Leveraging AI for Executive Search Success

Artificial intelligence is already starting to transform businesses everywhere, and executive search is no exception. Hunt Scanlon Media recently surveyed search leaders to discuss the implications of AI, its benefits and pitfalls. Let’s see what these experts have to say!

August 3, 2023 – In today’s fast-paced business landscape, the role of executive search firms has never been more critical in helping organizations identify and recruit top-tier leadership talent. The demand for exceptional leaders who possess a unique blend of skills, experience, and cultural fit has intensified, prompting recruiters to explore innovative solutions to stay ahead of the competition. One game-changing tool that has emerged as a strategic imperative is artificial intelligence.

AI, with its ability to process vast amounts of data and identify patterns, has revolutionized various industries, and executive search is no exception. As search firms strive to navigate the ever-evolving talent landscape, integrating AI into their operations becomes paramount to drive success and growth. Speaking recently with search leaders, Hunt Scanlon Media delved into how AI can transform the executive search process, empowering firms to make data-driven decisions and find the best-fit candidates to lead their clients’ organizations into the future.

According to industry experts, AI is reshaping the executive search industry by empowering firms with data-driven insights, accelerated candidate sourcing, and improved decision-making capabilities. “Embracing AI-driven solutions is no longer an option for executive search firms but a strategic imperative to thrive in a competitive talent market,” said an Aberdeen Strategy & Research report. “By leveraging AI effectively, executive search firms can revolutionize their approach, maximize their value proposition, and deliver exceptional leadership solutions that meet the evolving needs of their clients.”

According to a study by Korn Ferry, 63 percent of talent acquisition professionals agree that AI has improved their hiring efficiency, allowing them to make better decisions faster. As organizations recognize the potential of AI in executive search, some recruiters believe that this technology can become a key differentiator for forward-thinking firms looking to shape the future of talent acquisition. AI can forge new frontiers in executive search leadership recruitment, they say, and drive new levels of success for their clients and the organizations they serve.

Search Experts Weigh In

“AI will feature prominently in search over the next decade, but factors such as data and privacy regulations, costs, and technical skills may prove to be significant barriers to widespread adoption,” said Michael Henry, managing partner of Massey Henry. “In addition, firms will need to be mindful that AI technology remains expensive and, generally speaking, when available for commercial consumption, shares two key characteristics: a) it is literal and outcome driven, removing any gray areas of understanding or cognitive probability, and b) AI technology operates as black boxes in that there is no explanation provided for the decisions that were produced. Within the context of an executive recruitment, these characteristics could have significant impact on the process.”

Mr. Henry says that AI technology can be categorized into three elements: robotics (minimal application to search), cognitive insight (applied to search through data collection, candidate identification, candidate testing, analysis, and prediction), and cognitive engagement (applied to search through interfacing with candidates, clients, and prospective clients). “The second and third elements described above are most relevant to search,” he said. “In particular, AI and big data analysis can provide useful insights into client needs, candidate profiles, and detailed market mapping. For example, AI will, in time, provide predictive analysis to determine the likely success of candidates, creating efficiencies in candidate search and optimizing the candidate and client acquisition process.”

“AI technology has the potential to be helpful to the search process, but, as noted, it may be limited in its adoption within the industry by factors such as data and privacy regulations, technical skills, interpretation of outcomes, and costs,” Mr. Henry said. “There will be selective AI adoption overtime by SAAS firms operating within the industry, but the proof of concept and viability considerations remain significant. Ultimately, executive search is an inherently interpersonal activity requiring nuanced judgement and intuition; however, AI technology does have the potential to significantly improve recruiting processes, speed, and document production.”

“AI could be an important ally of search firms, bringing complementary information, but not as substitute,” said Giovana Cervi, managing partner, Signium Brazil. “On the other hand, for firms that are used to working with middle management and entry positions, there is an important space to help on evaluating technicity of profiles. We still don’t know the real impact and the full potential AI can bring it to any business; we just need to make sure we learn how to make the best usage of it.”

“We work with people, and that presents different cultural aspects, soft skills, personal background,” said Ms. Cervi. “For recruiting for C-level positions, those characteristics represent a huge impact on the decision-making process, as well as on the success of the hiring. It is not just about finding the right people; candidates need to be comfortable that the opportunity is also the right job for them. Besides all behavioral and technical evaluation, there will always be subliminal aspects that will be taken into consideration.”

“AI can be used to complement search in the research phase,” said Carolin Fourie, managing partner, Signium Germany. “A lot of person related data is not available at present or the data available is outdated. More importantly, the best-suited candidate is not only defined by his professional experience, but by his soft skills. I do not foresee that algorithms will pick up the soft factors in the near future. In my eyes a consultant who is familiar with the client’s company culture and the candidate’s personality cannot be replaced by AI.”

