Demand is Rising for Executive Recruiters . . . Here’s Why

Companies that sill employ old school methods of finding prospects are on the way to becoming obsolete, says Dave Melville, CEO of The Bowdoin Group. Understanding and leveraging the nuances of specific industries is what matters most in finding great leaders and building teams with diverse perspectives.

December 17, 2019 – It’s an all-out war for talent these days, according to recruiters and talent leaders, and that’s making demand for executive search firms stronger than ever. But recruiting agencies must evolve to compete. The Bowdoin Group founder and CEO Dave Melville believes search firms must revise their approach or go the way of the dinosaurs, and he lays out the necessary changes, and predictions, for 2020 and beyond.

“Companies that are using archaic executive search firms need to rethink their strategy,” said Mr. Melville. “Headhunters — transactional order takers that recycle the same network, are paid full fees regardless of outcome, and that simply match candidates to bullet points on a job description — need to officially leave the building.”

“As the founder and CEO of an executive search firm I am someone who has spent his entire career in an industry that I believe must change or die,” he said. Here are the changes he predicts for executive search in 2020.

Industry Focus Will be Paramount

The old school method of finding candidates via keywords in databases or on social networks is no longer sufficient. “If your executive search firm is using this method, shame on them and shame on you for engaging them — your company is not a commodity,” said Mr. Melville. “What will never be commoditized is understanding and leveraging the infinite nuances of specific industries to find great leaders and build teams with diverse perspectives.”

Each industry is complex in its own right. Understanding how that complexity translates to the kinds of leaders who would thrive in specific subsectors has become tremendously important to companies worldwide. “For example, one of our clients in the digital health space is on the hunt for their CTO,” Mr. Melville said. “As healthcare evolves to accommodate new payment models and the number of constituents increases, this company’s business model is transforming. They need a CTO who understands the various healthcare constituents well enough to design and build a product that serves all of them.”


Dave Melville founded The Bowdoin Group over 25 years ago. His focus is on providing superior service through a strategic business approach, exceptional industry expertise, and an obsessive pursuit of excellence. Mr. Melville’s passion for biopharma and healthcare stems from his work and personal experiences, seeing firsthand what innovations in biotech can provide. His expertise includes executive and strategic searches within the clinical/scientific, medical affairs, commercial roles, and finance & GA fields, in addition to large-scale commercial team expansions and build-outs for pre-clinical trial biopharma companies.


“Let’s not mince words — this is an extremely complex search,” he said. “Vetting these candidates and advising clients on why one executive would be more beneficial to their business than another requires extensive knowledge of the healthcare and technology ecosystems. Otherwise, the result is a poor fit, wasted money and jeopardized growth — big stakes.”

In today’s world, a strong professional network is not enough to stay ahead. “Companies do (and should) care how well their executive search firm understands their industry, their sub sector, their business and key influencers within their ecosystem,” said Mr. Melville. “That nuanced knowledge and expertise will set firms apart in this new era of executive search, and maybe — just maybe — these will be the new table stakes.”

Timelines are Getting Shortened 

“If you’re still taking three months to make a decision on an executive search, you’ve got a problem,” Mr. Melville said. “If your executive search firm is taking several months to present a slate of candidates, you have an even bigger problem. A sense of urgency across the board will be the new norm.”

Related: The Upskilling Deadlock to Continue in 2020

A competitive market means companies better be decisive about candidates. “Excellent candidates are getting multiple offers within days and no, this is not an exaggeration — this has happened countless times this year,” Mr. Melville said. “Be prepared to move through your search and make decisions about great candidates quickly to keep pace in 2020 and beyond. Agile executive search? Not an oxymoron.”

Goodbye One-Off Searches, Hello Creative Partnerships

Traditionally, executive search firms hire one executive for one fee. Not surprisingly, a lot of time and resources go into that one search. “Increasingly, companies are choosing a partner who can leverage that knowledge further and support them beyond that one engagement,” Mr. Melville said. “Companies are thinking in terms of ROI, and why wouldn’t they be?”

