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How Covid-19 Can Alter Search Firm Selections | 3 Considerations

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

In financial markets, “Futures” speculate on the direction of an underlying asset. For Talent Recruiting, are there any early insights altering selection of search partners to pursue critical talent in the wake of Covid-19? Analysis suggests that legacy search models are at risk while the more agile firms, partnering with clients, will offer select advantages to those employers.

Our clients’ engagements have remained underway without a single pause or cancellation. Candidates contacted amid Covid-19 are impressed by these companies' confidence - and it's differentiating them as prospective employers. Historically, search firms are retained often during two economic cycles; expansions and downturns. Each cycle requires select leadership to navigate uncertain organizational and market conditions arising from uncharted economies.

Current and post-Covid 19 “Futures” suggests a challenging (+/-) economy is here. Under these circumstances, employers may need to adjust their mix and selection of existing search firms, prospective additions, and replacements. It's now, and not after "social distancing" is lifted, that being proactive sets the partnership foundation for successful searches.

Selection considerations include three client-employer-beneficial adjustments:

1. Front Lines Assessment By Experienced Consultants Covid-19 has eliminated in-person meetings for 30-60 days. It's wake will reduce candidates' discretionary travel as conditions normalize, notably their sit downs with search consultants and enroute to initial client visits. Recruiters must be highly experienced, with razor-sharp talent discernment at a distance.

Quality consultant-to-candidate interactions will be game changing. Employers are favorably differentiated or disadvantaged by a search firm's assessment model given the status or level of their "first touch" consultants. In Covid-19's wake, firms that deploy "first touch" junior staff will disadvantage clients as circumstances press busy executives for phone or video assessments. Such ineffectiveness diminishes employer representation and brings forward fewer appropriately assessed candidates.

Moreover, meaningful leadership and culture-fit assessment - much less overall attracting of top talent - isn't deliverable by inexperienced junior staff. Conversely, boutique firms commit the specific senior partner - the one given the search by the client employer - to assess all talent entering the pipeline. A boutique partner could be a "must have" resource for a redefine assessment workflow.

New Criteria: Identify and select the best size and firm model where senior partners initiate candidate contact and deliver end-to-end assessing across phone, video, and in-person.

2. Access and Geography The larger the firm, or the more specialized, the lower the percentage of talent that's available to contact for each employer; they cannot recruit from their many other clients. Limitations run further when recruiting locally – itself a new reality under Covid-19 and beyond. As well, though boutique firms do access unlimited talent across more companies and locations, if their consultants are narrow, single-industry experts then they become restricted in that best practice which many employers seek – getting top talent options from beyond direct competitors. This requires knowledge of other industries.

New Criteria: Turn to firms with deep local access, multi-industry experiences, and demonstrated expertise for reaching into other geographic talent pools.

3. High-Touch Representation Covid-19 keeps top talent busy. CHROs and CEOs tell us their calendars are filling faster and on short notice. Under pre-Covid-19 conditions, executives regularly fielded dozens of contact requests from large firms' junior staff - but most never respond. Why? They'd noticed a pattern; next month brings more calls about other companies. Projected upon Covid-19 conditions, whether today or as calendars normalize, it'll be the most seasoned, respected partner-level consultants who'll capture candidates' attention on behalf of their clients.

In a post Covid-19 talent market, the legacy shotgun outreach of large firms and the narrow rifled approach of specialist search firms will miss their marks. There are alternatives. On the provider spectrum sit highly respected firms designed around partner-level execution by multi-industry consultants. These boutique firms routinely break through to candidates as "first touch accountability" resides with the senior partner retained by the employer.

New Criteria Employers can get to know the firms in which senior partners are experienced in several industries while being recognized for selective and informed candidate outreach.


Search firm selection decisions made today will determine whether differentiation and advantage is achievable during and beyond Covid-19. Firm size, model, and effectiveness vary widely, but agile search firms will execute new strategies and best practices. Recruiting ROI and superior results require that the most innovative and urgent clients interact with Voice Of Customer ideation. It's a new future for partnership.

Decisions are being taken about present talent, requirements within current executive searches, opportunistic and necessary recruiting, and a redesign of organization charts to address Covid-19's shadow and opportunities. We’re entering a period of unforeseen innovation that'll require tactically-considered search firm and client-side workflows.

Eric Gustafson is Founder/President of Access Point Partners. He was previously Managing Director of Korn/Ferry New York City, at a Park Avenue boutique firm, and in industry.



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