Solutions Driven

The New Way to do Executive Search Recruitment

executive search recruitment

In this bonus episode of The Talent Intelligence Podcast, our CEO Gavin Speirs and Head of Marketing Robert Gillespie dive deep into the world of Executive Search recruitment to look at how this process has traditionally worked and why it’s now time for a change.

Inside this Episode on Executive Search Recruitment:

✔ We take a journey back in time to look at the ‘old way’ in which executive recruitment was – and unfortunately still is – carried out…
✔ Why there’s been a significant increase in recent months in executive level recruitment
How the process for hiring executive level talent has changed due to the rise in remote working and travel restrictions making face to face interviewing almost impossible…
✔ We discuss why the traditional pricing model for executive search recruitment is broken and why recruitment firms need to stop increasing their fees…
✔ And much more including behavioural profiling, ‘black books’, and some tips for hiring exec level talent remotely

You can watch the full video, read the transcript or listen to the podcast below. Or if you prefer to listen on your favourite Podcast platform, we’re live on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Google Podcasts.

executive search recruitment

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Watch the video interview here:

And here’s the full Executive Search Recruitment transcript if you just fancy a good old read through:

Robert (00:00):

Hey everyone. Welcome to episode number 10 of the recruitment intelligence podcast. My name is Robert Gillespie, and in today’s episode, I sat down with our CEO, Gavin Speirs to have a chat about the executive search recruitment process. We covered a lot in this episode, including a look back in time at the old way of doing executive level recruitment. We also asked the question as to why has there been a significant increase in recent months in executive search recruitment? And we also have a chat about how the process for hiring executive level talent has changed due to the rise in remote working and limited travel.

Robert (00:34):

We hope you enjoy the episode. Long time no see Gavin, how are you?

Gavin (00:43):

I’m good, Robert. Thanks. How are you?

Robert (00:44):

Not bad. I think we both had a break last week actually. So we should be nice and refreshed.

Gavin (00:50):


Robert (00:51):

Should be. Look, I want to talk today about the executive search recruitment process, or the executive recruitment search process. Something we’ve actually not spoken about on any of our podcasts up until now, but recently I’ve heard a lot more conversations around that kind of space recently. Without patronizing and anyone who’s actually listening, because the audience I’m sure, know what that is. But, for us, what do you classify as coming under the exec search recruitment banner? How do we define it?

Gavin (01:18):

I think, in the sector executive search it’s typically senior hires. So more visible hires in an organization, some would call it head hunting, some would call it retained. But for me, exec search is really at the higher end of organizations in terms of the hires that we make for those clients.

Robert (01:36):

Now I’ve only been in the recruitment space for probably a year now, but I used to always hear the term exec search, or you would see it banded about. From your point of view, just a quick history lesson or look back at what is exec search, or where’s that come from?

Gavin (01:51):

I think exec search has probably come from many, many years ago when either there wasn’t internal talent teams or companies couldn’t identify talent, before LinkedIn, before social, et cetera. So you really had headhunters, retained recruitment consultants, executive search recruitment consultants who are very much headhunting talent, phoning up organizations, trying to find the best talent for that role.

Gavin (02:14):

I think, nowadays the world’s changed. So, a lot of internal talent acquisition teams have that capability, technology. We always talk about the world being smaller, from social, et cetera. So the term exec search, for me, has been kind of historic in terms of how traditional recruitment was carried out. But the term has carried on and is still commonly known and commonly used at the senior end of the market.

Gavin (02:37):

I think, some talk about business critical hiring, some talk of exec search. I think for me, you could argue that every role an organization is hiring just now is business critical, because of what’s going on. But business critical would usually be a bit wider than just the senior end of the market, that could be mid-hires, problem hires.

Robert (03:01):

Now, I mentioned at the beginning, I sit in quite a lot of the sales marketing meetings, clearly, but there’s been a spike in hearing this exec search term getting mentioned a lot. And when I was speaking to Nicki, one of our colleagues, he was saying there has been definitely a rise in those types of conversations, any reasons why you think that’s happening?

