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Reflections on 20 Years of Executive Search

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Tim PappasTwenty years ago, I was told that our industry was dead, done in by the internet, with places like Monster and fly-by-night job boards revolutionizing our fractured and aimless industry. Networks of companies with huge databases of talent were going to be the death rattle of our gasping industry. What nearly did in our industry was not the internet, or some hard-charging job board, but the events of 9-11 and the serious financial meltdown of 2008-2009. Search work, it seems, dries up in lean times, and it was more of a threat to our continuity than any internet-based competition. By the end of 2009, an unprecedented number of recruiting firms went out of business, and many of the players in the industry went to do other things to earn a living. Even when the economy improved, many stayed away.

Our industry has changed in fundamentally different ways, and it was largely unpredicted. Who, in looking at the landscape of the talent acquisition, could have predicted the transparency of the market brought to us by LinkedIn? What force created the demand for talent so acute that the only way for a company to keep its talent would be to create an organizational environment so employee-friendly that no one would want to leave? That, in my 30-years of industry experience (20 as the leader of my own practice) has been the fundamental shift in the search industry. Personally, I was never nervous about LinkedIn or ZipRecruiter threatening our business. It has never been about candidates in times of feast or famine. It has always been about selecting the right candidates who can thrive in a business long-term.

Despite all the improvements such as the transparency of the professional marketplace or internet technology, for many companies, it is a matter of casting position postings into the market pool and hoping someone will strike at the lure. Few companies understand the process of interviewing enough to control it like they would a precision machine. Rather, they have just enough success to delude themselves into believing their process is effective at hiring.

All hires are not equal (although they should be)

Many companies take more care in hiring processes at higher levels while they willingly let their processes run amok at lower levels. While some rationalize that the impact at a lower level is low, however, lax hiring practices tend to spread in a company, and once those practices invade higher-level positions, executives are often powerless to maintain the processes.

We’ve had floods and droughts of talent throughout my 20-years, and there are positives in each. In dry markets, as they seem now, talent rises and organizations hire stunningly different workers than they might have done otherwise, and to their surprise, many worked well beyond what internal biases may have told them. The gluts of talent tend to clear out the untalented, opportunistic search firms that seem to do no one in our industry (and our clients) any good.

I have held, correct or not, that it has always been about the selection (and it will always be the selection) separating the long-lasting firms from the fly-by-night operators in an industry with pathetically low barriers to entry.

Moving forward, what might dramatically change our industry may not be technologically-based in the end, but I suspect it is more likely to be legal or state regulations. In the meantime, the key to success in the search industry is helping companies understand selection.

About the Author:

Tim Pappas is a principal with Pappas DeLaney, LLC, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm specializing in working with CEOs and top-management teams on leadership strategies and organizational alignment for corporations nationally.