Search firms serve more markets than ever and offer a diversity of services
In our last issue of Executive Talent, we looked at the birth of the executive search profession in the United States. In this issue, as part of AESC’s 60th anniversary series, we look at how the profession has expanded and evolved around the world.
The global economic expansion post WWII led to tremendous growth in the retained search profession, beginning in North America and quickly moving to Europe, South Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia as business thrived, global markets opened, and the demand for executive leadership outpaced the ability for organizations to develop that talent in-house.
“In Latin America, the first real search firm was established in Argentina, but because of the economic situation it was very difficult to survive there.” Luiz Carlos de Queiroz Cabrera is a Founding Partner of Panelli Motta Cabrera, an executive search pioneer in Brazil. “At the time that we established our company in May, 1975, the Brazilian market had never heard of the concept of executive search. And as pioneers we have had the support of the multinational companies that were established in Brazil, but we had to teach the Brazilian companies about the benefits of the new service.”
Like Brazil, in many markets the concept of executive search traveled abroad with the burgeoning multinational companies that were making investments and using every tool at their disposal to hire strong leaders, including retained executive search.
Stephen Bampfylde is co-founder and chairman of Saxton Bampfylde in the UK. He explains, “In the late 1980s London probably became the most competitive search market in Europe, because of what was called ‘the big bang’ in those days: financial deregulation, the growth of a whole range of American investment banks coming into Europe, which led to a proliferation of American firms and Asian firms seeing the UK as an entry point to continental Europe.”
Similarly, with foreign direct investment came an increasing demand for experienced executive leadership in Ireland. “Ireland is a small, open economy, and the Irish government has successfully championed efforts to attract foreign direct investment into the country,” Ruth Curran, managing partner at MERC Partners | Spencer Stuart, Ireland says. “Part of the reason why our founders established MERC nearly 40 years ago was that as foreign corporations established businesses here, there was an opportunity to help build out their leadership teams, especially as Irish expatriates moved back. For example, they helped many US corporations establish their businesses here by finding the right talent.”
Curran adds, “Our founders held the very firm belief that if you have the right people around you, it was possible to do anything.”
“Our founders held the very firm belief that if you have the right people around you, it was possible to do anything.”
Retained executive search grew in Hong Kong originally with the multinational corporations who carried the practice, and their search firms, with them to Asia. For example, Harry O’Neill, talent management director for Asia Pacific and the Middle East at Heidrick & Struggles says, “In the 1990s, a lot of the business that the established, worldwide firms were doing in Hong Kong was looking after the Asian assignments for clients they already worked with in other parts of the world, rather than working with local clients.” He says the concept of the retainer was not readily accepted by clients, who often held the view: “’I’ll pay you when you hire somebody and I’ll be happy to pay you well, but I’m not going to give you anything up front,’ and it was hard to get past that.” How does one get past that? “You got past it by distinguishing yourself with quality work and the reputation that you had. And we did build a retained search industry.”
Dinesh Mirchandani, Managing Partner for India at Boyden, tells a very different story of how his father, a founding director in charge of marketing in a small-scale manufacturing company, introduced the executive search profession to India. The inspiration came from a visit in 1976 with a friend in Boston, who at that time looked after the search function at Peat Marwick (now KPMG). One afternoon he gave him a detailed presentation on this new and better way of sourcing senior talent. Intrigued by this, Gulab Mirchandani realized that there was no such service in India. After studying the feasibility of this new profession for three years, he started a search firm, Tristar Consultants, in 1979.
Mirchandani says,“ At that time we lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment in downtown Bombay (now Mumbai). So he converted a room into a functioning office and he had my mom as his secretary and our dog as the receptionist. And he got started. Mirchandani describes his father “evangelizing” search. “He’d meet with hiring managers and say ‘you know, you put that ad in the paper four weeks ago for a general manager, did you find him?’ and they’d say to him ‘you know, it’s good you asked...'” And so Gulab Mirchandani pioneered the search industry in India, with tenacity and passion, one client at a time. “It’s really one of those great stories, he didn’t know he was founding an industry, he was only trying to make ends meet, day by day. In 1987 he was ‘discovered’ by Boyden, there was an instant connection, and he brought Boyden to India. As a result, Boyden was the first global executive search firm to enter India, and also founded the profession here, 40 years ago.”
