Do the top executive search firms have the agility to find the top talent?

Barron Williams post
Barron Williams

Find more articles

The top executive search firms are in a state of flux.

Most of the big agencies and publications in our industry are publishing puff pieces that talk about how the industry is bouncing back after the pandemic. 

We’ve referenced many in a number of our recent Insight articles.

Barron Williams agrees that things are most definitely looking up. 

They certainly have for us.

Our mindset is to always focus on the positive. But it has been tough!

And whilst we agree that 2021 is starting to recover from 2020, we are still very much in a period of transition. 

Caution is needed. Times are still tough. And they could get tougher!

We are faced with new changes and challenges. 

The top executive search firms talk a good game but competition is fierce and we are being asked questions we’ve never been asked before.

What’s needed at the top level, in our opinion, is real agility. 

For that next executive hire, you need a partner who can quickly adapt to gain and maintain a competitive advantage.

As Bill Gates famously said; “success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react, and reinvent”.

Do the big recruitment/headhunt firms have the agility needed for the current climate?

Even though they have the means to offer higher salaries and plentiful perks, even the big multinationals are currently having a tough time finding and placing top executives.

Has the shift of focus on culture, whilst still delivering strategic objectives and keeping their commitments to shareholders/owners shown a lack of true leadership?

How do we find and place candidates that have the skills necessary to create a higher return on investment and place the company in a sustainable competitive position?

Is new tech the answer?

Much in our industry is focused on the tools, processes, automation and AI that they can use to try and improve processes and results.

And whilst these are important if utilised correctly, they are not in our opinion the solution many HR professionals seem to be hanging their hats on.

Barron Williams embraces new technology, of course, but we are not offering tech solutions to what’s essentially a very human problem.

The process is always important. 

But even more critical is delivery.

To identify and place the right senior execs it is essential that we work with our clients to sell both the role and organisation.

To the right people!

That is the special ingredient. Our (it shouldn’t be but it often seems to be) secret weapon. 

It simply comes with experience!

Both experience in our field and knowledge of the client.

Building a professional sustainable relationship. 

Understanding your culture today and (maybe more importantly) moving forward. 

Understanding the attributes our clients demand from a candidate.

After all, we are not the only sector facing up to the changes and challenges of the current workplace!

Art vs. Science

It is very easy for us to be blinded by science.

If the top executive search firms have invested heavily in the application of artificial intelligence to their talent acquisition processes, then you can bet they’re going to push it hard.

But you need to ask to see real results!

At Barron Williams, we would simply ask you to speak to our clients.

There is no better way to demonstrate what we do and how well we do it.

Automation can help but there’s no better assessment tool than real interaction with a candidate.

The art of the process is what puts the best people in the right roles.

We love technology, but keep it in its place, within an effective framework that works.

Barron Williams will shortlist your ideal candidates, it’s still a craft.

For example, if you’re dealing with a large variety of CV’s/applications.

At the senior exec level, there are many potential variables. 

Many fine lines and margins. 


It’s still assessment and judgement.

What do the top executive search firms of the future look like?

Technology has a critical role to play in the streamlining of the recruitment process but to what extent?

The early part of the selection process is often done when we talk to a candidate. 

We get in touch early with those we think are ‘possibles’.

The CV only tells you so much, and at this level, most have a good one. 

Finding those that are the right ‘fit’ is much more nuanced than that.

From a candidate perspective, do you want the opportunity to discuss the role? 

Of course, you do.

Candidate experience is critical. And that, as we always say, starts the moment we make contact, in person!

What is often candidates biggest gripe with our industry?

Not hearing back after submitting a CV will almost always top the polls.

A caveat here… We engage with all ‘relevant’ candidates. But we always write to every candidate!

An automated system is only going to frustrate, leading to an even greater negative candidate experience.

So, whilst using AI in the recruitment process might help to whittle down applications, it can never substitute for real engagement and understanding.

If, as discussed in last months Employee Experience article, the pandemic has shown us that culture and team spirit are key, then that applies to the recruitment process.

At Barron Williams, we believe that this can only be achieved by working in partnership with our clients.

Our process is designed this way. And it works. Video and face 2 face. It’s designed to place the best people in the right roles. 

We work in collaboration with our clients and with respect for each candidate’s current circumstances and aspirations.

We are not one of your typical top executive search firms

If we take the example we used recently in our not your typical senior executive recruitment Agency article, in that we used the testimony of a new blue-chip client to best illustrate how we work.

At the start of the year, we were approached by an organisation going through a period of transition, including a change of leadership in one of their subsidiary companies.

With the HQ based in Northern Ireland and the subsidiary company based in the North East of England, they needed to find a group level executive to take full responsibility for the North East site.

The brief required the team at Barron Williams to identify individuals with a combination of the relevant Technical/Engineering background with Manufacturing/Ops and GM experience.

Our client had no experience of executive/technical recruitment in the region, and a blank piece of paper when it came to networking and/or executive search firms with which to partner.

The approach they took was to research the executive recruitment market in the North East and they identified the 12 top executive search firms for their long list.

Having desktop reviewed the initial 12, they approached a shortlist of 4 to present their proposal to working with them.

The decision was made to partner with Barron Williams.

The reasons they chose to work with us over the other top executive search firms were:

  1. Wide reach and established networks in both the region and the sector
  2. Genuine interest and enthusiasm in finding the best person for our Company
  3. Previous success in similar roles/industries
  4. Dedicated project management team
  5. Single point of contact

Working in partnership

From day one, there was a full and open collaboration between the two companies.