Gavin (03:20):

I mean, I think a couple of things, I think organizations are looking at their own talent at the moment. So there’s definitely more talk about internal mobility, and companies saying, “Okay, do we have the right talent to be best positioned coming out of COVID?”

Gavin (03:34):

And I think as a result, if there are gaps in the organization, then they’re looking, saying, “Okay, what type of leader do we need, post COVID, to drive the organization?” We’re also seeing quite an increase in confidential hiring. So hiring where maybe the organization is restructuring, they’re looking at different alternatives. And usually, that confidential or executive hiring are the areas that we are supporting quite a lot of clients on just now.

Robert (04:01):

So jumping into the processes, I suppose, then, what makes recruiting for an executive search level candidate different to, say, a mid to senior level manager?

Gavin (04:13):

So I put a post on LinkedIn a few months ago that was almost challenging that, because technically, I don’t think it should be a different process, which I’ll talk about later. But there is one key difference, and it’s usually visibility and impact to the organization. So, if you’re looking at hiring a C level person, or a VP level person, you would expect that that person has a bigger impact in the organization as a whole.

Gavin (04:38):

So I think as a result of that, for me, there’s probably more focus, there’s more visibility, there’s more awareness of who’s involved in that process, but the process itself shouldn’t change too much. I mean, ultimately you still want to be hiring top talent, whether it’s an exec search role or a mid management role, you still want to be looking at diverse candidates, you still want to be providing insights in the recruitment process.

Gavin (05:03):

But the thing that probably does make the difference is the impact that person has on an organization. And we talk, with our clients, that when any client is hiring a very senior hire, there’s a few things. They need to be looking and saying, “Yeah, we want to hire top talent, but also are we a top hiring team? Will top talent look at us and say, they’re a great organization to be working for?” And also, we look and can see, when a senior hire is made for an organization, there probably will be some impact or change, with that new hire coming in. A slightly different direction and strategy, a new way of working. So there’s also the impact of that change that organizations need to think about as well.

Robert (05:45):

So what’s your current views on the executive search recruitment process? Again, I’m not someone who’s been in the recruitment space for that long, but you hear the term, “Old boys network.” getting banded about a bit, and people, when they’re recruiting, they’re just going into their old network and finding the best candidates that have moved from one company to another. Is that just a myth? What’s your views?

Gavin (06:06):

I think historically that was probably true. I think people did rely heavily on their network, saying, “I know person X, and I know company Y, I’ll keep moving around it, the same people.”

Gavin (06:15):

I think that’s probably not as true now. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very, very good exec search organizations out there, but I think historically, retained recruiters did rely too much on their network. Whereas, I think now, they’ve been forced to use the process, use technology and really, I guess raise the bar in terms of the quality of and the caliber of the talent that they’re bringing their clients.

Robert (06:39):

And who’s typically doing this search? This was something that I’ve been thinking long and hard about. You’ve clearly got internal talent teams or HR or hiring managers, et cetera, but who’s actually hiring for exec search talent? Who’s doing that work?

Gavin (06:55):

Usually exec search recruiters, so usually external recruiters. Now, don’t get me wrong, again, there’s some TA teams that have the internal capability, but I think there’s two things. I think many organizations almost want to outsource the worry of hiring such a senior role to specialist organizations that do it. And sometimes, if their role, for example, is confidential, it’s actually very difficult for one of the internal team to be carrying that activity out fully.

Gavin (07:21):

So I think that’s when the exec search type recruiters get involved in processes. I mean, I think, from my point of view, if we look at the process, one of the things that frustrates me a bit about recruitment in general, but even more so at the senior end is, if we’re hiring, let’s say a VP of sales or the chief revenue officer, you know that the function of sales in that organization will have many milestones, many metrics, many timelines. And if they are prospecting or trying to win a new bit of business, they will put a plan in place to say, “Okay, we need to put our proposal on this date. We expect to follow up on this day, who’s involved, who’s accountable, et cetera.