Global business and the executive profile were evolving, and the search profession along with it. Catherine Andersen serves on the APAC & Middle East Council of AESC and is a partner with Omera Partners. She says, “When I first started in search more than two decades ago, a lot of the searches we did in Asia were for expats. First, you had to attract them to the region and second, they were very expensive because it usually involved moving a family and paying all the schooling, housing, and so on. Over time, the business turned toward recruiting more local people who had the expertise required to work in global companies.”
Then, she says, things changed again. “With the emergence of China and India as global powerhouses, the focus shifted to identifying people who could bridge the gap between the very different business styles you had in each of those countries and the international companies.”
As new entrants flooded the market, educating clients worldwide about the services retained executive search firms provide versus employment agencies or contingent recruiters became more critical, as did identifying quality standards in executive search. The top global firms were AESC members in increasingly established markets, but in time the need for the standards represented by AESC spread worldwide into new markets.
Carl Lovas is chairman and CEO of Odgers Berndtson in Canada. “AESC has had members in Canada since the very early days of search, and that membership can be a meaningful differentiator. I think we as an industry and as a firm advance that concept, and I think it’s to the benefit of the industry and to all the organizations competing in the industry. It is an additional validation of a firm’s mission and approach. The firm’s credentials and capabilities ultimately carry the day, however the fact that a firm is a member of AESC is an important credential.”
Ulrich Ackermann is Chair at TRANSEARCH. He describes how the establishment of AESC membership in Germany helped differentiate the retained executive search profession. “Some 35 years ago, there was a professional body called the BDU (Bundesverband Deutscher Unternehmensberater or Federation of German Management Consultants) which grouped all different kinds of consultants under one helm, including the contingent recruitment industry.” As the profession grew, the organizing bodies and members of the profession recognized the need to differentiate. Ackermann says, “There was a need to separate the more brokerage kind of staffing or recruiting from the executive search level, which led to the creation of another body, the VDESB (Vereinigung Deutscher Executive-Search-Berater or Association of German Executive Search Consultants), that included firms such as Korn Ferry, Heidrick Struggles, Russell Reynolds, and quite a number of smaller German firms.”
Over time, he says, “The members of the VDESB did not all adhere to the same ethos and quality standards, so in 2006-2007 we discussed in the AESC Global Board the idea to develop a separate AESC committee for Germany. It was so successful that we expanded it within two years to include Switzerland and Austria, thus representing the German speaking countries. As the AESC DACH committee, we were committed to only accepting member firms that would meet the quality standards of AESC. This helped raise the standards of executive search in the DACH region tremendously.”
The influx of self-proclaimed search consultants, according to Bampfylde, provided AESC members an opportunity to differentiate in the UK. “London became a highly competitive, exciting place, and it was great for standard-setting in the profession. If there are a lot of people around, it’s somehow easier to contrast the ones who are doing really good, quality searches from the ones who are just taking the money because it is an easy market and running.”
Advocates for AESC worked to help clients understand AESC’s high bar for membership. Bampfylde adds, “Seriously good HR people, seriously good executives wanted to find a way to identify the good and the reputable. At that point, in the 1990s, we started to get some traction with the HR community around the AESC standard and the importance of retained search, the importance of conduct. That was a pivotal time, in terms of growing the AESC presence in London and around Europe.”
Curran says of MERC Partners, “I think we certainly were one of the first if not the first in the Irish market to become a member of AESC.” Beyond the reputational value of membership, she says, “We always had a view that because we are in a small country, being part of an international association is important for business. It informs opinion, and you learn what is happening in other jurisdictions. It was never a question of ‘will we do it,’ it was ‘we must be part of a more global viewpoint. Now part of Spencer Stuart, one of the founding members of AESC, MERC Partners continues its quest to connect businesses in Ireland with international talent and vice versa.’”
The founders of AESC recognized early on that a crowded market with service providers of varying levels of quality and standards presented a threat to the reputation of the profession itself. O’Neill says, “In Hong Kong, we had a lot of very small operators of highly variable quality and therefore, unfortunately, it impacted the reputation of the industry at the time. Clients had a relatively poor perception of what people in the industry were doing. For me, that was one of the great appeals of AESC. I liked the fact that there was an industry body that represented the highest standards and a code of ethics, a code of conduct to which people could subscribe.”