We took the time to fully understand their business and the requirements of the role brief.

We supported them in shaping and managing the grey areas of the role itself.

We offered our insight and experience in terms of the region and sector, enabling us to best market the role and attract the very best candidates available from all of the market not just those actively looking.

We provided them with the local knowledge that they were missing.

This was a complex and comprehensive selection process but we were best placed to provide the relevant recommended selection tools at each stage.

A great long list was narrowed ‘by hand’.

The conclusion of this process was that our client had the difficult decision of having to choose between exceptional candidates. 

Multiple interactions with multiple candidates, assessed at every stage until the client made their difficult choice.

Is simple always better?

AI systems are adopted by recruitment firms to simplify the hiring process but does it add real value?

Yes, you can streamline elements, automate for efficiency in the early stages of the recruitment process. 

Work smarter. 

But can you simplify the process and still find the best people when the real work of long list selection begins? 

Keywords and a CV database only get you so far.

I don’t think we need to worry about being replaced by robots any time soon.

You can not place people in senior exec roles with algorithms!

Just as you can’t sell candidates on a role or company with just a website and job description.

For example, if we have a candidate that’s on the fence about leaving their current role to join you. 

Quite common in the current climate, it’s a risk, especially for those who feel that their employers have supported them over the last 18 months or so.

Who might persuade them that this role is the right move to make?

Answer… You and I!

Getting AI to sell a candidate on a role is the same as speaking to on an automated telephone system where you’re asked to press 1 for yes or 2 for no.

We always press 0 to speak to a customer service representative! 

AI can be programmed to send out an email or text message but can it give constructive feedback?

It can’t have a real conversation and act on it, using skill and judgement.

Some in HR are leaning towards AI and automation in recruitment.

We can see the attraction for large companies in particular.

But does it work?

Certainly not at the management and executive level, we would argue!

Are candidates even ready for it? 

Is your CV optimised for these new systems?

A quick internet search will provide advice on how to do this and what keywords to use, etc.

Our focus is still on what you’ve achieved and where you’ve achieved it.

We like keywords too. Because we read them!

The human aspect of what we do can not be underestimated. And I’ll say it again, it’s judgement!

Sometimes you just get a good feeling about a candidate. 

CV tailored to the role brief, relevance clear (and emphasised), professional CV layout and a good (but brief) cover note are what we look for.

A serious candidate to be taken seriously.

By the time our clients see a CV we will already have held numerous discussions to ensure that they’re well-matched to their requirements, and fully briefed about the organisation/role. 

Good to go!

We have to ensure they’re positively engaged in the process, and actively seeking to pursue their interest in taking the process forward. 

This takes time, knowledge and understanding, but it is essential in order to ensure the client can select from the best talent.

It is still a very human process!

The human element is paramount

Penetrative interviews and a critical review of a person’s background are still the best way to establish the credentials of a candidate, to best understand how they will perform the role.

If we jump back to the new client example we used above…

The client long list was longer than anticipated, for good reason, and more than we’d usually put forward. 

However, the client had specified that they were keen to consider a broad selection of qualified candidates, so we delivered.

We wanted to make sure that they could compare the best to the role brief and between each individual applicant.

How many of those we put forward would be rejected purely on an automated CV review?

I’m not sure but we’re happy that we applied our expertise and critical judgment to put forward individuals who we knew.

They were relevant for the role. 

There are still no shortcuts to matching a strong long list to the client’s specific requirements.

Assessing those marginal differences takes time, application and nuance.

Purpose + Process = Consistency

A good recruitment process always starts with the ‘purpose’ of the role. 

The quality of the role brief directly impacts the quality of the candidate response.

Purpose establishes clarity from the outset.

From there we ensure that our clients benefit from a consistent approach.

Having interviewed our candidates before they see the client, we will often advise that we lead the first formal interviews.

Again, for consistency, and to allow the client to observe.

We will agree on the criteria to balance the interview correctly.

The reason we do this is to guarantee consistency. 

To establish fair and accurate candidate appraisal against the role brief and other candidates.

The client can be as active or as passive as necessary, of course, but our aim is to allow them to compare candidates effectively, and ultimately, make the right hiring decision.

Technology is advancing all the time

According to research by LinkedIn in 2018, 76% of recruitment firms believed that AI will have a significant impact on our industry.

It has and will continue to play an increasing role.

But at Barron Williams, we are not ready to hand over to ‘computer says no’ just yet!

We are still here with the human touch.

And after the last 18 months, both clients and candidates are definitely in need of a little consideration in terms of personal circumstances.

For us, when it comes to hiring people, human connection and holding a real conversation is key.

We still pick up the bloody phone!

You need real intelligence from the top executive search firms, not the artificial stuff.

At least for now!

If you’re looking for new leadership in your organisation, please use our Client Upload Form or Call Us now.

If you’re looking for your next senior exec role, then please feel free to Upload Your CV or Call Us for an exploratory conversation.

Barron Williams

Find more articles


How do you get the most out of your recruitment agency?


How do you get the most out of your recruitment agency?

Read More

Stepping back into a senior exec role after time away


Stepping back into a senior exec role after time away

Read More

The 5 biggest challenges facing recruiters in 2024


The 5 biggest challenges facing recruiters in 2024

Read More