So you want to be headhunted?
ROAD TO SUCCESS: Although there’s no single method of attaining a top executive position, being noticed and shortlisted by a reputable executive search firm certainly won’t hinder your chances, says Ruth Curran, partner at MERC Partners
Executive search firms are becoming increasingly common in Ireland as companies attempt to seek out top talent, and they can also be of benefit to ambitious top executives looking for career progression. Linda Gillett reports.
AMONG companies looking to fill senior vacancies, the trend these days is to enlist the expert services of an executive search firm. So, although Irish executives hoping to make the next move on their career path can follow several routes to get to the top, getting noticed and shortlisted for opportunities by these firms should be a top priority for them. “There’s no one avenue to get to the end goal,” says Ruth Curran, partner at MERC Partners, an Irish executive search and selection company. “Particularly in Ireland, people will use their own alumni and networks in addition to a search firm. But it’s certainly good to engage with a search consultant as you progress through to the very senior ranks of your career. More and more companies tend to use search consultants primarily to take the risk out of the process.” In Ireland, using executive search is the preferred option for many companies, specifically in cases where the skills/experience are in short supply; the client wishes to keep the appointment confidential; the ideal candidate sought is not actively looking for a job change; or when the client cannot approach key prospects. An executive search provides the option of recruiting discreetly for a senior position. The process involves the executive search firm using considerable research, consulting and diagnostic skills to identify, validate and recruit the very best leadership talent that the marketplace has to offer. Search-and-selection firms use two basic strategies to identify candidates. Desk research involves using in-house information, knowledge of the markets and people, annual reports and published business information to identify individuals within particular industries and at specific levels in an organisation. The second strategy — sourcing — is one where the executive search firm uses various industry contacts from a variety of fields to provide a list of potential candidates.Search firms will typically talk to industry specialists for a general view and also to more technical experts on individuals’ technical expertise. While it is mostly true that the search firm will make the initial call to the candidate, a well-qualified executive who wants to progress their career can also make the first move.
Indeed, a search firm can be a valuable career reference point in terms of providing general professional advice, assessing market opportunities and benchmarking individual executive skills. Though senior executives have the freedom to advance their career independently, Curran highlights the benefits of the structured process involved in engaging with a search firm. “Certainly a candidate can expect a number of things they may not achieve through an unstructured process or by hearing about something on the grapevine. For example, when you become an executive search candidate looking to elevate your position, you are entitled to the highest levels of confidentiality from a search firm and client organisation.” She emphasises that the structured process allows candidates to know what to expect from the outset, in that they are given clear communication and written briefing documentation. “A search candidate doesn’t become part of the process until a search consultant has made a really good evaluation of their suitability for the role, and, most importantly, that they’ve actually expressed an interest. If any of those criteria are missing, you cannot be considered for the position.”
‘We do look for candidates who have a track record — without that, it’s difficult to progress an individual to shortlist’
One of the key strategies to get on the firm’s radar is to raise your executive profile within a particular industry. Executives who have effectively delivered presentations, engaged in speaker conferences, contributed to roundtable discussions and written bylined articles for industry publications and professional journals will be noticed immediately.
Networking, continual professional development, membership of relevant professional bodies and industry associations, a high-level media profile and client testimonials all signal interest in professional development and career progression. However, nothing is as fundamental as being able to demonstrate a track record of achievement. “We do look for candidates who have a track record — without that, it’s difficult to progress an individual to shortlist,” Curran notes. The profile, reputation and standing of the executive search firm and its consultants are all important considerations on the part of both the client and candidate. Curran says senior executives should consider firms with an established track record. They should research the company and undertake background analysis of the position to gain an understanding of the company and the culture. “In current times, reputational risk is of overriding importance. You need to find out the firm’s principles.” The entire process can be lengthy, considering the added fact that most senior executives will have a notice period of between three and six months. “Search assignments can take anywhere from four to eight weeks, from the initial engagement to meeting with the client. A good search firm shouldn’t go beyond that timeline. All considered, you are looking at between three and six months, from the negotiation of an offer to the release of the candidate from their current organisation. “It’s not a process that you need to rush in terms of getting candidates to express their interest straight away. At a senior level, you’ve got to let them think about the opportunity, conduct their own due diligence on the firm and decide whether they really are interested.” Curran’s advice to candidates is to prepare extremely well — not only for the meeting with the client but also with the search consultant. This preparation includes understanding the business model and the issues that face the organisation, reading annual reports and being fully aware of the job description.