Why Executive Searches Fail

It doesn’t matter whether executive searches are conducted internally or externally. The rule holds true either way: executive searches will continue to fail at high rates because the recruiting industry has not invested in the kind of expertise required to find good candidate data. For executive search to be good — not bad — it must match force with the explosion in the amount of data available on candidates, companies, and industries.

That data are scattered like buckshot across the Internet. And if you think you can find it simply “googling it,” you’d be sorely mistaken. A great deal of valuable information is tucked away in databases not visible to search engines. It lies hidden in the Invisible Web. It takes someone who can do more than Google a candidate’s name to find it.

The Rise of Anarchy in Candidate Data

IDC estimates the amount of digital data will grow 40% to 50% per year. By 2020, IDC predicts the number will have reached  40,000 EB, or 40 zettabytes (ZB). The world’s information is doubling every two years. By 2020 the world will generate 50 times the amount of information and 75 times the number of information containers.  In fact, Michael Walker, the Managing Partner of Rose Business Technologies, describes the what we’re witnessing is the Rise of Data Anarchy.

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Data is the Forest: Candidates are the Trees

As data order gives rise to anarchy, increasingly, executive recruiters can’t see the forest for the trees.  The wonders of LinkedIn put aside for a moment, most senior executive searches and C-Level technology searches fail because candidate research and sourcing best practices haven’t changed in more than 50 years as roles have become more specialized. Recruiters are still searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The problem, though, is that the haystack now resembles Mt. Everest.

As a result, too many important executive searches languish unfilled because a star candidate that could have been hired was not. Our retained search firm The Good Search and our recruiting research practice Intellerati are frequently called in to rescue “hard-to-fill” searches where previous efforts have hit the wall. In every instance, we discover traditional search firms had overlooked A-players standing in plain sight. For them, too much information got in the way.

The amount of candidate data available to those of us in executive search is, undoubtedly, the mother lode. So many amazing executives are a boolean search string or a LinkedIn connection away.  But if you stop to think about it, the manual and traditional work of recruiting still remains — the heaving and lifting required to determine whether a candidate is qualified, interested, able to relocate, and (yes), sane. In addition, more channels and methods of communication — social networks, texting and tweeting, along with an ungodly amount of email —  have multiplied the amount of communicating we do. So recruiters are busier. They look productive. However, there’s an extraordinary amount of wasted effort. Some recruiters realize their workload is greater, but cannot manage the onslaught of candidate data and technology to grab it.

Moreover, the candidate tracking systems rarely keep up with the shifts. It’s hard to get information in and information out sometimes. If you really stop to think about it, there isn’t yet a way to dial up a list of the best candidates who are available . . . or is there?

Eureka, I Found It

Think Nate Silver. (You can check his RBIs (Runs Batted In) and ERAs  (Earned Run Averages) that when crunched in the right way can lead to incredible game-changing hires. That’s where the big data bus is headed. You either climb on board or risk getting left behind.

Executive Search “Best Practices” Outdated

Widely accepted executive search “best practices” have become hopelessly outdated given the data explosion. Candidate identification and development processes were established before the rise of the Internet and have changed little since then. Yes, technology has made advancements, but the work flow and the way we think about executive search have changed very little in the past fifty years. Executive search research — so-called sourcing — began as a secretarial chore. Eventually librarians were brought in to organize the classify the data, and so what emerged was a pink collar ghetto of female researchers. They frequently identified, developed, and recruited the candidates that the search partners subsequently placed with clients. They rarely got the credit and had no path to partner.  The research consisted of checking industry information, assembling target company lists, and target candidate names. The researcher or associate would then call through the list of names, and produce a slate of candidates. It is an approach that continues to this day, but it is so very wrong.

One of the biggest problems with traditional sourcing is its obsession with assembling lists of candidates. The approach never examines other sources of data. It hyper-focuses on gathering information, but rarely pauses to determine what it all means. It doesn’t go to the trouble of connecting the dots.  That’s like buying a book, but refusing to read it, all the while insisting that simply having the book made you smarter. It simply doesn’t work that way.

Big Data Requires Big Expertise

Serious research transforms data into actionable intelligence. It speeds time to hire and increases the quality of each hire. It’s not the kind of work that can be handed off to off-shore sourcing teams at 5-dollars an hour. It’s not the kind of work you give to an intern, unless the student resembles one of these kids. It is not the kind of talent drawn to executive search and recruiting. If you have a knack for investigating and finding things out, if you have the ability to spot patterns others have missed, if you have a passion for information science, data mining, computer-assisted research, or competitive intelligence, you aren’t going to wake up one day filled with the impulse to become an executive recruiter or even a sourcer. Boolean search strings are not going to hold your interest. The best research talent goes elsewhere where they develop expertise as they grow their experience. And that’s okay.

Employers who want to take executive search to the next level simply need to dip into those talent pools or partner with the right executive search research firm with investigative expertise recognized outside the world of recruiting.

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