Gavin (08:00):

Whereas, some things, when the recruitment process is in play there is less structure and rigor around that process. So one of the things we’ve really tried hard to embed and support with clients is that process, that accountability. And I think it’s even more important at a senior end, when, as I said, there’s more visibility, there’s more impact, there are more senior people in the organization aware. So I think one of our strengths is actually helping the client really map out the process, and also put very clear timelines on, when we, as the recruiter has to deliver along that journey.

Robert (08:35):

I might be jumping about a bit, but I’ve heard recently a lot about internal mobility and using the exec search process, almost as a benchmarking tool. Can you talk a wee bit about that?

Gavin (08:46):

Yeah. I think, so again, as I said a moment ago, because of what’s going on, many clients are looking internally first, and it makes sense, absolutely. Plus it also gives good employees the opportunity to move across division, across region, et cetera. So again, a very, very good idea.

Gavin (09:02):

I think as a result of, I guess, employees and hires being critical right now, and people saying, “We need to make the right hire, “Or, “We need to make the right appointment.” We have had quite a few organizations that have said, “We believe we have a strong candidate internally, but we want to benchmark and compare against some external candidates.”

Gavin (09:21):

We’ve had examples of where clients have continued with the internal employee, but have actually used that exercise and said, “No, actually, we feel because of the importance of this role, we’re going to put some kind of performance planning in place for the internal person, but on this occasion, the external is stronger.” So from our point of view, we’ve been used as we normally would have been, to fill roles for clients at a senior confidential level, but also benchmarking against internal talent.

Robert (09:49):

I mean, clearly a lot of people are working at home now, across the globe. And we’ve been doing this for a long time now, but how do you think the process has changed, with so many people remote, they can’t fly to interviews what’d you think has been changing?

Gavin (10:06):

So I think, if I talk in the kind of eyes of the recruiter first. If I take a step back, if I’m talking about exec search and I’m speaking to a client that’s looking to choose an exec search partner, the first thing I would be saying is, “You really need to pick the best partner as opposed to the best partner that you know.” Because in the exec search space, there is a lot of, “We’ve used company X for a while, therefore they’re the best organization.”

Gavin (10:30):

We would challenge that just now to say, “Make sure that you’re really evaluating who the best partner is for the role.” And also, one of the things we say to clients when they’re evaluating us, is, if we can’t give them confidence in terms of how we are going to sell to candidates and how we’re portray their organization, then, there’s an argument that we’re not the right partner.

Gavin (10:51):

So again, that piece for me is really important just now, because as we lead on to your question, in some ways you could say engaging with talent, and getting time to speak to talent just now, is a bit easier than it has been. Why? Because more people are working from home, more people are used to video calls. Whereas, if you go back six, seven months ago, your first engagement with a candidate was probably having a phone call and having a discussion. There’s a higher chance now that you’ve got an opportunity to engage in person, through video, et cetera. So I think that’s been a benefit.

Gavin (11:24):

I think the disadvantage however is, I do think top talent, if you think about it, top talent is usually performing very well in their organization, is usually highly thought of, is very much part of that organization. And right now, I think through the last six months, that talent is probably even more passive than it was six months ago.

Gavin (11:45):

So one of the challenges I think that exec search recruiters have is how do we really attract and engage that passive talent right now? When they’re probably feeling the love from their own organization. And what do we do to kind of shift them to have a discussion about a new opportunity?

Gavin (12:02):

One of the things I’ve talked about quite a lot recently is if I’m just speaking to a very senior candidate, who let’s say is performing well in their current organization, and is very much asking me, “Well, what’s in it for me? Why would I consider a move just now?” I usually see, “Well, if this organization is hiring right now, through COVID, through difficult times, it tells you how important this role is to that client. And secondly, you joining at this times could actually mean you’ve get even more visibility, given where that organization is.”

Gavin (12:31):

So I think it’s important to really find the right hooks, but I do believe, fundamentally, that passive talent right now is probably more passive than it was six, seven months ago.