O’Neill adds, “I and other search consultants who felt the same believed at the outset that AESC was likely to improve the overall quality and standard of work that was being done in the region and improve the reputation [of the profession].”
Brazil had a longer path to establishing an AESC membership. Cabrera describes the unruly talent acquisition market at the time. “In 1999, 2000, several recruitment organizations came to Brazil, and they entered a large market offering reduced fees, speed in the process, no quality at all, and no code of ethics at all. It went well for those firms from 2000 through 2008 or 2009, and then they were destroyed by their own success. All the young consultants that they trained in five, six, seven years, they decided to open their own companies. So, just to give you an example, in 2008, more than 25 new companies were created by consultants breaking off from those companies.”
Cabrera explains, “By 2009, we were able to establish an AESC membership in Brazil. We started with 10 firms at that time. And with consultants from the major firms like Korn Ferry, Spencer Stuart, and Russell Reynolds, we had a shared mission to visit all the new firms in the market, trying to convince them to apply for AESC membership and to sign the code of ethics. And this strategy, to bring them to AESC, made the market more ethical and shifted the market to a retained executive search orientation and away from contingent recruiting.”
Andersen recognizes that the constant challenge then and now, is resisting complacency and upholding standards. She says, “For every firm that we approach to join AESC or that may approach AESC to join, we just need to make sure we’re upholding the standards AESC represents.”
“For every firm that we approach to join AESC or that may approach AESC to join, we just need to make sure we’re upholding the standards AESC represents.”
Perspectives on the state of the profession
The demand for skilled leadership exceeds supply worldwide; demographic trends, skills gaps, digital transformation and the pace of change all compound the pressure on organizations to find and retain top talent. As a result, the retained executive search and leadership consulting profession is experiencing tremendous growth across markets. AESC estimates that global revenues for the executive search and leadership consulting profession, across all lines of business, has now climbed to $15.6B USD, with 12% growth from 2017 to 2018.
The growth is impressive, and each market has its own trends and trajectory.
Markets within the APAC region vary dramatically. Andersen recalls how the diversity within the region can be misunderstood. “I remember my early days in the profession, when my cohorts in the US or Europe would talk about Asia as if it was just this amorphous region. But the thing is, Asia is incredibly diverse. It’s made up of so many different countries, so many different religions, so many different languages, and customs and so on, so I think it’s a real challenge for the profession to actually adapt to that diversity. O’Neill observes that the concept of job placement has existed for a long time, but in the early days, “the concept of executive search as a defined, disciplined process, was not something that was well understood at the time.”
O’Neill says, “A lot of what we do is with multinationals who understand what we do and need what we do. The big Chinese companies that are globalizing have begun to use search more. And I single out China because it’s an incredibly important market.”
Simon Wan, CEO of Cornerstone International Group, and headquartered in Shanghai, extrapolates on the growth of executive search in China. “Most of our clients today are Western headquartered companies. They look for senior executives, game-changers, who have experience working in China (Chinese, returnees or expatriates) to lead the local operation. Cornerstone is local in China since 1995, so we have a long and vetted network of executives in China.
Wan identifies two major changes in the China market. “The multinational opportunity is no longer the only choice being favored by top talent, as many are also looking at joining Chinese firms as a career option; as Chinese firms are more aggressive to entice talent with equity and bonus options that the multinationals cannot match.” Also, “Chinese clients are expanding overseas and more Western managers who have China or Asia working experience are joining the international division of Chinese companies.”
The service offerings in China are expanding, as well. Wan explains, “Leadership development and executive coaching are in demand in China. Chinese executives want to succeed in the global market and they are open and ready to learn. In the past spending a few years in the West at university was adequate; this is no longer the case. These leaders are facing global challenges, their companies want them to be able to succeed in China but also in other markets.”
In addition, Wan comments, “Executive coaching is often a support to Western leaders transferred to China, or a Chinese executive hired by a Western firm. In both cases the issue is alignment of goals and strategies to achieve these goals. Leadership consulting and coaching will have a major part to play in a market like China. The local executives are bright with high potential, but can benefit from continued development in order to bring in their true value, as well as develop the next generation of executives.”
