Leadership Is Changing, and So Are Client Relationships with Search Firms

Morten Nielsen and Andrew Chastain

Leadership is changing, believes Morten Nielsen, global managing partner of WittKieffer’s Life Sciences Practice and a veteran executive recruiter. Executives are looking beyond creating shareholder and stakeholder value toward a broader purpose in their work.

Nielsen has even more reason of late to keep an eye on leadership trends, as he recently became chair of the global board of the Association for Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC), the professional association for consultants who represent exemplary standards in executive search and leadership advisory worldwide. The global board of directors is responsible for gauging change and moving the executive search profession into the future.

In the interview below, Nielsen talks about talent with WittKieffer president and CEO Andrew Chastain. As leadership changes, they agree, so does the relationship between search firms and their clients.

Chastain: The demand for great leadership is as great as it’s ever been. But do you see any trends in terms of the types of leaders organizations are looking for today?

Nielsen: I do, Andrew. The intense competition for leadership across all industries is not abating, but there are seismic changes going on in terms of the type of leaders being recruited. Leadership is changing in relation to how the purpose of organizations is defined: maximizing shareholder value is still an important component, but not the only one. We have recently seen leaders elevating themselves above others by emphasizing a purpose to their work related to the community, employees and specific causes. Meanwhile, other leaders have been tripped up by ignoring such trends.

Chastain: I’ve seen this as well—leaders are defining success with a broader purpose than in the past. Related to this is the Business Roundtable’s recent statement on the purpose of a corporation, which emphasizes a benefit to employees, suppliers and communities in addition to profit. Executives seem to be taking this to heart. I wonder, does this shift in the definition of success change the way that organizations recruit leaders?

Nielsen: I think it does. There is no silver bullet for attracting the best leadership talent, but it starts with creating a culture of organizational self-awareness and utilizing that to be very transparent with candidates as it relates to the organization’s mission and its risks and opportunities. It’s critical to show genuine interest in the candidate beyond the resume. This includes understanding their personal situations, what it is they are seeking to achieve personally and professionally.

The other important aspect that we always coach our clients on is providing a superior candidate experience. The best candidates are in high demand and will have choices. Providing exceptional candidate care will enhance the chances that the candidate will want to work for our client’s organization. Even if they don’t end up in the leadership position, they will speak highly about the organization, enhancing its market attractiveness.

Chastain: Every senior leadership search, in my mind, is much more than a transaction. It’s a chance for serious reflection about a specific role as well as about the state of the organization and what it needs in its future leaders. Do you feel that organizations sometimes miss the big picture when they look to recruit new leaders? Can search firms like ours help them to see it?

Nielsen: Well-planned and executed leadership transitions can catapult organizations to new levels of performance and impact, and organizations often miss these opportunities. I think that the executive search and leadership profession can and should play a major role throughout the process of leadership transition, from succession planning through identification, leadership assessment and recruitment, and post-placement onboarding. Executing a strong and integrated transition plan is the best way to ensure that a new leader has early and lasting positive impact on the organization, and that the transition becomes a chance to truly effect change.

Chastain: Are companies using or partnering with search firms differently than in the past? How has the role of executive search firms changed in, say, the past 10 years?

Nielsen: The way we partner with our clients has changed dramatically over time because the needs of our clients have changed. For starters, the profession offers a much broader suite of executive search and leadership consulting solutions, reflecting the increasingly critical nature of leadership and talent to the performance of organizations. Globalization is, today, a very significant aspect of our client relationships. The marketplace for the most senior leadership roles across most industries is completely global and, in order for our profession to effectively partner with our clients, we too need to operate globally every day.

Chastain: Our own research tells us that clients want search firms they can trust, but that’s only one component of many. Do you see this from your perspective as chair of the AESC board?

Nielsen: Yes, definitely. Let me start with what the AESC found when conducting in-depth client research less than a year ago. When asked, “What are the most important factors to you in selecting an executive search firm?,” the top choices by a significant margin were industry or functional knowledge, followed by market reputation, then followed by a trusted advisor relationship. What I read into this is that, although the relationship is important, the expertise and reputation of the firm and its consultants is even more important.

My personal experience tells me that industry or functional knowledge have become increasingly important factors for our clients, and our profession has responded by developing strong industry and functional specialization. From the same client research, we also learned what our clients want us to do better. That includes placing more diverse candidates, improving our understanding of their business, ensuring cultural fit and delivering results faster. The executive search and leadership consulting profession will need to respond to these challenges, and I’m sure it will.

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