Perspectives on the Future of Executive Search

From February to June 2017, AESC convened eight focus groups with Next Gen executive search consultants: younger, emerging leaders in the profession. Thirty professionals participated, representing 16 AESC member firms—including global, boutique and networks—hailing from London, Madrid, Mexico City, New York, Paris, São Paulo, Shanghai, Stockholm, Warsaw, and Washington DC. Participants from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences were generous with their insights, their wisdom, and their candor*.

Where the Executive Search and Leadership Profession is Headed

Many factors are shaping the search and leadership consulting profession. Key among them is technology. The Next Gen participants considered whether technology would be an enabler or a disruptor: their answer was “both.”

Technology continues to have a dramatic effect on efficiency, and plays a role in improving responsiveness. In the experience of one participant, “This is especially the case in China where clients have high expectations around speed because the market requires it.”

Another participant welcomes the efficiencies of technology. “One conversation to connect with a consultant takes an hour. To spend one hour on one conversation, and two hours on expense reports, that’s not conducive for me to be efficient at my job; having more technology makes life easier and more efficient.”

Next Gen search professionals bring essential skills and experience in the area of emerging technologies to their client relationships. “Digitalization and doing business in new ways can be a challenge for existing management,” added a CIO from the Financial Services sector in Europe’s Nordics region. Next Gen search professionals can fill that gap.

Is technology a threat to the search profession?

"C-level executive search requires work that is derived not only from intelligence but also from insight, judgment & even humanity. Current technology hasn’t figured it out yet, so there will remain a place for good search consultants who work at the top."

But how much of executive search can be automated? “Technologies are creeping in which will affect certain components of the search model. Maybe in ten years’ time we’ll be at a stage where a lot of our workforce will have been streamlined and replaced.”

To stay relevant, participants say that firms must provide “value, and information that clients can’t retrieve themselves. They can retrieve the name, but they can’t retrieve the informal references, the understanding of what a candidate has actually dealt with.”

The general consensus among participants is that the market will demand that executive search consultants continue to evolve deeper into strategic advising. “Anybody can retrieve names, so you need to find ways to add value that goes beyond the identification of people. Hopefully, we can add value by understanding the industry so well that we know what’s going on, and what the implications are; that we are following the talent within our industries, and we can make valuable recommendations and suggestions.”

Another outcome of the evolution of search–related technology is that more organizations are taking their executive search work inhouse. One respondent called the trend “a losing battle.” But there remains a key role for the executive search consultant.

“In-house, they are not always able to evaluate the diversity within the company. They tend to look for the same kind of person. We can offer a different point of view in terms of generation and culture, digital profiles, newer profiles than classical ones.”

“I work a lot with board assignments, for example, and I can see that there’s definitely a lack of knowledge about technology or digital. In that case, there is an opportunity for us to step up and be that strategic advisor, that strategic partner, and say, ‘Hey, for your business you need this kind of expertise.’”

The Changing Profile of Executive Search Consultants

“Diversity of thinking will be core to sustaining the growth and performance of the business,” commented a Chief Marketing Officer in the Logistics sector in the United Kingdom.

In discussing influences on the profession, nearly all participants mentioned the diversification of executive search firms. Their observations varied widely, largely along geographic lines, with consultants painting almost contradictory pictures of the state of gender diversity in their organizations. One participant said, “We have already evolved in one sense—we’re more global and consequently, we are more diverse. But this has to do with culture, and this is why I think it’s slow.”

Another participant expressed frustration at the pace of change, and suggested there may be a flaw in firms’ assessment in their own gender balance: “I’m not sure that the switch is happening as fast as it should. I think there’s a pink ghetto within research, where you’ll find really good researchers who are female, but I doubt that if you do a snapshot of the partners, or just consultants in the industry, that you’ll find as many females.”

In one region, focus group participants observed that the diversification of executive search has not caught up with executive search clients. “Looking at executive search firms and the partners in them, it’s majority ‘white male.’ In no way does it mirror society and our business community.”

Globally, the profession shows signs that this is quickly shifting. For example, the Next Gen consultants themselves were predominantly women, and many of them referenced the number of junior consultants who are women. Others referenced that their firms are very gender balanced, suggesting that this cohort of consultants represents the gender-balanced future of the profession.

Some Next Gen executive search consultants see an opportunity for the profession to help the diversification of client organizations, as well. “Executive search as an industry is in a power position, especially if you think about areas such as diversity, and sustainability, and all those barriers where we really sit at the core of deciding whether or not somebody’s put on a list, given a call, being interviewed, or presents to a client. We really need to step it up as an industry, and take responsibility.”

Part of that responsibility is asking candidate sources to stretch beyond their traditional networks to reach women and minority candidates. “Men just have this informal network, and when I pull sources, they are mainly making male referrals because they’re a part of that network.”