“AI will continue to be heavily implemented in contingency search, where the volume and transactional nature lends itself better to process automation,” said Brian Evans, practice director, Signium USA. “In high-level retained executive search, the qualities that differentiate a great candidate from other qualified candidates are their values and soft skills: leadership, communication, influence management, etc. As executive search consultants, it is our ability to not only evaluate these qualities, but match them to our clients’ cultures that will continue to drive our success in an increasingly automated industry.”

“I don’t envision AI leading search firms as such, but I do see plenty of possibilities for AI as an invaluable tool for search firms,” said Gertjan Van de Groep, global president of International Executive Search Federation (IESF). “The biggest advantage of AI in recruitment is its potential to take care of more mundane tasks, so consultants can focus on real life interactions and make the difference in that area. In that sense I see how it will greatly benefit search firms who are ready to embrace AI as we have done.”

“Absolutely, there’s potential for accuracy,” Mr. Van de Groep said. “Just a few years or even months ago, we could hardly imagine that AI would be where it is today. Thus, I won’t rule out the possibility of future advancements. However, at present, AI still has its limitations. It can identify hard skills and generate shortlists of potentially suitable candidates. Yet, when it comes to assessing soft skills and finding a cultural and personal match, humans remain irreplaceable.”

“We’ve begun to leverage these technologies to create summaries of vacancies and assist in drafting job descriptions,” said Mr. Van de Groep. “While specific knowledge about the job and the company still needs a consultant’s touch, AI has proven beneficial in rapidly generating well written text. And with the rising importance of visual appeal in candidate attraction, we use tools like Dall-e to create eye-catching images that accompany job descriptions.”

“Furthermore, we’re integrating AI into our applicant tracking system, while making sure to maintain privacy within our secure system,” said Mr. Van de Groep. “This enables us to quickly find candidates with the right experience and hard skills to match job requirements withing our own database. Outside of that we also use AI tools to look for candidates online, which is promising but the tools still need to improve to be truly useful in our experience. Finally, our most recent endeavor involves exploring how AI tools can assist candidates in interview preparation. For instance, with ChatGPT, users can simulate realistic interviews by prompting the AI to emulate the hiring company.”

“While I’m hesitant to claim that AI will never replace executive search consultants—considering the pace of technological advancements—we’re certainly a long way from that reality,” Mr. Van de Groep said. “A significant aspect of executive search revolves around trust and cultural compatibility, areas where AI presently falls short and likely will for some time. That’s why we see AI not as a replacement, but as a potent tool that enables executive search consultants to perform their roles more effectively.”

“Many firms have already started using AI to locate hard to find or unexpected candidates, predict that those candidates are more open to approach, and automate first round interviews,” said Scott Jacobs, partner at Acertitude. “The next generation of AI impact is likely to be via support tools, with examples that include monitoring a live interview and suggesting additional questions, scanning backgrounds to suggest references, and suggesting and drafting emails to back up candidates when we haven’t kept them engaged. These tools will influence the shortlist rather than longlist and enable us to be more thorough.”

“Predictive models that indicate the likelihood of a candidate’s success in a role, or the likelihood that the person will gel with the existing teams is easy to envision,” Mr, Jacobs said. “Training the models, however, will be a challenge; the data which defines success is held in a variety of places (e.g. Bloomberg, Pitchbook, engagement data held in HR systems, assessments like Hogan, etc.). Intuitively, we can imagine the correlations, but a predictive model will be costly to build and will take years of feedback to refine. In addition to automated tools to build our target lists of candidates, we are working with several clients in specific, limited roles to define predictive success models that can be used for external search, as well as internal succession and development. This is in its early days.”

“We are paid to make sure our placed candidates succeed,” said Mr. Jacobs. “The follow-up lunches, calls, and ability to act as a confidant to both candidate and client further demonstrates the people business we are in, and how difficult that is to replace with AI. Ultimately, it’s about assuring success rather than a restart.”

Trying to predict the future of AI is a difficult task, according to Ruben Moreno, HR practice lead for Blue Rock Search. “Between the rapid evolution of the technology, the controversies and lawsuits over its use, and the training necessary to use it effectively, it’s a true wild card and likely will be for a while,” he said. “In the near future, I think AI can help search firms streamline some aspects of their business, which could in turn free up employees to further their skills in the aspects that need a truly human touch. AI, like existing software designed to assist with recruiting, is usually best suited to the automated parts of the process. Automating certain parts of the process, like basic resume screening, analyzing metrics, and researching candidate and company profiles, can improve efficiency and allow for a redistribution of labor and resources towards more innovation and more human connection. In turn, this can help lead search firms to new levels of success.”

“The important thing is to ensure that AI is used for what it is best at, not to try to just cut budgets and save time at any cost,” Mr. Moreno said. “Clients come to us for our expertise, but also for that bespoke feeling of having real, human experts work on a project – they’re not looking to have an algorithm solve their problems. AI’s value to search firms is in streamlining, not replacing.”