Robert (12:42):

We wrote a blog post recently, about the remote recruitment process which was about the benefit of having personality trait tools. We use Thomas International. We talked about, in the blog post about how it can help slightly to, I suppose remove that gut feel about candidates. Because you’ve not met them face to face. It’s very hard. I mean, me and you are talking just now, but you could be recruiting for someone in the US when you’re based in Europe, it’s all done by video. And I’ve seen so many articles with companies saying, “Hey, we’ve hired our next CFO and it was done remotely. I’ve never met them yet.”

Robert (13:20):

What do you think about using tools like that to help? Do you think it does help in the process, especially with that gut feel, when you can only literally do what we are doing just now?

Gavin (13:28):

I think it does. I mean, absolutely. I think it just adds another dimension to get to understand that candidate in a bit more detail. I’ll come back to the behavioral profiling in a moment, but we’ve seen clients who previously would have taken preferred candidates to lunch, get to know them informally, et cetera. They’ve not been able to do that.

Gavin (13:46):

We’ve seen senior candidates saying, “I really want to see and meet the organizations.” So Team calls, et cetera, et cetera. But I think that, ultimately in a recruitment process, there’s a mixture of art and science. And I think again, at the exec search level, that’s very important. You can’t make the process so scientific that the person then this doesn’t fit from that gut feel, cultural aspect.

Gavin (14:08):

So what we try and do is blend the art and the science in senior hiring for our clients. And, and one of the ways that we do that is the behavioral profiling. So we look and say, “What are the traits you’re looking for as an organization? And who does this candidate compare to that?” And I think what it does is it gives clients, to your point, just a bit more comfort that they’ve done a bit more behind the scenes checking on that candidate, what motivates them? What’s their drivers? Et cetera.

Gavin (14:36):

We talk about three things, we say, does the person have the right experience and skills? That’s a key element to when they’re hiring top talent. Do they culturally fit to the organization? And then thirdly, do they have the right motivators? Are they motivated by the right things, the right drivers, that again, fits that organization? So I think behavioral profiling just adds to that and helps you make sure you’ve covered the bases.

Robert (15:04):

Great. Now, for those watching on video, you’ve got a big banner behind you about recruitment process intelligence, and it’s something we’ve launched recently. But, from our side, what I’m curious about on this one specifically, we’ve talked with processes so far. But the intelligence side of things. How do you think surfacing those insights throughout that process can help when you’re, carrying out an exec search recruitment process?

Gavin (15:29):

Typically exec search is more specific than a mid or junior search. What I mean by that is, should the candidate come from a specific sector from a competitor, et cetera? And that’s where the term head hunting comes from, i.e, “We need to head hunt talent from company A, B and C.”

Gavin (15:48):

I think from an intelligence point of view, if I just look through our typical process, really at the early part of the process we’re providing intelligence on, first of all, who are the competitors? Mapping out the market, mapping out the sector, looking at the movers and shakers in that sector to say, “Okay, we can identify that this organization has progressed really well over the last few years from a sales point of view, maybe sales talent in that organization is where we need to focus on.”

Gavin (16:14):

So really that front end insights, to say, “Here is the sector, here is the mapping of what your direct and indirect competitors are doing in the space.” Then, we’ll almost get to role intelligence. So we’ll start saying, “Okay, for this level role, we would expect this level of salary, this level of comp, this level of long-term incentive, et cetera.” Again, to help the organization map out, are they competitive from a role and salary and comp point of view?

Gavin (16:41):

And then, moving into the process, when we get halfway through our search, we’re providing insights into, “Here are the types of candidates we’re speaking to, here’s what they’re saying about your organization. Here’s what they feel when they look at your brand, the diversity of that talent, where are they really coming from, et cetera.”

Gavin (17:00):

And then right at the end, when we’ve concluded the process, we almost do a kind of summary of intelligence back to the client, that just basically says, ” Not only have we filled the role, but here’s insights that you can take with you, around your brand, around your positioning, around your competitive analysis, et cetera.”

