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Hybrid: The Art and Science of Executive Search

How has technology changed the assessment of candidates and what opportunities do these innovations create? 

The dramatic rise of technology over the last decade has equipped executive search and leadership consulting firms to serve their clients in new and increasingly transformative ways – fusing new tools and techniques with the traditional foundations of the profession. It’s not too long ago that an executive search consultant’s little black book was their biggest asset. But the technological developments of the last decade have codified what executive search consultants have always known about leadership into useful identification and assessment tools.

The more senior the search, the more nuanced it becomes. Unsuccessful hires at the executive level aren’t down to the core competencies of an individual; they are down to what up until recently were considered to be intangible metrics. Understanding soft skills, cultural fit, leadership development potential and emotional intelligence is now the modus operandi for any major executive search and there are now a whole range of techniques to identify these traits.
 

"Even the world's best algorithms, used by consumer technology companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook, get it wrong sometimes, so human insight is a crucial filter."Experts working with experts

Executive-level assessments come in many different forms: in-person interviews, psychometric tests, cultural assessments, and simulated case studies, to name just a few. Over the last five years in particular, we have seen an increase in the number of AESC members acquiring or partnering with external assessment companies. In the last 18 months alone Korn Ferry has acquired Hay Group and Pivot Leadership, Heidrick & Struggles has acquired Senn Delaney, Philosophy IB and Co Company, Russell Reynolds has formalized its partnership with Hogan, Caldwell Partners has built a relationship with Caliper Assessments and Alder Koten has acquired OCE Consulting. Beyond this, many AESC members are partnering with external firms to provide their clients with talent analytics at a level of sophistication we have never seen before.

By acquiring, partnering with or licensing the products of established consulting firms and assessment providers, executive search firms are furthering their commitment to high standards by aligning themselves with experts in their field. This is not simply a case of taking tools that are used for middle managers and slightly tweaking them; these partnerships lead to quality work that is consistent with the trusted service that the best executive search firms have been providing for decades.
 

Blending art and science

Ian Cameron (USA), Managing Director at The McQuaig Institute – which has been providing psychometric testing solutions for 50 years – explains how recent developments provide opportunities for executive search firms to have even more valuable in-person interviews: “We can ask the client organization to prioritize a series of statements that relate to the ideal candidate they would like to appoint,” Cameron says. “Their answers generate a job profile that can sit alongside their initial outline for the assignment, and is compatible with the results of the candidates’ psychometric testing. The end product is a customized behavioral interview guide so that the consultant can know where to dig deeper.”

This provides a great example of how the science behind the scenes has improved and has enabled deeper and more targeted in-person interviews, elevating the art of the profession, as Elan Pratzer, Managing Partner at Caldwell Partners in Canada, explains in relation to his firm’s new partnership with the assessment firm Caliper. “Caliper comes at the process with a scientific methodology. Caldwell Partners comes at the process with thousands of hours of time spent with clients and candidates.” 

Similarly, cultural fit is an area that is increasingly acknowledged as absolutely crucial in the success or failure of an executive appointment. Jim Hart (USA), Chief Executive Officer at Senn Delaney, a Heidrick & Struggles company, explains: “If there is a cultural mismatch between an organization and a new executive, the culture will act as antibodies. This is particularly pertinent when a board is looking for a CEO to lead organizational change. You have to identify the cultural landscape that an executive is entering and help them to see the cultural landmines that they may step on. Otherwise, that executive will be as successful as a parent telling a teenager to clean their room.”

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins explains that organizations with a well-aligned culture are six times more successful than their competitors. Similarly, in Spencer Stuart’s article ‘Leading with Culture’ they suggest that lack of culture fit is responsible for as many as 68% of executive new hire failures.

A third assessment technique that is used by select AESC members is simulated case studies. By replicating a real-life business scenario that would be relevant to the client organization, executive search firms are able to get insight into how a candidate would respond. Henrik Brabrand, CEO and Partner at TRANSEARCH Copenhagen, explains: “About 25% of the candidates we assess say they would respond one way and then act different in the simulated business environment. It’s not that people are trying to intentionally mislead us. It’s just that their best intellectual answer is not the truest answer roughly one in four times.”

Read more of this article and the rest of this issue of Executive Talent.

 

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About the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants

Since 1959, the AESC has set the standard for quality and ethics in executive search and leadership consulting worldwide. Because AESC members must commit and adhere to the AESC's industry and government recognized Code of Ethics and Professional Practice Guidelines, clients can be assured that AESC members are able to serve as trusted advisors for their most important engagements. As the voice for executive search and leadership consulting worldwide, today the AESC is comprised of more than 350 member firms, representing 8,000 executive search professionals in 75 countries. To learn more about the AESC and its membership, visit www.aesc.org.

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