Executive Search Redefined in the Brexit Era

The surprise EU Referendum outcome in the UK has created very considerable uncertainty. For most Boards ensuring access to, and being able to hire, the best available talent has become a priority. Successful business will need to be adept at navigating complexity – it is here to stay. Attracting talent, including internationally, will provide competitive advantage. The scorecard for Executive Search is mixed. But in this Overture we argue that “Executive Search redefined” provides answers to a key business challenge of our age.


Poor Process Won’t Do

You may well counter that the Executive Search industry did not always cover itself with glory in a pre-Brexit age when times were much easier and good Candidates saw opportunity where now they see risk.

Frequent criticisms levelled at the industry were:

  • Unimaginative long and short lists comprising “the usual suspects” representing a very real lack of diversity.
  • A lack of process and project management so that clients had little visibility    
  • Poor outcomes representing a low return on investment for clients: the real cost here related to the unfilled role, or a poor appointment to a key position.

In the Brexit-age this will not do. Uncertainty levels are exceptionally high for corporates and Candidates. A poorly executed Search will only serve to amplify that uncertainty.

But there are also myriad examples of successful Search outcomes which manifestly deliver and add value. Clearly in the current environment employers need increased confidence levels in the hiring process. Therefore it is worth our while unpicking why and when Search succeeds. The outcome is “Search redefined.”


“The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world.”

Steve Jobs


Disrupting the Search Model

Well before Brexit the Executive Search business model was already undergoing  significant disruption. After all the Search industry started life in a pre-internet era. Its purpose was to identify and discretely approach Candidates who were frequently not visible to employers. Technology has changed the presumption that Candidates are difficult to identify. Technology based offerings like LinkedIn have proved a powerful disruptive force for both the recruitment and Executive Search industries.  
With technology at their disposal, many corporates have taken large swathes of hiring in-house but success rates remain varied. And for critical senior hires best practice involves a third party to ensure the best and fairest outcome.

It’s Not Just About Finding People

A redefinition of Search is clearly underway and this matters for any company looking to attract the strongest talent in the Brexit era.
One of the first and most important lessons we learn from the analysis of a successful Search is that there is much more involved than “simply finding people”. In this Overture we identify those key steps. The findings certainly challenge traditional thinking about Executive Search; more importantly they provide tools for corporates intent on securing the best talent.

Tough Thinking and Role Definition 

So often in the Search process one hears “we’ll recognise the right Candidate when we meet him/her”.
Yes, of course there is scope for being open to truly outstanding individuals. But losing sight of the role, its purpose and its deliverables is a major cause of poor Search outcomes. The on-boarding process arguably starts with the role definition and a compelling Candidate Brief. 
Frequently hard thinking is required in role definition and Fidelio does not underestimate the politics that may be involved. For a senior role this will inevitably be linked to delivering the strategy and objectives for the company.  The advantages of doing the heavy lifting in defining the role upfront are clear:

  • Candidates gain clarity and confidence about what the role entails, and what they’re signing up to. This reflects favourably on the employer and also allows a degree of self-selection by the Candidate.
  • By defining deliverables, both employer and Candidate have a transparent framework for measuring and reviewing success.  
  • And last but absolutely not least by focussing on the role rather than the individual, companies achieve diverse outcomes. There is a resolute shift in focus from – “we want somebody from this background” to “we need someone who can achieve the following”.

You may well challenge that in the Brexit era there is so much uncertainty that deliverables are impossible to define. Successful companies will very obviously require agility, speed and flexibility. These attributes need to be hard-baked into the deliverables expected from the top team.

  This is where Executive Search “redefined” has a clear contribution – reviewing, shaping and challenging role descriptions. And there are tools and techniques available to do this effectively.

Fidelio is unwavering in advice to clients – time spent upfront on getting the role description and Candidate Brief right is seldom wasted. Our experience demonstrates that setting the Search up to succeed is probably the single greatest determinant of a good outcome – surely a vital message for attracting talent in the Brexit era.

