A New Paradigm for Executive Search?


Lately I’ve been researching and talking to various leaders in a number of global executive search companies.  It’s no small industry either, being estimated at close to $10 billion. And at some point almost all large companies utilize executive search, whether to find non-executive board members or chairmen, to bring in a new CEO or key senior executives, or to evaluate and benchmark internal executive and management talent.

My overall take is that it’s pretty much a me-too industry, with executive search consultants being able to easily job-hop from one firm to another, of course taking their “little black book” of contacts with them.  And filling a position for a client is pretty much a task of searching a database of those with the right characteristics of experience, industry expertise, and in a few cases, “cultural fit”.  Most have even added the extra service of having potential candidates fill out psychological profiles in an attempt to weed out those who might have difficult personalities or just not right for the pace, pressure or preferences of the company.

And since the internet has made potential candidates easily “findable” and the process more open, companies like LinkedIn and other social networks have begun to seriously compete with the traditional retained search business model.  Now there are many more channels available to both the job seeker and the company looking for new hires.

executive_search 2

So what really differentiates one global search firm from another? (I think the same question could be asked of the large global accounting firms as well).

Most of the large global search firms are looking to add value and differentiate through the addition of ancillary services, such as leadership development coaching and training, culture change, team building, career planning, and even diversity and inclusion programmes. The most diverse of those on the differentiation trail is Korn Ferry International, where a large percentage of their revenue comes from ancillary, non-search services. Most others are playing catch up.

But is this really what CEOs and internal recruiters are looking for?  I wonder if real value and differentiation could come from a new approach to candidate evaluation and selection?

For example, most evaluation processes focus on the candidates capabilities for the role or position.  Search consultants review the work history of the candidate and the positions they have held as well as the technical and management skills they have acquired to see if they match the open position.

They also look for commitment.  Will this person stay around and get “stuck in” or are they a serial job hopper always looking for advancement?

Then come the psychometric tests to get a glimpse into the personality and character of jobsthe individual.  Most of these tests are pretty weak in determining real leadership and executive talent, but they are, according to the psychologists, statistically valid!  My feeling is, so what if a person is an introvert or an extrovert. I’ve seen great executives with both characteristics. So what if they are “difficult” or “different”? So was Steve Jobs and hundreds of others who help move companies forward.

Courage and Compassion: Active Caring

So maybe we need to look at a couple of other indicators of leadership capability.  I suggest that beyond Competence and Commitment, recruiters find a way to also evaluate Courage and Compassion.

Courage is the willingness to speak up when its unpopular or politically incorrect, but the right thing to do.  Courage is the action of stepping in when there is a missed schedule and helping out, even if it’s not your department or function but you know you can add value.  Courage is tell the customer the truth about his or her shipment.  Courage is speaking up when meetings go off track and everyone is avoiding the real issues.

And there is no real leadership without Compassion.  We are not dealing with just objectives, a P&L or a set of numbers as leaders.  Leaders also must be understanding and aware of the needs of employees, customers, communities, the environment, all of which are a part of the company’s ecosystem and impact performance and sustainability.  Compassion for teammates having a difficult time at home or who have had their confidence shaken by a setback. Compassion for suppliers who are struggling.  Compassion is not sympathy, but “active caring”.  Getting engaged with the issue and the person to help make things better.

By only looking at Competence and Commitment, many “perfect” candidates wind up being part of the problem instead of the solution.

Think about Competence, Commitment, Courage and Compassion the next time you are looking to recruit for a leadership or executive position.  You just might be surprised at how your selection improves.

John R Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
This entry was posted in consulting, corporate culture, Human Psychology, John R Childress, leadership, Life Skills, Organization Behavior, Personal Development, Psychology, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A New Paradigm for Executive Search?

  1. Michael McNally says:


    As is most often the case, you and I tend to agree on many things. This is no exception. I believe all four Cs are key considerations when searching for top executives. Given my forty plus years helping organizations in a variety of ways, I’ve seen a fifth attribute make a very big difference when searching for a top executive. Many of my client organization have benefited greatly by selecting a senior team member who has the ability to quickly get in place and begin to see sizable opportunites or possibilities for improvement – not only in their domain or department but across much of the organization. Some of them have favorably impacted gross revenues while others … EBITDA. The best of them manage to stay above the fray of the incremental – not condemning smaller changes – but always looking for game changers and finding ways to get them implemented.

    The business leaders that I’m thinking of have called upon the Four Cs (above) and their deep communication and enrolling skills to get their ideas across to fellow execs so as not to be a threat or create unnecessary time wasting resistance.

    Problem: I cannot come up with a “C” word to convey my message. Any ideas?


  2. “My feeling is, so what if a person is an introvert or an extrovert. I’ve seen great executives with both characteristics. So what if they are “difficult” or “different”? So was Steve Jobs and hundreds of others who help move companies forward.”

    Exactly right. Calling a questionnaire ‘psychometric testing’ does not turn the art of executive search into a science although it conveys more status to do so.


  3. Chris Hardy says:

    Here at EMA Partners we appear to subscribe to a set of values and best practices quite different from those of the search firms you spoke with. Before I challenge some of the points / assumptions, let me agree with you that: Yes, it’s difficult to differentiate one global search firm from another; No, I also don’t think that CEO’s and Boards are necessarily looking for a ‘one-stop-shop’ to provide a range of ancillary services on top of executive search; Yes, courage & compassion: are crucial dimensions of effective leadership.

    Now allow me to challenge some assumptions:

    ‘Filling a position for a client’ is achieved not by searching through a database alone. That element of a search is very small: in our case (and this ought to be true for all genuine retained executive search firms) highly skilled, professional researchers assess the market, using various tools and approaches. In this way, outstanding talent is identified, talent that will not necessarily be recorded in any database.

    ‘…candidates fill out psychological profiles…’: Experienced and skilled consultants interview candidates, interrogating behavioral competencies in addition to confirming capability.

    Short-listed candidates attend a rigorous assessment, moderated by a qualified psychologist, and tailored to the job type by means of a relevant battery of tests, both psychometric and competency-based in nature. Testing a candidate’s E.Q. is an important aspect of this.

    Notwithstanding the above, I wholeheartedly agree that a client will be well served if critical selection criteria such as your 4 Cs are observed when conducting an executive search.


    • Charles:

      In principle, we are in violent agreement. However, what actually happens during a search is not always the same as the principles you and I are talking about.

      Why is it that a senior executive in banking is fired after two years for not doing the job, then shows up at another bank in the same position, lasts for two years, and then shows up at another bank in the same job (a real example and not just a one off case). Both the search consultant and the hiring client are taking the easy route and filling a slot rather than looking for real excellence.

      When the fee is contingent upon lasting in the job and making a positive difference, then the theory and the practice will get closer together.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s