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Executive Search: Challenging, thrilling and the best gig ever

Six years ago, I penned a blog about reasons not to become an executive recruiter.The reasons are obvious and not so obvious: it is not as easy as it looks; it is more than knowing lots of people or wanting to help others; and for those who like predictability, you are dealing with people (who can be inherently an unstable product) and constant day trips covering a lot of ground. Think New York on Monday and Phoenix on Tuesday. Don't get me wrong. I have never doubted my career choices but the executive search industry is rife with former corporate executives who have come and quickly gone.

Fast forward to today and it is time to celebrate the executive search industry and those of us who have worked happily and successfully in this crazy business.

First, a little perspective. The executive search industry-the practice of companies engaging an executive search firm, paying a retainer and entering a partnership to recruit an executive-is relatively new. The first executive search firm, Heidrick & Struggles, was formed in 1953 by two partners from Booz Allen Hamilton. Korn Ferry, the granddaddy (or mother) of them all and my initial foray into the field, was started in 1969 by two KPMG partners. Similarly, Russell Reynolds and Spencer Stuart were organized by former bankers who wanted to parlay their commitment to client service into a different milieu. By the time I joined Korn Ferry in 1981, it was the largest search firm in the world.

Today, the executive search industry generates $13 billion in annual revenues. The largest firms have multiple offices worldwide, specialty recruiting groups (e.g. private equity, real estate, financial services) and ancillary businesses such as compensation, training and HR consulting services. With this degree of maturity and sophistication in the industry, the players have evolved as well. The original search firm founders pulled recruiters from their prior employers-predominately consulting firms-and soon a lot of bankers were joining the business. Now you see search firm partners coming from the C-Suites of a broad array of industries. What draws these executives to the executive search field?

  1. The ability to work with clients to solve business problems centered on people and leaders. Fortune 500 CEOs say their biggest challenge is getting the right people in place-finding and developing leaders. Most successful executive recruiters come from C-suite roles or consulting. Almost all executive recruiters have had prior work experience. They have learned a lot about hiring-from both their successes and mistakes-and can use that knowledge to help clients hire high-impact players. But they are more than order-takers. They offer perspective and wisdom.
  2. Variety. One of the most attractive offerings of executive search is the opportunity to learn different industries, and within those industries, to learn the nuances of different companies and positions. No two companies are the same and, therefore, require different types of leaders. Last year I conducted searches for a board member of a restaurant company, a CEO of a national not-for-profit, a chief marketing officer of a professional services firm, and a general counsel for a life science company. I did work in Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley. What could be more fun and intellectually challenging for a person who is thirsty for knowledge but has a short attention span? As an added bonus, few search engagements last longer than six months, and when you begin a search you really have no idea who or where the candidates will be. Many of us in the business love knowing that no two weeks are ever the same.
  3. Control of your destiny. The executive search industry is still fluid enough that a good recruiter can work in multiple industries of his or her choosing (unless you are with a mega firm that requires you specialize). A good recruiter can chose the cities where he or she works and even the clients he or she represents. Many years ago I became intrigued by the entertainment industry. I called and arranged a meeting with the head of human resources for one of the largest movie studios. Timing is everything. That meeting resulted in 16 searches over the next three years. And in addition to having impact on the client's burgeoning international marketing and licensing function, I visited its studios while George Clooney was filming his first TV hit ER. Most recruiters can cite many examples of turning companies they admired into clients.
  4. The ability to leverage contacts and relationships. The executive search business is a people business-or better stated, a relationship business. I wrote in my prior blog that knowing lots of people does not necessarily result in placing those people, and that alone is not the reason to get into search. But knowing lots of people is the main avenue to develop long-term client relationships. People want to do business with people they like and trust.
  5. Impact. Although helping people is not the primary objective of this crazy business, it certainly is a rewarding benefit. Our clients may be corporations, but corporations are populated by people. When we recruit an executive to turn around a company headed for bankruptcy we help the company, and in doing so, we help its employees and their families, and its customers, patients and clients. And at the end of the day, we all want our careers to have meaning and impact.

About the author: As Managing Director and founder of The Alexander Group, Jane Howze has more than 30 years experience in executive search. She has recruited executives worldwide in banking, energy, not for profit, technology, manufacturing, legal and professional services. She directs Board searches for the firm and is actively involved in the firm's diversity practice.

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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director