Silver-Haired Lessons in Search and Recessions


There will always be a crisis in our lives. With respect to the Covid-19 virus, it's encouraging to watch people and countries pull together, especially to help those most in need. Let's hope we can mitigate the virus soon, learn from its lessons, elevate our awareness, and improve how we respond in the future to the next threat.

As with other recessions, we can expect the executive search industry to lose significant momentum, and I'm sure we'll lose search firms as well. Given that I'm in my fourth decade delivering retained search, I'll skip the panic stage and prepare for the future and the pending rebound. This recession will be different because the US economy was very strong when it began to recede. Once we get back to some sense of normalcy, I expect our economic growth to be robust. Considering this, I encourage my friends in executive search to leverage a few learning opportunities.

At least in the life sciences industry, there will be clients who need our significant expertise to find new leaders not only to develop desperately needed new vaccines and biologics, but also to fill CEO and Board roles in companies developing new therapies for other unmet medical needs, functional leaders in the CDMO space to provide critical support to drug developers and manufacturers worldwide, and specialists in cell and gene therapy. As a testament to this ongoing need, we are starting a new Chief Medical Officer search this week. This one for a leader in immuno-oncology.

The post-and-pray problem

I've been building and leading search and recruiting teams for 34 years. Delivering top leaders to companies trying to save and improve lives is indeed very fulfilling. We recently were experiencing one of the strongest candidate markets in modern times. Companies had increased their use of AI and still were struggling with a real thirst for talent. At the same time, good candidates complained more loudly than ever that they couldn't get anyone to take their calls.

In the search industry, I've been concerned with how many retained recruiters have developed an overreliance on technology to fill searches. LinkedIn is a useful tool, but some of the top people in most fields within the life sciences industry aren't even on it. As a retained search consultant, if you rely only on technology, your search effort is little more than a post-and-pray strategy. That makes you no different than most in-house talent acquisition teams, and certainly less than what your client expected when negotiating your fee.

Relationship-driven search consulting

Clients turn to retained search because of our connections to people, not because we rely on technology to do our jobs. Even in this market, I am taking calls from new clients who want to know if I can do a fast placement for a mission-critical position that has been open for a year. The calls are all the same: "Bob, who do you know?", not "Bob, what tech do you use?".

Today's technology is so impressive that any researcher can claim to be accountable for a market under search when all they've really done is identify names and titles. Do you see all these gaps and missed opportunities to develop true relationships under a research-only process? Even as talent leaves our industry due to the current economic state, I consider this a time to find, develop and retain the best people interested in doing search at the highest level. This is so important now, given the risk of good people being displaced and good companies not making it through this tumultuous time. The connections top search consultants have are vital to hastening the rebound for vital industries such as life sciences.

It is during downturns when great search consultants can shine. To do retained search at the highest level, one must understand how to motivate a best-in-class executive to even consider change. Top people are approached every week by recruiters, so it's important to be able to differentiate yourself immediately, be someone the candidate wants to connect with, and understand what candidate care is and practice it.

Remembering our mission

I remember the struggles in my first decade in search (with no Internet), and it was through those struggles that a considerable work ethic was born. The reality is I'm painting a picture which acknowledges that our work is not for everyone. To develop into a real expert in retained search, you need a business intellect, work ethic and prideful perseverance to succeed under the toughest circumstances - including a pandemic. Being able to go beyond technology, to forge true connections with people, will only make our industry stronger and more effective in helping the important clients we serve.


Category: Articles

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