The Evolution of Assessment


AESC’s Leaders on Leaders podcast explores top trends impacting global leadership. Karen Greenbaum, AESC President and CEO, speaks with leaders from the world’s top executive search and leadership advisory firms.

In our latest episode, Karen speaks with Brett Stephens, CEO of RSR Partners.

KAREN: Welcome to the Leaders on Leaders Series from the Global Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants. I’m Karen Greenbaum, AESC President and CEO. In Leaders on Leaders, we explore today’s top trends impacting global leadership with leaders from the world’s top executive search and leadership advisory firms. Today, we’ll be discussing leadership insights and assessments. I’m joined by Brett Stephens, CEO of RSR Partners.

Thank you for joining us, Brett. Let’s begin with you telling us a bit about RSR Partners.

BRETT: Thank you, Karen. Love to. RSR Partners is an employee-owned executive search and leadership consulting firm. We primarily focus on board services, executive search, leadership assessment for Fortune 100 companies down to family offices, endowments, and even pre-IPO companies.

Almost 25 years ago, actually this fall, our chairman Russ Reynolds, who was one of the founding members of AESC, created this firm basically solely focused on boards and we believe we’re still the only firm in the industry that actually started from the top down. We began as a consulting firm specializing on corporate governance issues facing CEOs, chairmen, and board members and we’re best known for board recruiting and our leading corporate governance publication called Directorship which is now owned by the NACD. Since then, we’ve added executive search and leadership assessment to help boards and CEOs with leadership selection and succession globally.

KAREN: Thank you, Brett. That was really helpful. How has the information that executive search firms gather on candidates changed in the past decade and why has it changed?

BRETT: It’s a great question. The information age is transforming our industry. I think everyone in the industry has seen this and I believe it’s for the better. Historically, most of the information we focused on was underpinning and understanding an individual’s experiences, their expertise, and career narrative to help project the potential and fit with the client. While those building blocks are still the foundation of what we do, the nature of our client advisory work has become much more multidimensional and complex. The information that is now readily available in our industry but also to our clients is much easier to ascertain, and anyone now can go to the internet to LinkedIn or search a wide variety of online databases to find a significant amount of information about the individuals and companies that were not previously available in the past.

As the rise of data intelligence will continue to elevate the amount of information our industry and our clients have access to, our business will have to change with that. I think the vast amount of information we have access to today will not only be helpful to us in the future but will force us to focus more on meaningful insights and knowledge for our clients. I think our clients continue to focus and have us work with them closely to help them understand what this all means in making better decisions and filtering through the noise.

I think while some of us in the industry might believe this is a potentially disruptive event for us, we think that there are opportunities for us to all focus more narrowly in our scope on what we’re trying to ascertain for our clients to provide meaningful leadership insights that complement with the science and big data can provide.

KAREN:  You talked about fit with the client and I think it’s pretty clear why fit makes sense. How do you actually determine whether a candidate is going to fit with a client?

BRETT:  I think that’s the age-old question in search and we believe that talent is the only sustainable competitive advantage for our clients, and as a result recruiting the right talent with the right organization results in executive – that we recruit, too, can unlock tremendous value for the company but hopefully professionally and personally [sure], but fit is and will always be the most critical factor to maximizing the impact an individual can have in an organization. Even the most talented executives could only be successful if they’re aligned with the company’s culture and strategy.

As a firm, we have found that in order to get the right fit, it requires us to first spend a significant amount of time, understand the client’s culture, its strategy, and its business ecosystem. Once we’re aligned with the client’s objectives and have an intimate understanding of the business, we then focus on our activities on assessing the professional and personal attributes of potential candidates. We’ll then overlay, if we can, our leadership insights on top of our understanding of the culture and environment of those companies that the candidates have been most successful and this process, we believe, allows us to better predict a potential fit for any of our existing candidates.

KAREN:  There’s a huge focus today on candidate assessment and, of course, everyone has different approaches, but why has that changed over the last 10 years, 20 years? How has it changed and why?

BRETT:  Yes. I think as I mentioned that movement towards more science and data and the amount of information available to everyone, I think, has forced us all to look for more answers through the noise of information that exists and I think the fact that there’s more turnover in executive ranks, which I think is estimated to be three to five times in executive compensation, we believe search-related assessments actually helps provide additional information on a candidate to help informed decision-making. I think the push towards more science and more data will help complement what we do in search, and we actually have just - I guess by that token, we’ve actually added leadership assessment recently to help a wide range of projects, not just the executive and C-suite levels but also with our CEO and board level assessments. We’ve taken a slightly different approach to what our larger competitors have done and we believe that by creating an integrated but truly independent search-related assessment capability better impacts the work that we do and I think what our clients expect of us.

We all spoke before about the importance of fit. This also pertains to executive assessment, we believe, and each client’s culture and objectives are unique. We believe we need the ability to customize and tailor to that, which requires you to have full access to the best products and services in the marketplace, and that is continuing to be an evolving theme and trend, an amount of money that is invested in this space because there is some real value to the science to help complement, augment what we actually do in search. We think that without the flexibility for companies to optimize the information they need for their company in order to find the type of transformational leader, I think that companies will suffer and so we think that an open architecture and flexible model is the best way to go.

KAREN:  That means that you don’t have a one way of solution for every single client. Is that what you mean by the open architecture?

BRETT:  Yes. We think that there are so many really unique tools and products in the marketplace where it actually becomes so proliferated with options for clients that they don’t know exactly what they should use, when they should use it, in what situations, and so each company is different. Each culture is different. Each situation is different. Depending upon what your objectives are, the ability to basically bring some really unique tools and models to bear for that one situation versus one way of doing it is a better way to, I think, help the client. It may not necessarily make it easier on the search industry and assessment industry but it’s actually in their best interest to do so.

KAREN:  That makes sense, so thank you for that. One final question. Beyond assessment services, how do you see our profession evolving to meet client demand?

BRETT:  Well, we believe this is an incredibly exciting time for our industry if you have the agility and adaptability to change with the evolving business marketplace. The differences between what high-level executive search and leadership advisory versus the transactional underpinnings that exist in parts of our industry, we think will become even more apparent. We see a major trend emerging across professional services, namely convergence. As the business world has migrated towards specializations, our clients are now looking for more integrated solutions, and this is most apparent in the corporate boardrooms today and around the world. The range of issues directors now face are much more complex than a decade ago. Whether it’s the rise of activism or cyber security risk, our clients need the best insights and counsel to help them understand and resolve issues across a myriad of different issues.

As we’re seeing across other professional service firms, especially the legal community, our industry is being driven to become much, much more of a strategic advisor and business partner to our clients and less in a transactional nature. We feel that the most valuable aspects for our business and industry, which we think are access and insights, will be in even greater demand going forward and more valued, and so this just might require us to work a little bit closer with the investment banks, the accounting firms, the consulting firms, the law firms in providing customized integrated solutions for some very significant challenges that our clients face today.

KAREN:  Well, it sounds like it’s a great time to be a strategic advisor and truly a trusted advisor with clients.

BRETT:  We think it’s a great time to be in the search business and leadership advisory business. It has got a great promise and great future ahead of us.

KAREN:  Excellent. Brett, thank you for taking the time to share your insights today. Listeners, thank you for joining us for Leaders on Leaders.

For our next Leaders on Leaders discussion, stay tuned to Thank you and have a great day.

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