April 15, 2022 – Tim Conti, managing partner and co-founder of ON Partners, has 15-plus years of experience working in executive search. He has completed over 150 C-level and board searches across a wide range of industries with a primary focus on public organizations as well as private equity institutions.
Prior to founding ON Partners, Mr. Conti worked as a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ intellectual property group, where he developed expert witness opinions for cases litigated before various federal court districts. In the following interview, Mr. Conti discusses his experiences working in executive recruiting and provides his expectations for the rest of the year and beyond.
Tim, give us a sense of what 2021 was like.. and what you are seeing as we enter Q2 2022.
2021 qualitatively was an incredible year. Volume was at a level that we as a firm had never before seen. Until 2020, we had grown every single year that we were in operation, and generally speaking, I would expect the average growth rates in those years to be close to 30 percent. We had seen growth every year, but like most companies, COVID created headwinds in 2020, particularly in the first half of the year.
The slow down in business that year was not nearly as significant as it could have been. It was more of a temporary blip for a few months, and then in the second half of 2020 business started to pick up. That continued into 2021, to the point where we initiated 100 percent more projects last year than in 2020. This helped return ON Partners to a growth trajectory at an accelerated pace.
And while we’re only one full quarter through 2022, we already see significant growth rates and a continued upward trend in our industry. Obviously, there are many external factors that could impact that. But right now, it looks like 2022 is going to be an incredible year as well, with significant demand and competition for talent.
To what do you attribute the big year?
A variety of factors were at play, including a shift in how companies compete for talent. Geographically, COVID taught businesses that were quite skeptical of remote work that you could operate virtually and be successful – not just from a financial perspective, but also in terms of maintaining and even building culture. Once companies started to see that, they opened up geographic recruiting opportunities that previously were not available. Whereas previously we were recruiting talent within a specific region or those willing to relocate, you can now take that off the table and connect to talent that previously was beyond reach. Companies have initiated a lot of top grading efforts under the belief that they can recruit talent that otherwise geographically was not available to them.
As challenging as it was, overcoming the problems the pandemic posed gave companies the confidence to effectively operate through a sizable external threat. It emboldened more aggressive leaders and companies to say, “There’s not much that externally can influence us that we can’t navigate through.” It will create challenges, but if we can operate, strategize and rebound through COVID, there’s not much else we could encounter that we couldn’t effectively manage through.
As it relates to ON Partners, it’s not time to be cautious; it’s time to be emboldened and pursue growth aggressively in new markets. In some ways, corporate development and M&A activity gave otherwise cautious leaders a shot of confidence in their ability to execute and they recognized it was time to invest in their businesses.
What has been lost from the process as a result of the last two years?
The biggest loss is of course live, in-person interaction, as this is tough to replicate via video. While video has served as a nice alternative, it’s just not the same as an in-person meeting, which allows you to really witness how candidates respond to questions and articulate their stories. Body language can also be extremely telling. I wouldn’t say these interactions have been eliminated entirely, but they’ve certainly been lessened.
The lack of live meetings has also caused the loss of bonding opportunities. In executive search, relationship building with your clients and candidates is often key to successfully delivering and completing projects and delivering a strong placement. Because ours is a business of trust, there’s no scientific way to certify that the person you’re about to hire is going to make the impact you’re looking for. It’s largely science-based, but at some point, you also are going on faith, your due diligence, your referencing, and your assessment process.
How have you maintained culture fit in placing candidates?
Pre-COVID, our initial step always included a day of on site meetings so we could gain a feel for an organization’s culture. In place of that process, we have increased the number of client executives with whom we engage at the outset of a search, even those who are not part of the search committee. These increased interactions give us a better sense of culture. They don’t necessarily replace the feel you get from an on-site visit, but the additional engagement gives us a sense of who a company is at its core, how its executives interact with each other, the overall environment, and how we can apply that cultural assessment to our evaluation of a candidate’s fit.