“In the world of executive search, we still feel that a human touch is necessary,” said Mr. Moreno. “Our people review resumes. Our people reach out to candidates and communicate with clients. Our people do the work to qualify candidates. For us, we’re seeing that AI is best for repetitive tasks where humans don’t bring ‘added’ value, like handling scheduling. In these cases, the tech is baked in to many tools we already use, and it’s geared mostly at just making our lives a little easier. It can also be useful when we’re handling data for clients in RPO relationships. When we need to crunch numbers and create reports, AI technology can make that happen, and having software do it vs. a human by hand doesn’t make a difference in terms of valuable, quality output.”

“On the other hand, we are not using AI for any predictive analytics about the suitability of candidates for positions, or to eliminate people from the pool early on,” Mr. Moreno said. “We feel that humans can make better, more specialized judgment calls. This is especially true when a client is looking for diverse candidates for a specialized role – we don’t want to eliminate people early just because they don’t fit a specific, on-paper profile. AI would skip over these people because its ‘predictive’ abilities wouldn’t see their potential, but human recruiters understand the nuances of possibility and can understand how resume keywords don’t tell the whole story.”

Quite simply, AI cannot replace executive search consultants because this is an industry that requires human connection, according to Mr. Moreno. “We’re in pursuit of talent that fits specific roles, and we’re always looking for ways to improve our successes – but those technologies always will come second to the people-centric nature of the field,” he said. “AI might be able to smooth the way for some of our work, but it can’t replicate what we do. Executive search consultants often find top talent through passive searches, especially when it comes to highly specialized talent. AI tools, like other technology solutions, aren’t prepared to do the work required to manage passive searches, certainly not as well as a skilled recruiter can. This kind of technology can only work with the information it’s fed, so it can’t find information that it doesn’t know exists.”

“The potential is there for some real revolutionary gains in productivity, but it is unknown at what point that horizon of sophistication will be where it becomes a valuable tool for search firms,” said Ryan Kellner, head of the data science, quantitative analytics, and IT practice at Hudson Gate Partners LLC. “Right now AI largely exists as a decent HR tool for sorting and grading existing data such as 100 current applicants for a certain job, writing some good job descriptions, or using resume scraping and AI chatbot functions to ask initial screening questions to candidates.” The evolution of this comes if AI systems can be trained with enough data to see who may be getting ready to make a move, or to automatically recommend companies/titles/candidates based on a role and a set of existing candidates/employees, says Mr. Kellner. “There will also be some interesting applications of machine vision during video interviews to further assess aspects of personality, loyalty, truthfulness, creativity, empathy,” he said. “Companies like HireVue, Modern Hire, Spark Hire are already working on such things. At what point will they resemble the empathy test from Blade Runner? Hard to say.”

“What AI lacks (right now) is the ability to predict and identify people who have not applied to a job,” Mr. Kellner said. “The passive candidate pool if you will. However, that could be accomplished to some degree if systems could trained with large enough, real time datasets on companies, economic indicators, and similar career moves of industry peers. Of course, it would face the same challenges that we face when finding candidates who have very little description of what they do, or candidates who have scraped themselves off social media and LinkedIn. What is a deeper challenge, and the real art form of executive recruitment, is taking that valued employee that you have identified who has been in a job for a few years and to take him/her on the journey from not looking to open to listening to interested in a role to active applicant.”  

“Finally, leading that candidate through an interview process and ultimately to accept a role often requires a personal connection, constant feedback, and a degree of trust to get him/her to leave a known role, company, and peer group to accept something new,” said Mr. Kellner. “That is a hard process for AI to replicate.”

“AI will impact search in at least two ways: making executive search professionals more efficient through time-saving advances in software, and making search more accurate through AI-driven data techniques,” said Daniel Baker, project manager at ECA Partners. “The firms who are best able to collect and harness data will have the most opportunity to use data to improve their operations.”

Machine learning algorithms can certainly increase the accuracy of sourcing and help to predict which candidates will do well in a particular role,” Mr. Baker said. “That said machine learning algorithms certainly cannot replace the sourcing and vetting process entirely. Machine learning is prone to being gamed by candidates, who use the same AI tools to shape their materials and profiles, then effectively overstate their qualifications and fit. Machine learning also makes large errors and misses where it misses the context of the information provided. Finally, machine learning can have significant issues with using protected categories, such as race or gender, to evaluate candidates, which present significant moral and legal problems if misused.”

“Our firm has invested in staying at the forefront of the use of data, machine learning, and AI as a means to improve our search process,” said Mr. Baker. “It is an ongoing process of improvement, and we are well on our way.”

Mr. Baker cites four reasons why AI can’t replace executive search consultants: “AI struggles to evaluate EQ and other important soft skills,” he said. “AI based on limited data sets can be gamed. Clients are also not interested in removing interaction with professional service providers for such important decisions. And translating anti-discrimination moral and legal restrictions into AI is extremely challenging, and these restrictions form the backbone of ethical recruiting.”

Related: How to Use AI to Stand Out to Executive Search Consultants

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

Share This Article


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments