To thrive in today’s executive search market, firms must take ‘extreme ownership’ of client needs, believe Acertitude Managing Partners Rick DeRose and Kevin O’Neill.
Indeed, they assert that as internal talent teams have grown more sophisticated and capable, the expectations placed on external partners to perform and deliver a great search experience have become exponentially higher.
DeRose and O’Neill are an inspiring pair, having co-founded their executive search firm to drive strategic change in the industry, which they felt had lost its client focus. Since founding Acertitude in June 2015, DeRose and O’Neill have charted a course built on their purpose: to unleash human potential for clients’ organizations. Like the private equity firms and corporate businesses they serve, they are intensely focused on delivering better results and better experiences.
O’Neill believes that a key change in the market in recent years is clients’ increasingly sophisticated buying patterns. He says, “Clients have become better consumers of search. They know what they are buying and we’re seeing far more rigor around the process used to select the right search firm — and that’s a good thing.”
For DeRose, an equally important change is the growing influence of private equity (PE) investments. “This has exploded over the last decade,” he says. “Private equity touches over half of our business in some measure. We’re frequently identifying C-suite talent for portfolio companies, as PE firms look to build more effective playbooks that involve leadership due diligence You just can’t execute an operating strategy and monetize a business without great people.”
Private equity is clearly a force of change for Acertitude, but can the same be said of digital, which many see as a game-changer in the industry? DeRose, who leads Acertitude’s technology practice, responds: “We’ve all been using digital for several years, such as digital apps, CRM tools, and marketing analytics, and we run our business on the Invenias cloud-based platform.”
“I now see a real opportunity to move towards Digital 2.0., where we’ll see greater use of AI and big data. While I think this will gain traction in the research and selection aspect of what we do, we mustn’t forget that our works centers around personal connections, so we need to be thoughtful about how we adopt AI,” he continues.
O’Neill agrees, saying: “I recently interviewed ‘the father’ of emotional intelligence, Dr. Daniel Goleman, asking if he thought AI would replace human interactions in the talent market. He said categorically ‘no.’ So much of human communication is non-verbal and what humans bring to the mix at the highest level of search is hard to replace.”
Both agree that there is a significant place for new technology and it’s just a case of getting the right balance. Combining AI to yield richer data on individuals with human knowledge and experience will help to mitigate selection risks, they say.
They face a challenge in this, however, as the industry faces up to what O’Neill says is its biggest issue, “From early 2000 to 2010, the recession saw a lack of new talent being developed. This has resulted in a major gap of executive search and recruitment talent today.”
The two Acertitude partners are unequivocal on the need to develop home-grown talent to address this shortage. Recruitment is one avenue, but it’s not enough, they say. That’s why the firm has established a center in Los Angeles to develop internal talent. “We’ve made a conscious choice to invest in our own talent,” says DeRose.
O’Neill continues, “Our internal talent team recognizes that this isn’t just a transactional business – it’s not about recruiting people with a book of business, but about finding and nurturing people who match our culture and mission, and for whom being client-first is in their DNA.”
If talent is the industry’s primary challenge, costs are a close second, according to DeRose. “We operate in a world with increasing costs while there’s simultaneously more pressure to manage profitability. We must find more ways to add value.”
O’Neill says that elevating the type of engagement the firm undertakes is one way to create more value for the client. “We’re not seeking commodity relationships. We aim to bring value as trusted advisors, helping clients shape smart talent strategies to support their broader transformation initiatives.”
DeRose and O’Neill speak of Acertitude’s own story as a journey with an aggressive growth trajectory, and a mission to make a difference. They believe success lies in the culture they nurture within their firm. “It’s about stopping, looking, and listening,” they both say. “Taking an extreme ownership mindset to be of service to other people.”
“We live in a noisy world where the loudest voice isn’t necessary the one talking the most sense. We encourage our team-members to take time out and replenish themselves, both physically and mentally. We never forget that our business is a people business and to make the greatest impact, we need to care about our people first.”