Technology has changed the game in executive search, making it imperative to find new ways of creating value for clients, says John Ellis, CEO of Savannah Group. “With platforms such as LinkedIn providing readily available information on candidates, we’ve seen a disintermediation in the industry as some businesses attempt to go directly to the market.”
Ellis certainly doesn’t pine for the pre-digital days of paper-based files and a consultant’s ‘black book’ of contacts, but believes it was easier to differentiate yourself. “It was about who you knew and had access to – whose number was in your black book – in the 1990s when I started out in executive search and even in 2002 when we set up our business,” he says.
In fact, Ellis was a name in the headhunter’s black book of contacts when they suggested a career switch to executive search after more than a decade working in the technology industry. He continues: “Nowadays, however, identifying candidates is only a very small part of what a good executive search consultant does.”
According to Ellis, consultants must also be sales people. They sell the dream of that next executive position to candidates who might not be on the job market. He explains: “We have a huge number of senior people in our Invenias database who’re in executive positions. Many are comfortably settled in their jobs. But what if we’re conducting a search and believe one of these executives is a perfect match?
“This is where a good consultant adds value. It’s their job to convince the executive that this is the right career move. While networking platforms are great for tracking career progression, they don’t build these personal relationships with candidates.”
He says that further value is added through deep market sector expertise. “An in-house professional is typically more generalist, with knowledge concentrated on industries or functions within their own organisation’s area of operation. This limits the field of search.
“Executive search firms have a far broader reach. For example, a technology client looking for a senior finance executive doesn’t necessarily need someone with technology industry knowledge, rather it’s about their experience in finance. In this instance, we might have candidates in retail or financial services who could fit the bill.”
Ellis says that clients’ requirements are changing. “They want executive search partners to find both long-term and interim executives, while being more flexible in the way these services are delivered and priced. Our industry has been slow to evolve in this respect, with a three-phase billing process that has changed little.
“But now clients sometimes want an executive search partner to support them in different ways – perhaps to provide a market mapping as a stand-alone project rather than as part of the end-to-end assignment. Then they might undertake part of the process themselves and companies like ours need to work with their in-house teams, not against them.”
Ellis believes that digital makes working with an increasingly global talent pool easier. “In the past, executive search firms often handed off international assignments to a local partner. However, we prefer to use our technology to manage client and candidate information centrally, without the need to bring in a local provider who often doesn’t have the same client intimacy.
“Our consultants travel overseas to nurture the long-term client relationships that are the essence of good executive research. In doing so, they know that they can access all the information they need from our central Invenias platform via their iPad or iPhone.
“This brings me back to my starting point of how technology is changing the game. We’re using digital to deliver a better service, no matter where a candidate or client is based. Crucially, our approach reflects the belief that those organisations unable, or unwilling, to adapt to new ways of working to meet client demands simply won’t survive.”
John Ellis ... on the spot
Describe your business style
We’re a client-first firm. We know there’s no such thing as a one-size fits all approach. Internally, we are adult, professional – and fun. Yes, we’re ambitious and work hard, but it’s also important that we create a fun place to work in.
What has been your toughest business decision?
We’ve built a family at Savannah and losing staff for whatever reason is painful. Making a decision to let someone go is the is the worst part of my job, but I am the custodian of the whole team, so it’s something I have to do occasionally.
Where would you like to be in five- or ten-years’ time?
I’d like to keep developing the business. We’re already actively looking at succession plans to take it forward. Savannah has been like a baby that I’ve nurtured, so I’d love to retain a long-term role as well.
What would you be doing if you weren’t in executive search?
I’d have no problems filling my day. I am already chairman of a golf club and, as a cancer sufferer, I’d want to carry on supporting the various cancer initiatives and educating people in terms of prevention.
Tell us something surprising about yourself
I have 130 different gins – and am still adding to the collection.