Executive search has expanded beyond the multinationals that introduced the profession to the region. According to Mirchandani, “The industry has grown strongly and systematically since then.” In India, in particular, he says, “After the economy opened to foreign investment in 1991, the top executive search firms were able to move in. Today, the industry is well-developed. We have a good mix of firms catering to a wide range of client needs across a range of sectors, specializations and price points. It’s grown very nicely on the back of the expanding Indian economy and the growing expectations of our clients. It’s so wonderful to be a part of such a great story.”
“Today, the industry is well-developed. We have a good mix of firms catering to a wide range of client needs across a range of sectors, specializations and price points.”
Outside of North America, the executive search profession flourished earliest in the United Kingdom. London’s position as an international financial center enhanced the UK’s attractiveness. From those beginnings, executive search spread to other European markets, especially in Brussels due to its role as the headquarters of the European Union, and to Germany. An AESC European Council was established in 1996.
The European market in search and leadership consulting is quite mature, with a healthy mix of major, full-service firms and specialized boutiques prepared to meet the needs of clients, with many firms expanding what services they offer in response to clients’ evolving needs.
Curran observes that retained executive search “is more widely understood as a business proposition compared to even 20 years ago; it has evolved, and it has grown. There is a vibrant, international market here, which attracts the best talent globally. All the business interests in Ireland have done an incredible job, not least the government and their agencies, to make sure that Ireland is an attractive place to draw global investment. That by its very nature attracts global professional services firms so the profession has become very competitive.”
The upside of that competition? “There is a lot of choice for clients as to who they want to work with, and for candidates which opportunities they want to pursue.”
Germany is the third largest single market after the United States and the UK. Ackermann identifies several factors contributing to the sustained demand for executive search. “On the one hand, it’s due to demographic factors: that the baby boomers are leaving the professional world and it is more and more challenging to find really good talent. Also, companies are growing not only in terms of incremental growth, they are adding new technologies, and expanding into new business areas so they need new talent, often from the outside.” In particular, he says, “What we see in Germany is a trend toward more searches on an international scale, where we try to attract global talent to Germany. We’re also exporting a lot of searches because our clients have global demands. For example, the demand for searches in Asia, especially China, has been significant over the last several years.”
Cabrera remarks that the profession in Latin America has undertaken a major effort “to educate the market.” For example, “Mexico has a very mature industry. And there was a wonderful job done by Korn Ferry there, similarly to what we did here in Brazil, to educate the market, to educate the Mexican companies how to use search.” He adds, “I think that they were the real pioneers there.”
How can we explain strong growth when the industry is so mature in the Americas? Lovas says, “Core executive search is mature, but one of the things that’s happening in our industry is that the service offerings are broadening. It’s a very key trend in the business. Search firms are doing a lot more than core search, at least the successful and growing firms are.” This is one of the main reasons the search business is growing at about 12% in the US and Canada.”
“Core executive search is mature, but one of the things that’s happening in our industry is that the service offerings are broadening.”
The MIDDLE EAST and AFRICA
“What you’re looking at in this part of the world is a range of markets that go from very highly developed to continuing to develop,” O’Neill explains. “The search industry is very well established in the Middle East, not just working with multinationals but working with indigenous companies all around the region. The good blend of both multinational and indigenous business speaks to a pretty healthy market.”
When talking about the Middle East, O’Neill explains, “we’re primarily talking about the Gulf and the big Gulf economies.”
“It has taken time to get there, but the business we now see in the Middle East is very similar to what you see in Hong Kong or Singapore,” O’Neill says. “Our Dubai office may actually be marginally bigger than our Hong Kong office at the moment, which wasn't always the case.” O’Neill attributes the success of the profession to “very professional search consultants who do an extremely good job and have built themselves a personal reputation—that is something that people are prepared to pay for.”
Magdy El Zein, Managing Partner, UAE, Boyden, reflects on how the Middle East market has evolved. “I have been involved with executive search and leadership development in the Middle East and Africa since 1999. When we started the business in the Middle East it was a struggle to explain the difference between contingent recruitment and executive search, but we have now come a long way from there. Clients are definitely more aware of the benefits of working with executive search firms.”
The profession has shifted along with the economic realities of the Middle East region. El Zein explains, “The business was on a real positive trajectory up to 2015, unfortunately the drop in oil price and the political challenges in major African economies resulted in a few challenges in 2016, 17 and 18. Although still challenging it feels like the business community has adjusted to the new norms and the situation is now stable.”
Today, she says, “The business has definitely moved to a more consultative approach and clients are looking for a more long-term collaborative relationship with their executive search partner.”
Annelize van Rensburg, Executive Search Director, Signium Africa comments on the executive search profession in South Africa. “We have been in the executive search industry in South Africa for 20 years or more,” she says. “The profession has contributed to changing the way people are identified and placed in South Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Rensburg’s colleague and co-director at Signium Africa, Auguste Coetzer, shares, “Because of the skills shortage in our region, competency requirements are elevated even at specialized skills level. In sub-Saharan Africa, there is an increased willingness to engage search firms not only for expat positions but also for those where a local citizen must be placed.”
Michelle Moss, Director of Assessments, Signium Africa, shares, “Client relationships have evolved from a transactional approach into a strategic partnership with a focus on talent management as a whole and not just talent acquisition. Again, due to the skills shortage in our region there is a strong need for growing talent internally, leadership development, succession planning, as well as individual and team coaching amongst others. Through leadership consulting services, we help our clients to address these needs and equip them for current and future challenges.”
Keeping it interesting: professional challenges worldwide
Among the earliest and possibly most sustained challenges to the retained executive search profession is helping clients understand the value of a retainer. Particularly in emerging markets, O’Neill says “Getting a retainer was a real challenge because there was a mindset: ‘Why would I give you a retainer? You haven’t given me anything yet.”
O’Neill explains that the retainer provides value to a client by offering exclusivity, “And clients are paying for deep expertise, not a transaction.”
With the rising competition for top talent, Wan observes, “At times, we need to guide the clients’ expectation of talent needs and perceptions of talent available, which is an important part of our service of being a trusted advisor. By meeting multiple qualified candidates, our clients begin to get a feel for the China talent market. The wakeup call for the client is often when they realize that the top talented candidates are not interested in what they have to offer. Our job is to represent our clients totally in the marketplace as their ambassador and promoter as the best candidates are normally not actively looking for jobs.”
“Our job is to represent our clients totally in the marketplace as their ambassador and promoter as the best candidates are normally not actively looking for jobs.”
Another challenge in a global, multicultural profession is understanding and accommodating different social norms. Andersen recalls an early experience having significant trouble reaching a prospective candidate in Japan. “I remember vividly thinking at the time ‘why is this taking so long?’ Then, when I went to Tokyo, I understood it very well. Unlike Australia where you can just ring someone, introduce yourself and have a conversation with them, in Japan our colleagues had to first send a note to a potential candidate introducing us and showing our credentials, then they would follow that up with an invitation to have a chat, and only then would they have a chat, so it was quite an involved process in comparison.”
“It’s similar in the Middle East where culturally, people don’t approach strangers in the same way they do in Western cultures,” Andersen adds.
Unlike in Japan, where there is a keen awareness about the scarcity of talent, Mirchandani observes that in India, there is the misperception that there is an abundance of available talent. He says, “When you have 1.3 billion people, somehow, subliminally, the value of human capital goes down. It’s human nature. If you come to India, the one thing that will amaze you is how many people there are. If you walk out on the street or go to a mall, you’re always surrounded by people; but very few are truly employable—quite a paradox. It is not an easy job to find that rare talent that will take a company to the next level and keep doing it year on year. In India, we have to earn our fee, several times over, with each search.”
“When it comes to recruiting engineers, global companies are looking at India for talent, and rightfully so. But where do Indian companies find gaps? The gaps are in terms of leadership; well-rounded leadership skills. So our client companies come to us to find leaders in areas where you don’t find them easily. For example many companies are setting up global R&D centers in India today. They don’t need experts, they need technical leaders with advanced people skills to head these R&D centers, and that is a rare commodity.”
In many regions, the challenge is bringing top talent home. Mosima Selekisho, Parter at Signium Africa, comments, “There are well qualified and experienced African executives who have studied abroad and are currently working abroad. Our job for African clients often involves finding these individuals and bringing them back to their home country.”
There are also regulatory challenges that the profession can help address in Canada. Lovas explains, “We have a greater portion of our industry in Canada that is public sector-driven. In terms of employment, I believe the numbers are around 30% of the US GNP and employment is public sector, so that would be federal, state, municipal government agencies and so on. In Canada that’s in the mid 40s and the public sector is under a lot of pressure to lead by example in representing their key stakeholders. So there is a lot more rigor around issues such as diversity on boards and pay equity for executives.”
Where the regulatory environment can present regional challenges, so can fiscal and political systems. Andersen warns of the particularly serious challenge of sovereign risk. “Where financial systems are quite different, you can imagine the challenge if you were trying to run a business or attract candidates from other jurisdictions. For example, where you’ve got a financial system that is not open as Australia is. Therefore, the movement of money to and from that country isn’t as straightforward as it would be elsewhere. Commercially, a search firm in that country (or a candidate considering a move) has to take that into account.”
As culture is an increasingly important factor in organizational success, working as a change agent within strong, longstanding, successful corporate cultures typical of family-owned businesses presents its own challenges. Consider the Mittelstand (small and medium-sized enterprises) sector in the German speaking world: a powerful economic force, predominantly family-owned or family-like, focused on the long-term with deeply embedded cultures. Ackermann describes companies in the German-speaking countries that “tend to share a long-term view and a community-based ethic; we have this coexistence between workers and the management and the owners of the company.” Ackermann explains how this uniquely Germanic coexistence is structured. “Our boards, the non-executive directors, consist of 50% of people from the workers, delegates from the workers, works councils, or unions, and 50% from the owners. It addresses the question of mutual interest. How can we safeguard the long-term welfare of the company, the people, the community? And that’s why the strategy here at those companies are more long-term oriented and cater to the needs of the staff and the workers, the community, and the environment.”
The Mittelstand comprises a massive part of the economy in the German speaking countries, and the executive search profession often faces the specific challenges of working with the family-owned businesses.
First, Ackermann says, “It’s a stronger challenge for the family-owned businesses because if the business has been run by family members, the families at the start find it difficult to trust external consultants with their company.”
In addition, he says, “You don’t only need the right candidate in terms of all the professional aspects, you need people who understand the culture of these family owned businesses, and this culture is completely different from a corporate culture. The family-owned businesses are usually a lot more mid to long-term oriented whereas corporations, due to the need for quarterly reporting, are more short-term oriented.” To put that difference into perspective, Ackermann explains, “The families own companies quite often for several hundred years. And it’s often that you have companies that are founded by families two or three hundred years back and are still owned by the families. And that means that there is a lot of heritage, a lot of specific DNA in that company that has to be saved over time. But by the same token, the organization has to face today's realities and challenges and needs to be shaped for tomorrow's needs.”
He says, “Just a few weeks ago, we were asked to find the successor of a 62 year old majority owner of a company, with the rest of the shares held by the family. We have to find that person who is humble enough to understand what this family is all about, and on the other hand, has the right vision to lead the company to the next generation.”
Similarly, Cabrera says the most important challenge that search firms face in Latin America “has to do with succession, how to help the family companies decide if the best successor is a family member or a professional outside the company.”
Aligned with succession in family-owned businesses, an additional challenge is professionalizing family-owned companies. Cabrera says, “A very important issue is how to modernize the family companies and help clients establish a new corporate governance, push shareholders to the board, and attract professionals to manage the companies. This transition is both a huge challenge for the search profession and a good opportunity for the large family-owned companies.” Cabrera describes the transition within family-owned businesses as “a very difficult moment, this movement of sending the shareholders to the board and bringing professionals to manage the companies.” He says, “There was a moment when most of our search firms helped a lot in advancing the corporate governance concept, and helping clients determine what good governance means for them, what kind of board they need, the roles of each of the board members, the role of committees to help the board, and the relationship between the board and the executives.”
Now, Cabrera says, “We are facing another big challenge, because for the first time in a transformation process, we don’t know the ending. So, we have industries that really don’t know the future. And they really don’t know if they will survive to the future. I remember we used to use that expression ‘fast moving goods’ to describe Unilever and Colgate. Now everything is a fast-consuming product or fast-moving product. So, this is another transition that I think is challenging for search consultants, especially the old-fashioned executive search consultants. It’s bringing into the arena new consultants that are much more familiar with the digital world. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the industry to help clients.”
On the horizon
Looking toward the future, AESC members envision the coming opportunities and obligations for the profession.
For Ackermann, search firms and consultants will find rising demands and challenges. “The clients are better educated, they have in many cases their own internal recruiting arms, and they only hand out the most difficult searches to the executive search consultants. They are demanding processes that are better structured, and a new level of global cooperation. Search firms have to meet the demands of those clients.”
Rensburg concludes: “Markets in sub-Saharan Africa are opening up and therefore there is an increased need for, and movement of, skilled individuals. It is important that both clients expanding into Africa and candidates seeking to work in Africa understand that Africa is not a country. It is a continent brought to life by many different countries and cultures, and a one-size-fits-all approach will almost certainly lead to failure.”
“The work we do in search is genuinely wonderful; we change the world every day, if we do it right.”
Cabrera reflects on the future as uncharted territory. “When the Brazilian companies started to discuss corporate governance, we could look at the so-called developed countries and see what was happening there. Today, when we are talking about the transition to the digital world, we look at China to see what’s happening, and they are doing the same things that companies are doing here. Moving forward, there is no reference point to show what we will see in the future. What’s happening is that nobody knows what will happen in the future, not even Silicon Valley-based Singularity University.”
Lovas theorizes on what the growth of the industry portends for the future. “I think that this industry is in for some very exciting times in the next five years, although everything moves so fast in our world, it takes a brave person to predict the future. But the industry last year grew by over 12%, which is an extraordinary number for an industry that is somewhat mature as a business.”
Putting that growth rate into perspective, Lovas says, “It’s not uncommon for a young technology organization or exciting social media business to grow at rates beyond that, but unusual for a mature business. I assure you that the accounting and legal professions are not growing anywhere close to this number.” He says, “The key factor driving that growth is a talent shortage that has been evolving for the last decade or so.”
“Being able to bring a global reach and global capability to the marketplace is important today, more important than it was yesterday, and will be more important in the future because talent is a global resource,” he says.
“I think that we’re only starting to see the early stages of the real pain that the talent shortage is going to cause in business, which is going to be an important driver of the executive search industry as it gets more difficult for organizations to attract and retain the talent that they need.”
Curran reflects on the arc of the profession. “It’s really interesting to see how this profession has evolved—it has become very sophisticated through technology, assessments, and psychology. The whole question around people and talent and how important that is to drive positive change is becoming better understood. This is a really brilliant time to be part of the profession.”
AESC, Now and in the Future
From O'Neill’s perspective, “The search profession in APAC and the Middle East now look much more like the rest of the world than was the case 15 years ago when it was a far less professional marketplace than it is now. There has been a huge change, and AESC played a huge part in making that change happen.”
“When I was in a small boutique firm, AESC was something that a small firm could learn from and use to become associated with more individuals in the profession around the world. Equally, now that I’m with one of the founding firms of AESC, I believe that AESC still has a huge role to play in this profession.”
Perhaps the most urgent opportunity for AESC to lead the profession, according to Curran, is driving diversity. “We need to talk about diversity and inclusion, what role we can play as firms and how we can use our influence. As the voice of the profession we need to do more, we need to shine a brighter light on the topic. That’s an important aspect of the industry’s mission. Diversity and inclusion should be front and center, at the very top, and we have a great opportunity to do that right now and show real leadership.”
AESC and its members can also do more to educate clients worldwide about the imprimatur of quality and integrity afforded by AESC. Regarding India, Mirchandani, who spent six years on the AESC Global Board says, “We are a vast, complex country, so it’s hard for AESC to have a visible impact in the short run. Having said that, in a high growth, chaotic, emerging market like India, standards have a very important role, and AESC is the gold standard. I think quite a few Indian clients who come to us for work know about AESC. There is a lot more work to be done to make sure that they first ask a firm if they’re AESC members before using them, that is what we’d like, but a lot of clients know what AESC today is and appreciate the work it’s doing.”
Andersen says, “AESC membership serves as a great advantage to any firm as they expand into more developing regions. They can point out to clients that they are part of an association that holds them to the highest standards, and that matters, because ultimately what we’re doing in executive search is extremely important.”
Bampfylde agrees: “The work we do in search is genuinely wonderful; we change the world every day, if we do it right. The challenge is doing it right, not just putting a body in a job. It’s the classic image of walking down the road of medieval times and coming across two people hitting a large stone. Asked ‘what are you doing?’ the first one says, ‘I’m breaking a stone.’ But the second one says, “I’m building a cathedral.’ And we need to remember all the time, we’re building a cathedral and not just breaking stones.”