Not Just The Big Fish

Published: 1 March 2008

Executive search is no longer just about the top jobs. But how does it work further down the food chain? Greg Pitcher Investigates.

Some HR departments steer away from using executive search companies because they feel it will be too expensive or they are worried about the old cliché of shadowy figures sliding up to senior executives in smoky bars. But the ‘search and select’ industry has undergone major changes in recent years and is now more likely to feature relocating people across continents and drawing up long-term talent management plans, using a range of tools to meet a much broader demand from HR professionals for personalised recruitment aid.

One area this increased demand manifests itself in is the headhunting of middle managers, traditionally seen as below the threshold where headhunting was necessary.

Middle Ground

Search giant Odgers Berndtson set up a separate branch, Odgers Select, three years ago specifically to meet demand for headhunting of employees in the £40,000 to £90,000 annual salary range.

These are people critical to the business, those in the engine room rather than on the bridge,” says managing director Kester Scrope. “We are looking to fill those positions that execute business strategy and have an input to it.”

Such day-to-day decision-makers include operations directors, general managers and senior HR staff.

“We were founded because our clients were asking Odgers to get involved in this range [of jobs], they wanted search rigour brought to the senior-to-middle management level,” says Scrope.

The scale of demand is clear as the new division has doubled in size in the past year, opening new offices in Manchester and London. Its success against traditional recruitment agencies in the middle management market is down to the way it can focus on filling a position.

The difference is expertise,” says Scrope. “We have people who consult rather than talk at you, we have access to the biggest and best candidate pool and we are a retained service. I don’t think a contingency recruiter could ever be as rigorous because they will throw a candidate’s CV across the desk of all their clients.”

Integrated Role

Search and select companies also go to greater lengths to integrate themselves with their clients rather than traditional recruitment agencies. Scrope’s team meets HR directors at industry events to lay the groundwork to fill posts before such posts have even arisen.

“We then talk to the client and even ask to meet any of their employees who are in similar positions to the role they need to fill if that is appropriate. We will often walk the floor to get a feel for the workplace. Cultural fit is very important.” Prices have also come down, in line with the lower value of jobs that are being targeted. “We are less expensive than traditional search and select companies, and pride ourselves on being commercially attractive even compared to mass-market recruiters,” says Scrope.

Jo Sellwood, managing director of Strategi says HR professionals are looking for more and more from search and select firms.

“Because talent is in such short supply, the clever companies are getting very close to their strategic parties as they can do so much more than recruiting,” she says. Strategi talks to its clients about where their businesses are going and takes a role more reminiscent of a consultancy firm than that of a head-hunter.

“Confidentiality is critical here, you have to have trust and the confidence to challenge the client’s way of doing things,” says Sellwood.

Flexible Approach

Among the ideas that Strategi introduces to its clients are allowing workers to operate from remote locations and previously unconsidered internal promotions.

“One of the things we often do is ask where staff need to work,” Sellwood says. “We operate flexible working, and it is a way of life to us, but lots of companies find it much harder to do.

“We talk to clients about the possibility of people working from different places and [different] hours – you are not just looking in a particular location and market."

As well as remote working, relocations are now de rigour. Strategi recently brought someone to the UK from Tokyo, and has sent British workers to work in the Middle East.

“We search globally, and move a number of people from one country to another,” says Sellwood. “But we also look at internal moves, even where companies have succession plan. Sometimes we look at whether an interim solution is more relevant than a permanent one."

This is all far from the traditional method of headhunting senior executives in City wine bars.

"We now have HR people asking us to go and talk to them about their talent management,” says Sellwood. “

Very often we write a brief and look at company structures. We help write job specs and what a job will look like in phase two or three. We also get watching briefs to look at talent pipelines.”

Strategi also helps employers sell themselves to potential employees.

“Candidates are extending due diligence these days, wanting to look deeper into companies and so we are helping firms become well-oiled machines and sell themselves to the candidates,” Sellwood adds.


Nigel Hawkins, director of the executive division at Ashley Kate Associates, has been with the specialist HR head-hunter for six years and has seen plenty of changes to the search and select market in that time.

“The first thing is the more confidential nature of search,” says Hawkins. “Old-school search might have meant going out speaking to potential HR directors and being quite liberal with the information supplied by clients. Now it is all about anonymity and confidentiality. The only time we will use a company’s name is at a face-to-face interview."

This confidentiality is critical because a key difference between traditional search and select firms and their new competitors the recruitment agencies is that the former look for candidates who are not actually looking for jobs.

“These people are delivering results where they are, but invisible to other people recruiting and agencies,” says Hawkins. “We go to candidates that otherwise would not apply for a role."

Another important tool of the modern search and select firm is technology.

"We have specialised in HR all this time and have a computer information system dating back years. We don’t need to make as many clandestine telephone calls because we have the information we need right at hand,” says Hawkins.

“We can have five or so pages of contact and portfolio information on a client. We also have information on people that were earning £50,000 five years ago and might be ready for an £80,000 job now.”

He agrees that search and select firms play a different role in the modern world.

“There is more of a consultative element now, we go out and understand what companies are looking for. We occasionally find we are better versed in modern HR than our client, as we specialise in what we are all about.

Client Experience

Phones 4u

Odgers Select recently worked with Phones 4u to find the retailer associate sales directors. John Welsh, retail operations director at Phones 4u, appreciated of the extra value the firm added to traditional recruitment.

“Quickly understanding the role brief and the culture of our business, the candidates we have met were all very capable. We were provided with sound and accurate assessments, and of the 13 candidates we interviewed through Odgers, we have appointed six of them,” he says.

"Coupled with this, the quality of process and candidate management has provided real added value. We have been kept regularly updated with progress and we didn’t lose any candidates through the offer management stages. We were well advised”.

We suggest that if a client has asked for person X, they might be better served by considering candidate Y or Z.” Hawkins says.

In addition, he has some words of advice for HR professionals using search firms.

“The way HR [practitioners] can help themselves is by ensuring they create healthy relationships with their supplier. In some businesses, the supplier will have a relationship with a PA rather than a decision-maker, which is not the healthiest way for the relationship to be successful.”

Scrope adds: “With more complex channels, it’s getting more and more difficult for companies to access a big enough candidate pool. Credible selection companies will always be able to access better candidates, so trusted companies will provide more and more value.”

The main reason for the growing market is that search firms are being called in for ever lower-value jobs as the skills shortages bite.

Hawkins says: “We work across the board, from six-figure salaries to temporary HR administrators on three-month contracts. Headhunting is being seen more at a lower level.”

Perhaps Sellwood sums it up best, when she says: “Talent management is becoming increasingly important because there are lots of jobs and not enough candidates. And search and select companies have an increasing role in talent management.”

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