimately populates the firm’s proprietary database, which remains an essential resource. Roche says, “If there’s one place researchers can turn, it is their internal database, and they are the guardians of that data; they make sure it’s accurate, up to date and robust, and they are proud of it.”
Researchers are Curious
For Nair, the researcher’s role “is ultimately to uncover intelligence on an organization or a candidate.” Therefore, “to be a successful researcher you have to have an innate sense of curiosity not just about the work or the engagement, but more generally about the world at large. The ability to go above and beyond will only be accelerated if this person genuinely seeks to understand what it is that they’re involved in.”
Add to curiosity the ability to be imaginative. Nair encourages researchers to think outside their roles and try to understand the client perspective, and “to think more broadly, which will inform where you go to look to find the right person.”
Roche adds, “Part of our role as executive recruiters is to certainly look for in-the-box candidates, but also to help clients stretch and look for out-of-the-box candidates. That requires imagination, reflection, and thinking differently.”
AESC Certificate in Executive Research
LEVEL 1 - THE FOUNDATION OF EXECUTIVE RESEARCH: Self-paced learning through an online set of modules focused on the foundation of executive research.
LEVEL 2 - THE EXPERT FORUMS: A series of 4 small group, 90 minute webinars that include role playing and situational decision making.
CERTIFICATION EXAM: Candidates for certification demonstrate content mastery through role-play scenarios in front of an examiner.
Since AESC launched the Certificate in Executive Research, Roche has worked with hundreds of participants. “People tell me all the time ‘I hate role playing,’ and then when we ask participants at the end what was the most important part of this program for you, they say ‘the role playing.’
In addition to the skills already identified, the executive researcher must have a deep understanding of and commitment to ethics.
The entirety of the AESC Code of Professional Practice is important to executive researchers in AESC Member firms, with integrity at the very foundation of any role within the practice of executive search. Roche believes “researchers want to be on the right side of ethical issues and questions. They take their responsibility very seriously.”
The ethical situations that most frequently affect executive researchers in their day to day work are related to confidentiality and objectivity.
Imagine an executive researcher reaching out to a referral source, who recommends someone already on the researcher’s list. Even though rapport is important, the researcher can’t confirm that someone has already expressed her willingness to be considered. Nor can the researcher be cajoled to confirm the suspicions of a referral source or candidate who thinks he knows the identity of the client.
For example, Roche says, “We answer these questions from researchers all the time. How would I handle it if someone tried to guess the name of my client and kept pestering me about it. “Is your client Starbucks? Is it Caffe Nero? I know it’s a coffee company, just tell me which is it?” We can’t. Researchers want to understand where the guardrails are. They care deeply about the quality of their work and the quality of their ethics.”
Researchers can’t let their guard down because the consequences of any breach of confidentiality can have catastrophic repercussions for a client’s business or a candidate’s career.
As creators of the first list, objectivity is also central to the executive researcher’s ethical standards. For example, even clients who seek to diversify their organizations, in some instances, cannot demand a short list of only under-represented candidates. “What if your client has given you a mandate that they only want to hire women? That’s illegal in Canada, unless you have jurisdiction from the human rights tribunal board for a designated hire,” Griffith says.
And what about candidates who publicly broadcast positions or attitudes that are perceived by a researcher as deeply offensive or polarizing, but have little to do with the search assignment? For example, Griffith says, “Whether it’s liking posts that are pro-feminist or Islamophobic, through to a candidate’s college postings of fraternity parties or graduations where there’s mass consumption of alcohol, how does a researcher take that information and use that to assess a candidate? That becomes a very slippery slope.”
Mills says, “One of the main areas that impacts ethics is the question of bias. Clients often have a picture in their mind of the ideal candidate and I think part of the search firm’s role, and the researcher is part of that, is to try and educate clients and obviously in a diplomatic manner, sometimes clients that it’s the skill set and experience we are looking for that can come from a range of different backgrounds or a range of different experiences regardless of gender, regardless of their age, regardless of their background.”
“Rusing,” or using deception to gain access to people and information, is an unethical remnant of the early years of search before AESC’s rigorous Code of Professional Practice. And according to Roche, “some search practitioners still do it.”
For example, a researcher might call a target company and use an invented persona to try to convince the PA to disclose information. Roche explains, “Similarly, researchers, associates and even consultants may reach out to a prospective candidate, encounter a PA and, when asked by the PA who is calling, from what firm, and the nature of the call, respond with a rusing story. Examples: ‘It’s just a personal call;’ ‘I met your boss at a conference,’ etc.”
Roche adds, “Rusing may produce a ‘hidden’ executive’s name or a callback from a prospect, but in the end, rusing undermines the whole notion of relationship-building, trust with all of our constituents, and the reputation of our profession.”
