View from London: The Year-Long Journey of a Search Firm Through COVID-19

Not everything has been gloom and doom for the executive search industry this year. Among the recruitment firms more than holding their own is U.K.-based Per Ardua Associates. Though challenges remain, revenues are growing, completion rates are up, and leadership searches are faster and more efficient than ever.

December 8, 2020 – As disconcerting as the COVID-19 crisis has been, executive search firms have found that not everything this past year has been dire. In fact, there have been valuable lessons learned and successes won over the course of 2020. One firm, U.K.-based Per Ardua Associates, a high-end firm specializing in financial services recruiting, has seen its revenues continue to grow and business in most practices, if not all, faring well.

In 2019, Per Ardua Associates’ revenues were up by about 20 percent over the year before. This year, meanwhile, is looking to be seven percent higher than last. “If you had told me in March that this would have happened, I would have laughed,” said Simon Hearn, the firm’s chairman. “It has been quite a journey and a hugely interesting one from a management/leadership point of view. If I knew then what I know now, I would have slept better and would have enjoyed myself a lot more.”

Per Ardua Associates, founded in 2008, is based in London. The firm conducts searches in the U.K. and Europe at the C-suite and board level. Included in the organization is Pantheon, a leadership consulting business, focused on assessment and senior-level coaching in financial services. “Per ardua” is Latin for “through adversity.” In English, the phrase “Per ardua ad astra” is often translated as “Through adversity to the stars.” It is the official motto of the Royal Air Force.

Executive Recruiting in a Post-COVID-19 Era
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a big impact on every business sector, executive recruiting included, costing organizations billions of dollars in lost revenue. Goldman Sachs estimates that economic growth around the world will be zero in 2020 thanks to the virus.

For the executive search industry, where recruiters are constantly traveling to have face-to-face meeting with clients, things have changed drastically and search consultants have had to adapt to a whole new way of conducting business. “It’s obviously hard to know what the lasting impact will be, but there are a couple of things I expect will change. The first is obviously client expectations around timing,” said Anthony Harling, founder of Not Actively Looking.

“With all the pressures of lockdown, economic downturn and Brexit, our clients have shown extraordinary fortitude, remaining strangely confident and on the whole, continuing to hire, albeit for replacement and not growth reasons in the main,” said Mr. Hearn.

Related: The COVID-19 Impact on Executive Search

That is not say there were no issues or concerns. “Critical has been the mental health of our employees, which has meant keeping close to individuals and continual communication,” said Mr. Hearn. “It has been difficult to business develop with clients, especially new ones, over this period, which has meant close cooperation between us to stay relevant and communicate with our client base.”

Looking Forward

Back in March and April, one of the challenges going forward was the understandable reticence of candidates. “We advised clients and held back on approaches until May when people had got used to COVID and lockdown,” said Mr. Hearn. “Non-Executive director recruitment continued throughout.”

Today, of course, the crisis rolls on, even with the encouraging news of potential vaccines. Mr. Hearn and the leadership at Per Ardua Associates, like search firms everywhere, know that many challenges remain. “But we are quietly confident,” said Mr. Hearn. “We have the right teams in place and in fact have just made our first hire over this period: Oji Okole has just joined us as an associate, head of execution performance, and co-head of our DE&I team.”

“Many firms will have had similar experiences but I suspect it is the high-end specialist firms that have done particularly well – providing accurate and highly experienced recruitment for clients – over this difficult period,” he said.

“For us and 2021, we think it will be a slow first and maybe second quarter but returning to pre-COVID conditions thereafter,” he said. “In the U.K. we have the additional factor of Brexit. A deal will make a huge difference to next year; no deal will impact although financial services firms seem to be well prepared.”

Related: Talent Acquisition Success Factors in the Age of COVID-19

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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