Gavin (17:15):

So that’s where taking RPI, and I know I’ve talked about this before, but it is simply a recruitment process with intelligence. And we feel that at the exec search space, not only is the process really important, that the stakeholders are really accountable, bought in, that it’s measured, that we know when we need to deliver, but also that we’re providing that intelligence to the hiring panel.

Robert (17:38):

Excellent. One of my favorite topics, pricing. We’ve recently launched our new website, and this sounds like self promotion, but we recently launched a website, and we put pricing on the website. Which, I’m not aware of any other external recruitment companies like ourselves, that have pricing on their website. And I know that’s also something you are quite passionate about, because you put a LinkedIn post about it, maybe a month or so ago.

Robert (18:02):

And you talked about. And it’s something I agree with heavily. Why should you charge a higher percentage fee for carrying out an executive search, when probably by default the salary is going to be higher. So you’re going to earn a higher fee, if you had a standard fee. Just curious again, just what you were thinking?

Gavin (18:23):

Yeah. I mean, I got a bit of pushback in that LinkedIn post, I remember a few comments that I had to reply to. I understood the argument of, to what I said earlier, in this level of role, it’s the impact, it’s the place of not getting it right, it’s the price of the organization being impacted as a result of the bad hire.

Gavin (18:45):

But for me, all of that is still taken into about by the percentage being based on a, usually much higher salary. So from a solutions driven point of view, why did we put pricing on our website? One, because not many other people do, two, because, it is a bit of an unknown in that exec search space. There are still many providers that I think are charging a premium when really a good level of percentages is good enough.

Gavin (19:10):

So what we’ve tried to do in that is really say, “This is we’re different, based on features and benefits.” But also, from a pricing point of view, it doesn’t feel right to increase the percentage when also, the salary of those roles are usually higher.

Robert (19:25):

No. Couldn’t agree more. So we’ve spoke quite a bit. So is there something, a quick way of rounding it all up? Is there three or four or five, pick your number, but almost a kind of a summary of, what do you think makes up a good executive search recruitment process?

Gavin (19:41):

So I think I’ll jump back a bit again, almost, four or five things I would suggest clients do when they’re looking at exec search recruitment providers. I think, first of all, people buy from people. So, if a client is evaluating a provider, I think they need to be saying, “Could I work with this person? Can this person add value that I can do myself?” Point one. I think secondly would be looking and saying, “Okay, don’t just keep using the same partner if you don’t feel fully satisfied with that partner, look at alternatives.”

Gavin (20:13):

And also, historically I think that executive recruitment has been usually expensive, usually a longer process. Clients feel very locked in once they choose that partner. I think that has to change. I think from our point of view, we’re offering a bit more of a fresh approach around pricing, speed of response, speed of delivery, and also the kind of less locked in feeling.

Gavin (20:35):

And then one of the other things I look at and say is, if we’re hiring a senior leader in the organization, we’re technically responsible for impacting that organization’s revenue. So, it’s really important, when they’re hiring a partner, that they’re looking and saying, “Do I trust this person, this organization?” Because I’m actually putting a lot of eggs in that basket. For example, if that CRO is responsible for $300 million revenue, as an example, then getting that wrong has a significant impact.

Gavin (21:07):

So I think it’s just about, as I said at the start, the impact of executive search is usually greater than any other recruitment search. So really validating the partner that you choose. And then lastly holding that partner accountable. And I think it’s too way accountability, it’s not all about the recruiter has to do everything, but really mapping out what are the measures of success? Is it timelines? Do we need to hit a certain timeline? Is it the diversity of the candidates? Is it the quality of the candidates? Is it the high potential of the candidates, et cetera? Really making sure that you’ve really partnered and milestoned what you expect in that process.

Robert (21:43):

Yep. Excellent. I mean, accountability, you said it there at the very end, super, super important. As always, thanks very much for your time.

Gavin (21:51):

No worries.

Robert (21:51):

And I’m sure we’ll catch up with you soon.

Gavin (21:52):

Good to see you. Super, thanks Robert.

Robert (21:52):

Take care. Have a good one.

Gavin (21:52):

Cheers. Bye, bye.

Robert (21:52):

Bye, bye.

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