“The remedy becomes finding truthful ways to gather the information or connect with a candidate without lying. And it’s very doable. All of us need to remember that retained search is a legitimate business activity and we don’t have to approach people from a defensive viewpoint. Contacting candidates and sources can be an upfront activity if it is done with respect for the confidentiality of our prospects,” she says.
First, according to Roche, “Clients want the best of the best and they want it yesterday.” She says, “The good news is we have access to technology which is better and easier and more comprehensive than looking at books in the library.”
At an unrelenting pace, clients are searching for executives to fill roles that didn’t exist a few years ago, sometimes in entire industries that didn’t exist. And even a longstanding function in a legacy business has been transformed.
The challenge for researchers is identifying individuals with the combination of skills and experience required to fill roles where there is little depth of experience in the market.
For example, Mills says, “Organizations are just newly creating these roles in response to how industries are changing, so now we have Chief Digital Officer roles, we have Chief Customer Officer roles, and sometimes under a Chief Customer Officer role you can have quite diverse functions such as marketing operations, customer service, digital, so again you’re looking for a depth of talent in the market in roles that are relatively new.”
“Clients are looking for a depth of skills and experience across a range of areas in one person which haven’t been combined before. That requires extra creativity of thought and analysis on behalf of the researcher to find people who have got that mix of skills, often throughout their career rather than in one particular role,” she says.
Where does that pressure come from? For Mills, “Organizations are being disrupted from their traditional ways of operating and thinking, and the pressure that they are under to make significant changes to their organizations, to keep them relevant and successful in a changing world, means that they put that pressure onto the search firm.”
For executive researchers involved in reaching out to prospective candidates, a serious challenge is getting those candidates to engage. Roche provides an instructive anecdote. “I was talking to a CHRO about executive recruiters and trying to understand how they perceive us. He said ‘in the last 30 days I have received outreach from executive search firms 800 times.’ I asked him “What do you do with all of that?’ He said ‘I ignore them all.’”
Gaining access to qualified candidates is frequently a researcher’s responsibility. “It means that researchers have to be really creative, persistent and very focused on what’s the center of the bullseye. Those are the people we absolutely must talk to,” Roche says.
How we engage someone who is not looking currently is a big reason why our client’s partner with us. If it was as easy as just sending an email, they’d do it themselves.
How does a good researcher break through and make an executive interested in engaging in a conversation? Jay Andre, Senior Director at Kincannon & Reed says, “at Kincannon & Reed we are still firm believers that the phone and one-on-one voice communication is still the best way to engage a candidate, but understanding the realities of the current world, we use multiple channels to try and connect and engage someone. How we engage someone who is not looking currently is a big reason why our client’s partner with us. If it was as easy as just sending an email, they’d do it themselves.”
Data privacy and security is a serious concern shared by individuals, organizations and governments, and even more so now with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). With the highly confidential nature of executive search, new technology puts increasingly sensitive information at heightened risk.
Griffith recalls when firms sent paper reports to clients. “Now we have a secure online portal that all of our clients get access to that they can go in and look at the resumes of the candidates that we’re reviewing. So it’s faster and there’s no material being sent, courier charges, all those pieces are gone.”
She adds, “And then there’s everything that comes with it: the potential breaches because of malware, who’s accessing the information, who’s got the ability to print it, so the potential for breaches is much higher than it was when the filing cabinet got locked at night and you had to sign out a file.”
Executive researchers within AESC Member firms—as are all AESC Members—are guided by the rigorous AESC Best Practices for Data Protection. These strict guidelines provide both clients and candidates safeguards related to how their data is obtained, processed, stored, transferred and retained, as well as guidance regarding disclosure and electronic communication.
“If you don’t have a robust list of people to reach out to, you are less likely to have a successful search,” Griffith explains. “Research is a priority to a successful search and I don’t think we should overlook how important their role really is. At the end of the day, we are hired to find candidates. Who finds us the candidates? The researchers. There’s a direct line of correlation between the quality of work that they do and the successful search.”
Acknowledging the value a researcher’s depth of expertise can bring to an engagement, Nair says that for a researcher “engaging directly with the client can be incredibly powerful. As there is a high degree of knowledge exchange, particularly in client delivery meetings, the researcher’s viewpoint can be invaluable in being able to nuance those conversations even more, alongside a consultant’s.”
Mills adds, “That’s when it works best—when a researcher is able to work with a partner and anyone else in the business who is working on the search, very much as an equal member on the team.”
Roche works as a trainer for executive search practitioners, and says, “I am more impressed than ever by the executive researchers I interact with. I think they are driven by the thrill of the hunt, the ability to use their technology capabilities coupled with creative strategies to solve a problem. I am impressed by their dedication, laughing through the stress, making things happen.”
“Without them, searches don’t get done.”