Executive recruitment: a blended approach works best

Executive search firms have renewed significance today because of the strategic challenges faced by most large life sciences companies

(Continued from “How to eliminate hiring process inefficiencies”)

My last article for pharmaphorum was about improving hiring processes. As part of that debate, and set against the pressure to cut costs many managers are facing, some companies will be questioning what value they receive from their use of executive search firms, maybe exploring the potential for significant cost savings by taking all search assignments in-house.

This is not a new idea. Ever since I’ve worked in human resources I’ve heard a variety of positive and negative views from in-house HR professionals on this topic. But it has renewed significance today because of the current strategic challenges faced by most large life sciences companies. This is about more than cost, however, companies need to find and attract talented executives who can safely navigate through the sector’s current challenges and help their employers emerge ahead. With over 15 years in-house experience and two more working for an executive search firm, I’ve witnessed both sides of the hiring process. Through this article, therefore, I’m going to show how a middle way, where in-house recruiters partner effectively with external search firms, is far better than simply taking a ‘one or the other’ approach.

In-house recruitment, in my opinion, is one of the organisation’s most critical support functions. The war for talent is real and intensifying, confirmed by numerous reports (see here for just one recent example, page 20-27 refers).

 “In-house recruitment, in my opinion, is one of the organisation’s most critical support functions.”

It is therefore vital that the senior executive team has an HR resource that truly understands the business strategy that’s being pursued. Without that how else can those responsible for hiring bring the very best talent available into the organisation? In order to do this, the recruiters need to work very closely with key stakeholders in the business to understand both their short- and long-term needs, and, in turn, help them build an effective and functional workforce plan. Together they will need to identify key skills requirements, plot any existing gaps, understand staff turnover figures, agree retention plans and diversity targets, plus the numerous other key factors that go towards determining internal talent planning and external strategic sourcing needs

More often than not the hiring manager will be the technical functional expert but the HR recruiter also plays a key role in the hiring process by ensuring they deliver a cost-effective, timely, candidate-focused, quality service to the business. Forging strong relationships with their hiring manager colleagues is the only way the HR recruiter can hope to create a compelling, differentiated proposition to in-demand job candidates that ultimately results in a successful executive hire. Prudent candidate care during the hiring cycle – identification, short-listing, interview rounds and final offers being made – is paramount because the selling process is very much a two-way street.

Having all of this managed in-house, with the key performance indicators outlined in my last article in place, allows the company to keep tight control over the process and the ‘employer brand’, it promotes consistency and allows for continuous improvement. For those reasons, and also for perceptions of cost-effectiveness, there can be a reluctance to engage external search firms. For years when I worked in-house, I had a rather negative impression of the self-declared, loftily-titled executive search consultants. Many that I met were consultants in name only, some were unapproachable, arrogant, very expensive and at times rather clandestine in their approach. This led me to wonder not only why I should work with them, but also where do they add value and would I really want someone like that acting as an ambassador for my company? More often than not the conclusion was no.

Since moving into the executive search sector, I’m conscious that outlook remains among many of my former in-house peer group. But at the same time, I’ve also noticed what appears to be a lack of understanding of what genuine executive search consultancies actually do. Unless they are well-accustomed to regularly hiring very senior-level executives, in-house HR recruiters are unlikely to have had the exposure to gain that understanding. We, the consultants, can do more to show them.

“How else can an executive search consultant add value to an HR recruitment team already working hard to identify and secure key talent?”

The key, for me, is to demonstrate the desire to invest time and effort to truly understand the client’s business. To add real value you need to understand the company or business unit’s strategic goals and skills gaps, whilst building longer-term relationships with key stakeholders both within line management and in HR. More often than not, the use of a search firm is seen as a ‘very costly’ form of recruitment. Clients often come to us after trying all other avenues, we’re their last resort. While understandable, consider the hidden costs of wasted hiring efforts, delayed plans or leaderless functions and suddenly ‘very costly’ takes on a different dimension. By engaging the search firm earlier, the speed of hiring can more than mitigate the search fees payable, ultimately making the process more cost-effective.

How else can an executive search consultant add value to an HR recruitment team already working hard to identify and secure key talent? The answer is in the extra breadth of industry understanding. In-house HR professionals almost certainly will have a very good depth of understanding of their own business, in some cases also an idea of what’s going on in the industry. But as a consultant, it is vital to have that wider knowledge and to be well networked with key opinion leaders. This breadth and depth of industry and sector expertise gives the ability to conduct a proper market assessment on specific, senior-level assignments that ultimately adds real value as a strategic partner.

For in-house recruiters, it’s hard to give the specialist focus and attention required on these types of complex assignments due to the higher volume of overall recruitment they have to manage as well. We are able to devote the required level of focussed time and effort on identifying, targeting and assessing the right individuals to gauge their competence and cultural fit for the role – the aim being to deliver the best available candidates in the market place at any given moment.

Unless you’re a ‘destination’ employer offering a dream job, you’re going to need both objectivity and advocacy. Search consultants bring the former because their job allows them wide access to other companies in your sector. This helps alleviate a natural tendency for in-house recruiters to portray their employer subjectively, offering an inherently-biased, sometimes ‘rose-tinted’ perspective of the company and role. Passive candidates, those who aren’t looking for new roles, can often only be approached by someone who’s invested time to build a trusted relationship with them, often over several years and previous roles. The search consultant who has this network can be the hiring company’s advocate, convincing passive candidates to consider roles they might not otherwise.

“Effective partnering can lead to significant business benefits through the quick delivery of the best available talent in the market place.”

I hope by now that I’ve demonstrated some of the key ways a true search consultant adds value to the in-house executive recruitment resource. As we have seen, improving an organisation’s executive recruitment challenges in not so much a question of in-house or external search firm, more one of an appropriate mix of both. Effective partnering can lead to significant business benefits through the quick delivery of the best available talent in the market place.

About the author:

Tom Bradley is a senior consultant with specialist executive search firm Euromedica. He is former head of R&D talent acquisition at Pfizer UK. Tom.Bradley@Euromedica.com