Why Technology Will Never Replace Executive Search

The business of finding and securing talent has been transformed by technology over the past 15 years. The biggest changes have taken place in the processes used to hire and develop entry and mid-level people in organizations. That world is full of Applicant Tracking Systems, Recruitment Process Outsourcers, on-line job posting and candidate databases. If you engage an executive who runs an internal recruitment function for a large company in a 30-minute conversation, I can pretty much guarantee that they will spend 25 of those minutes speaking about systems and technology.

Our business is focused entirely on senior executive positions – so-called “C-level” executives – who run companies or divisions, or report to the people who run them. In our part of the talent-finding world, technology has also had a significant impact. We use sophisticated databases to identify executives and many forms of technology to communicate with them. If it is too expensive or time-consuming to interview them in person, we use Skype. Since everyone in the world has at least one cell phone, we can usually reach out directly to people we want to speak with, instead of trying to leapfrog over executive assistants.

So, it’s true that technology has changed how we do our work. In many ways, it has made us more efficient. For years I have been hearing about how firms like ours will be put out of business by technology – why would you need a search firm if you have LinkedIn? But the longer I am in this business, the less I worry about that.

Why? Because so many of the things we do to make a search a success have nothing to do with technology. Furthermore, I can’t imagine how these things could be replaced by technology. Here are a few examples of some of the things I have done in the past several weeks that were done the same way 20 years ago and will probably be done the same way 20 years from now…

  • I got on a plane and flew several hundred miles to meet with potential candidates for a President role with a large division of a client. I wanted to meet them in person because, among the many other requirements for the role, a charismatic leadership style was required. Can you easily and accurately assess charisma through a computer screen? Probably not, and neither can I.
  • I had a “heart to heart” conversation with a finalist candidate about compensation to try to bridge the gap between what she was seeking and what the client wanted to pay. She ended up taking the job.
  • I had lunch with an executive we placed in a senior role a few months ago to hear how things were going and brainstorm ways he could deal with some very difficult internal issues in his new company.
  • I convinced an excellent candidate to throw his hat into the ring for a search we were conducting, suggesting he withhold judgment on some negative feedback he had received on the company for the time being.
  • I told one client to back away from a candidate they loved because of some information about them that just didn’t add up, and I told another client to relax about a great candidate they were worried about after doing some in-depth references.

My colleagues here at SSG could make a similar list every day of this kind of activity, and how it ultimately is the most essential part of what we do. It is our judgment, our empathy, our insight, our intuition and our persistence which often leads to success. Sure, we love the whiz bang tools, but I’m not looking over my shoulder, worried about a digital replacement.

John Salveson
John brings more than 30 years of experience consulting with a broad range of organizations, including life sciences and pharmaceutical companies, banks, insurance companies, manufacturers, professional service firms, healthcare providers, retailers, service organizations and non-profit institutions. John helps companies define their talent needs and execute creative strategies to recruit and retain that talent.

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