Herding the Hiring Committee

It is commonly assumed that Searches fail because the Search firm has not been able to identify the elusive Candidate that meets the role description. Industry wide research suggests the root of the problem is often deeper (i) a poorly thought through role description and (ii) lack of alignment among the internal Hiring Committee.
Very rarely does one person single-handedly make senior hiring decisions.  In public organisations or quoted companies this would be considered very poor governance.

While cultural fit is a very real consideration, and a number of companies talk about organ rejection, it can also be a fig leaf which hides poor decision making or timidity about embracing diversity.

Frequently, when a hiring process starts to drift more and more executives are pulled in to the interview process. This seldom contributes to clearer thinking or gets the process back on track.

Furthermore, the cost to the organisation of tying up so much executive time in a Search process that has lost its way is seldom calculated. The real cost of course is the failure to fill a key role or the risk of a poor hire.

Hiring a senior executive represents a major investment.Capital investment of a similar amount would be subjected to a rigorous approval process with a defined oversight committee; it is surprising that the investment in individuals who can have a very profound impact on the value of the company frequently lacks the structure and discipline of capital investment.
From experience the optimal size of a hiring committee overseeing the selection process of a senior executive is typically three to five people. The wider organisation will be comfortable delegating authority to this committee which in turn will demonstrate responsibility. 

Members of the hiring committee can and should hold different views and perspectives. Search firms should absolutely contribute to the internal alignment process around a given role and, if further additions need to be made to the hiring roster during the selection process, this needs to be handled with care and caution.
The Brexit era will require agility and flexibility. Companies that bring clear, disciplined and timely decision making to the Search process, including a lean and aligned hiring committee, will be the winners in hiring talent. The Search firms that support them must contribute to this process.  

The Above Average Interviewer 

It is surely an urban myth that senior executives are automatically good interviewers. Some are, but there is evidence that the quality of interviewing including in large corporates is very uneven and this represents a major risk in attracting talent.  
Once the role description has been defined and the hiring committee aligned, a well-structured rigorous interview process sends an important signal to Candidates as well as furnishing the information that the employer requires.
If four interviewers are involved in the hiring process, there is little point in rehearsing the same questions. The Candidate Brief can provide a very effective structure to the interview and the interview process. Interviews that are not thought through in advance can be impressionistic, repetitive and deeply subjective. Yes cultural fit is important but so is building a diverse leadership team and one of the best ways of ensuring diversity is through a transparent, fair and structured process.
Traditionally the Search consultant may have conducted initial interviews and then stood right back. But in “Search redefined” companies are right to expect advice, guidance and support on the interview process. As economic uncertainty increases, effective, well-structured interviewing will become the hallmark of the attractive employer and the accomplished Search firm.


“Movement of labour and access to talent are among the most crucial issues on the Brexit agenda”

PwC, Brexit, immigration and access to talent: Being part of the solution, 28th July 2016


Search Partners

It is clear that business in the UK and beyond is entering a period of disruption. The ability to attract and hire talent will provide competitive advantage. Traditionally Search partners have been appointed largely because they know a given market; with the challenges ahead Executive Search is being redefined to offer substantially more. Corporates are right to ask of Search partners:

  • What is your track record in role definition?
  • How accomplished are you in aligning a hiring committee?
  • And what is your contribution to a successful interview process? 

Clearly Search is but one element of building a successful Board or Executive team and Fidelio has commented extensively in previous Overtures on the importance of development and succession planning. But in a tough market “Executive Search redefined” represents a powerful advantage for companies that are intent on building agile, innovative and effective leadership teams.

Fidelio High Notes – October 2016

Fidelio – Board Development and Executive Search

Fidelio supports Chairmen and CEOs in building and developing highly effective Boards and Executive teams, strongly placed to navigate complexity and change. Fidelio achieves this through Search, Development and Evaluation.

For further information on Board Development and Executive Search, or Fidelio’s “A Seat at the Table” Programme please contact Mark Cumberlege, alternatively call +44 (0) 207 759 2200.

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