“These new creative partnerships can take many forms,” he said. “They can mean utilizing the executive search partner for a team expansion or for another strategic search — one that’s crucially important to the business, for example, but not quite C-suite level. It can also mean partnering with clients strategically in ways that allow for efficiencies, or something else.”

Take, for example, one biopharma company that has a massive internal database of candidates. “They hired us to help find a strategic leader, and that engagement has since morphed into maximizing their existing database before they look externally,” Mr. Melville said. “Together, we are now integrating technologies to cut down on the man hours to hire for this position (and others in the future). When you’re hired for one search, it’s hard to get creative. Companies want creativity and clever ideas for optimization, which means leaving one-off searches behind.”

Ability > Skills

These days, abilities trump skills. “It’s absolutely imperative that your executive search firm understands that,” said Mr. Melville. “Executive searches have become less about what candidates can do right now and more about how they can grow and evolve with the company. Of course, executive search firms need to be able to do the job today, but things change so quickly these days that hiring solely for today puts you behind the pack.”

Mr. Melville compares this to Bill Belichick choosing Tom Brady, who was the 199th overall pick in the sixth round of the draft in 2000. He was strategically selected for his “mental makeup and leadership skills” and because he was “the best fit for the Patriots’ system. “Look 19 years and all the really good stuff later, Brady’s career reinforces the idea that hiring for ability and potential vs. experience and skills can be the best decision you’ll ever make,” he said. “Executive search firms better know the difference between the two and be skilled enough to spot ability when they see it.”

Tools and Technologies Don’t Have Secret Powers

“Some executive search firms tout flashy technologies and never before seen personality profiling as the cherry on top of their expertise,” Mr. Melville said. “Sure, recruiting tools marginally increase efficiencies, but let’s be honest — that’s it. We’re all anxiously waiting for AI and machine learning to target and screen a candidate the way a human can, but this just isn’t going to happen any time soon, especially not at the executive level.”

Related: Upbeat Hiring Plans Heading Into the New Year

“For now, executive search is still all about people,” he said. “And I have yet to see evidence that the new proprietary personality profiles are measurably better than traditional tests. Sometimes what’s always worked still works.”

Diversity is a Must Have

Mr. Melville asked: “What is your executive search firm doing to promote and encourage diversity? If the answer is nothing, or it’s not a priority, where have they been? Under a rock? This is a worthy mega-trend.”


To Improve Diversity, Recruiting Sector Must Set a New Course
Improving diversity is something that most well-run companies are now implementing. Progress is slow and many times it feels as if we are all taking one step forward, two steps back. But no organization is more important to the success or failure of these initiatives than search firms. They hold powerful sway over who moves into the boardroom and into C-suite positions, where all of the most important corporate decisions are made. That power, according to Dale E. Jones, CEO of Diversified Search, raises more questions than answers these days.


Companies are no longer ignoring research like diverse companies produce 19 percent more revenue and 48 percent of companies in the U.S. with more diversity in senior management improved their market share. “In fact, many companies are now making diversity a key imperative for executive (and non-executive) searches,” Mr. Melville said. “In many industries and functions, the vast majority of candidates are not diverse or female, which represents a daunting challenge for the many executive search firms that have been sidelining diversity for too long. If you’re not up for the task, you’ll be left behind.”

Ushering in a New Era for Executive Search 

2020 is looking to be a big year for executive search, full of all the promise that comes with a new decade. “As far as we can tell, the talent war will continue to wage,” said Mr. Melville. “With that comes shortened timelines and more creative partnerships between executive search firms and their clients. Executive search firms with industry expertise and an eye for candidates’ abilities over skills will rise to the top, with little to no help from recruiting tools and technologies.”

“This new decade is the end of the road for conventional headhunting, so let’s ring in the New Year by raising the bar for companies everywhere,” Mr. Melville said. “Isn’t it about time we expect more from our executive search firm?”

Related: The Upskilling Deadlock to Continue in 2020

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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