April 18, 2019 – Technology has changed the game in executive search, making it imperative for recruiters to find new ways of creating value for clients. “With platforms such as LinkedIn providing readily available information on candidates, we’ve seen a disintermediation in the industry,” said John Ellis, CEO of U.K.-headquartered executive search firm Savannah Group, in a new report by Invenias, a global provider of cloud-based software for executive search firms.
Mr. Ellis doesn’t long for the pre-digital days of paper-based files and a consultant’s “black book” of contacts, but believes it was easier to differentiate oneself in the past. “It was about who you knew and had access to – whose number was in your black book – in the 1990s when I started out in executive search and even in 2002 when we set up our business,” he said.
Mr. Ellis, in fact, was a name himself in a headhunter’s black book of contacts when they suggested a career switch to executive search after more than a decade working in the technology industry. “Nowadays, however, identifying candidates is only a very small part of what a good executive search consultant does,” he said.
With over 20 years’ experience in recruiting, Mr. Ellis knows the industry well. He specializes in corporate governance best practices and works with public, private and private equity-owned businesses in a range of markets, recruiting board chairs and non-executive directors.
According to Mr. Ellis, search consultants must also be good sales people. They sell the dream of that next executive position to candidates who aren’t necessarily looking to leave their job. “We have a huge number of senior people in our database who are in executive positions,” he said. “Many are comfortably settled in their jobs. But what if we’re conducting a search and believe one of these executives is a perfect match?”
John Ellis on Motivation –“I have particularly enjoyed putting together a team of outstanding search professionals and seeing our business grow and develop. I have always felt there is a demand in the search market for a ‘challenger’ brand that is prepared to challenge the model and the way that search has typically been undertaken. It is very gratifying that so many of our clients seem to agree.”
“This is where a good consultant adds value,” said Mr. Ellis. “It’s their job to convince the executive that this is the right career move. While networking platforms are great for tracking career progression, they don’t build these personal relationships with candidates.”
Further value is added through deep market sector expertise. “An in-house professional is typically more generalist, with knowledge concentrated on industries or functions within their own organization’s area of operation,” said Mr. Ellis. “This limits the field of search. Executive search firms have a far broader reach. For example, a technology client looking for a senior finance executive doesn’t necessarily need someone with technology industry knowledge. Rather it’s about their experience in finance. In this instance, we might have candidates in retail or financial services who could fit the bill.”
Mr. Ellis said that clients’ requirements are changing. “They want executive search partners to find both long-term and interim executives, while being more flexible in the way these services are delivered and priced,” he said. “Our industry has been slow to evolve in this respect, with a three-phase billing process that has changed little. But now clients sometimes want an executive search partner to support them in different ways – perhaps to provide a market mapping as a stand-alone project rather than as part of the end-to-end assignment. Then they might undertake part of the process themselves and companies like ours need to work with their in-house teams, not against them.”
Mr. Ellis believes that digital makes working with an increasingly global talent pool easier. “In the past, executive search firms often handed off international assignments to a local partner,” he said. “However, we prefer to use our technology to manage client and candidate information centrally, without the need to bring in a local provider who often doesn’t have the same client intimacy.”
While large search firms have offered a myriad of talent offerings for years, they’ve more or less kept their traditional fee structures intact. That’s provided an opportunity for boutique firms to move in and fill a widening gap, especially in the area of pricing reinvention.
Robin Levitt, president 4D Executive Search, is one such player. She’s developed a search firm that offers an expansive range of services – from retained and contract recruiting to contract-to-hire and even hourly search solutions. “Our clients,” said Ms. Levitt recently in a wide-ranging interview with Hunt Scanlon, “have found that our culture, approach and processes are a unique fit for the way they now do business. I continually hear that it’s our flexibility, focus on solutions and depth of understanding that leads to better outcomes”
“Our consultants travel overseas to nurture the long-term client relationships that are the essence of good executive research,” Mr. Ellis said. “In doing so, they know that they can access all the information they need from our central Invenias platform via their iPad or iPhone.”
“This brings me back to my starting point of how technology is changing the game,” he said. “We’re using digital to deliver a better service, no matter where a candidate or client is based. Crucially, our approach reflects the belief that those organizations unable, or unwilling, to adapt to new ways of working to meet client demands simply won’t survive.”
Savannah Group was launched two years ago by the former U.K. office of global search firm Boyden. Savannah’s team of 50 includes 20 partners that are specialists in their fields, including board and corporate functions, financial services, hospitality travel and leisure, industrial, digital and media, sport & entertainment industries. Corporate functions filled by the firm include: finance, human resources, IT / digital, and sales and marketing.
“We offer a bespoke service, not trying to force a one-size-fits-all solution on businesses that increasingly value a more modern, flexible way of working,” said Mr. Ellis. “Independent and more agile, Savannah believes it is well placed to deliver the tailored experience organizations are seeking, without clients having to compromise on quality or global reach.”
“Digitization is forcing businesses in all industries and sectors to re-think their products and services and prioritize the customer experience,” he said. “The executive search and interim industry has the opportunity to harness the power and potential of this to deliver an exceptional end-to-end experience.”
When asked where he seeing Savannah Group in five to 10 years from now Mr. Ellis responded that he’d “like to keep developing the business. We’re already actively looking at succession plans to take it forward. Savannah has been like a baby that I’ve nurtured, so I’d love to retain a long-term role as well.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media