How long will clients seeking diversity accept a firm without it? “If I turn up with three gray-haired men, it shows a huge lack of emotional intelligence.”

Much of the value Next Gen search consultants bring to clients is also related to their ability to connect with their client’s rising leaders and Next Gen candidates, who will be essential to the client’s business success.

As markets evolve and talent needs change, Next Gen search consultants give their clients an advantage. They come from the same world and speak the same language as the people who will drive an organization’s future success.

“The ability to thrive in a dynamic and uncertain world will be necessary to ensure a business’s survival and progress,” responded one C-suite executive in the Financial Services sector in the United Kingdom.

Preparing the Next Gen for the future

How are firms preparing Next Gen consultants to address their clients’ evolving goals? Firms and the consultants themselves are leveraging the benefits of formal and informal professional development opportunities.

Staying abreast of technology is essential, as tools continue to develop that supplement the search and assessment processes. Firms offer training in psychometric testing and certifications for various assessment tools, but as one Next Gen consultant observed, “I don’t know if sitting down in a classroom and being taught how to be an adviser is going to make you a better adviser, but shadowing is a good example of on-thejob training that works.”

While agreeing that formal training has a place in their professional development, participants expressed a strong preference for experiential learning, and weighed in on the value of their relationships with others within their firms: sponsors, mentors, and role models.

“A sponsor is somebody who’s responsible for your professional development. That is, somebody who’s supposed to say, “I have this client you should really meet with. I think this is a great opportunity for you to develop in this space. I think you probably need sponsorship more within those types of organizations where there is a defined path to climbing up the ladder.”

While not all organizations have a “sponsorship” program, many of our Next Gen consultants had experience with mentors. One participant said their firm had a formalized mentorship program, but “personally, I’m not a strong believer in those types of programs. I think mentorship is based on trust, is based on a connection with certain individual, it’s not something that you’re just given.”

Another described a mentor who “challenged me, and pushed me into deeper water than I felt comfortable in,” as a key learning experience. Asked what they want from a mentor, participant responses included “constant feedback,” “leveraging their network to help me develop my own platform,” and “honesty.” One participant summed up the Next Gen commitment to achieving excellence: “What’s the secret sauce to be a top performer?”

Another development approach is to create opportunities for the Next Gen consultant to be a mentor. “When I was a junior consultant, some partners dedicated their time to work together with me. We’d problem solve together, and they would give me leeway to run my own project and develop. I have always worked with partners who have been very dedicated to my development, and always had my back. Now I work with younger people, researchers, and I have their backs.”

Another said, “I mentor someone in one of our businesses—a manager who’s looking to up-skill his capability.” The rewards of mentoring can extend beyond professional development. “It’s really great to help someone. I was really appreciated, I did a cool thing.”

Mentorship does not have to be limited to the confines of the firm. “If you have a good client, and if that client can be a mentor, that is actually a great, a huge advantage—both for the relationship and for those who are on their way up.”

And then, there are the role models. Participants described a role model as someone who sets a tone and provides a good example of how to work. “I’ve admired many people that I’ve worked with, in terms of how they’re able to manage their clients, how they’re able to manage candid relationships, and their expertise in evaluating people’s potential and capacity. I think role models are extremely important.”

The Next Gen of Search’s Advice for Clients

As part of that survey of Next Gen executive search and leadership consultants, respondents were asked, “As a Next Generation consultant, what should clients do to develop Next Generation talent within their own organizations?” Their top responses are:

  1. Focused development of Next Gen leaders
  2. Empowering top talent
  3. Creating more diverse and inclusive leadership
  4. Provide international and cross-cultural opportunities
  5. Include Next Gen talent in decision making

Comparing surveys of both clients and Next Gen consultants, both groups ranked “empowering top talent,” “including next gen talent in decision-making,” and “creating more diverse and inclusive leadership” among their top five priorities/recommendations for developing Next Gen leaders.

Clients understand the value of attracting, retaining, and developing Next Gen talent. “Because the market is changing, the new customers are different, they have different expectations, and they respond differently to our products. In order to deal with this new market we need talent that understands that,” commented an executive in the Financial Services sector in Brazil.

Next Gen consultants may be the key to acquiring that talent. They have many shared experiences with Next Gen executives. They speak the same digital language, and share many of the same generational traits and preferences that distinguish them from the generation represented by most senior executive search consultants and the older masters of the C-suite. This reflection could be from a Next Gen search consultant or an aspiring CEO:

“It’s more about self fulfillment, it’s around sort of the sustainability of the company—what’s the reason for the existence of the company, and what role does that company play in society in a broader perspective? What was previously a top line draw was titles and compensation, and those have come down the list in favor of areas such as: Am I recognized at my work? Can I influence the way this company works, and the role it plays in society?”

*In exchange for an open, unguarded discussion, we agreed that any quotes would be unattributed.