The Evolving Hunt: How AI is Impacting the world of Executive Search

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By James Brocket

For as long as I can remember, doomsayers have been predicting the inevitable decline of the executive search industry, some of them with considerable relish.

Firstly, in the late 1990s, it was the internet that was going to disrupt us out of existence and then LinkedIn launched in 2003 to put the final nail in the coffin. The doomsayers were wrong and these new technologies, without exception, have proven to be very positive forces for our industry. While they offered everybody the opportunity to identify and engage with candidates – potentially disrupting search firms –  these new technologies have had massive transformational impact on companies that then required new leadership to help them realise the benefits and manage the associated risks. So the market grew, significantly. Companies operating in that middle layer, often called ‘the marzipan layer’, got squeezed as clients built their own recruitment teams but for others, operating at the executive level, it helped us to evolve.

Now the latest innovation, and perhaps the greatest so far – AI – is here and we are starting to see some of the ways that it will transform what we do. It feels like we are taking the first steps on a transformational journey bigger than anything that we have seen before.

Here are some of the areas that we are seeing AI impact our industry:

1. In the identification of talent

    Automated sourcing – we are already seeing the rise of some interesting platforms that scrape a vast array of data sources; social networks, professional networks, news sites, conference lists…etc to create enormous wells of candidate data that supplement our own databases

    AI powered matching – a number of companies are developing sophisticated algorithms that power impressive tools to match candidate’s profiles quite accurately to client’s requirements through the automated analysis of a wide range of datapoints

    Predictive analytics – another area where there is significant investment being made. What data might indicate how successful a candidate is likely to be in a role, or how long are they likely to stay?

    Improving D&I – AI can be used to focus candidate selection on skills and experience thereby reducing unconscious bias

    Compliance – there are a number of interesting new tools to help search firms ensure they remain compliant with legislation, notably GDPR

    2. In engaging with the talent

    Automated communications – there is talk of chatbots and other AI powered tools to help coordinate with and update candidates through the search process. These are already being used in technologies applied to volume recruitment. It will be interesting to see how this might be adapted to the executive search market.

    Personalised communications – AI is being used to create personalised outreach messages to candidates that are designed to elicit an improved response based on their career history and online presence

    Improving D&I – Linked to the above AI is being used to ensure that communications with potential candidates are equally attractive to all. Previously ubiquitous terminology in assignment briefs such as ‘hard driving’ and ‘impressive gravitas’ can be a real turn-off for some candidate groups and may prevent diverse candidates from responding positively to an approach for a role for which they may be ideally suited

    Scheduling – we’re observing the rise of a number of new intelligent tools to help with scheduling meetings across different formats, multiple diaries and timezones

    3. In the selection of talent

    There has been a significant rise in the use of AI powered tools to help with the selection of talent. Established psychometric tests such those produced by Hogan, Thomas and SHL are seeing significant growth and are offering far richer insights, not just into the skills and competencies of individuals, but also how effective they are likely to be within the team that is already in place. Wisnio, a recent new entrant and AI native platform, is doing some very interesting things and is a real innovator in this space.

    4. In communicating with clients

    Most good search firms will offer clients the oppportunity to use a client portal where they can find all of the relevant data on their project including information on progress and all relevant candidate data. AI is being used increasingly in these platforms to produce personalised reporting for clients to help them with their decision making on candidates and their own management of the project.  

    Each if these areas is starting to take a hold and as these technologies become established and more widely used it will be interesting to see how our sector evolves. Inevitably, the firms that embrace these technologies will thrive because they will allow them to focus their time on the higher-value apects of their role as advisors to their clients. This is why I got into our industry in the first place. It has always been abundantly clear to me that the biggest difference between most successful businesses and the others is the talent. The best executive search professionals can make the most profound positive impact on their clients. The trouble is that standards can vary greatly in our industry. Periods like this – where evolution is accellerated – can only be a good thing as Darwinian theory works its magic.

    As a final note, it gives me some satisfaction to predict the decline of the doomsayers.