The future of executive search
And my vision for The Right Stuff
Like so many of my peers, I didn’t seek out a career in executive search. But it found me anyway.
After spending the early years of my career in M&A and private equity, I knew I wanted to do something different. Following a
quarter-life crisis short stint as a business journalist, I stumbled across the mysterious world of executive search. This is almost 10 years ago.
I’d had my fair share of experience with recruiters (not all good), but quickly found that search was different. You don’t blast the masses with jobs, you place executives into leadership roles. You don’t work at an agency, you’re part of a firm.
I spent months interviewing with a number of white shoe executive search firms. And let me tell you, these businesses might have the nicest offices outside of private equity. Fuckin’ a! But despite my fondness for mahogany paneled conference rooms, something always bothered me.
Deep in my gut, I felt like these firms were something of an anachronism. At least in their approach. As an ardent defender of anachronisms – driving a stick shift and reading physical books, for instance – it actually pains me to say this.
But things are definitely changing. And I think some interesting developments in the search business are on the horizon. The Right Stuff is my way of betting on it.
Do you have The Right Stuff?
When Spencer Stuart started his eponymous firm in 1956, basically inventing the search industry, executives were hard to come by. It’s not like you could just look up Division Presidents and CEOs in the Yellow Pages. He built his business in a world of literal rolodexes. Personal relationships were the coin of the realm.
Today it’s easier than ever to find someone. It’s probably too easy, TBH. Anyone with a smartphone and a LinkedIn account can put up a shingle and start making placements.
Speaking of which. The growth of LinkedIn led to a Cambrian explosion in boutique executive search firms. As a result, the industry has become far more competitive and transactional than ever before. A personal rolodex doesn’t matter as much when anyone can be found with LinkedIn Recruiter.
In response to this new reality, large legacy search firms have positioned themselves as leadership consultants. It sounds interesting until you check out the “Thought Leadership” sections of their websites and see an endless stream of commentary related to social issues.
To be fair, you can’t find that anywhere else these days.
Meanwhile, there are countless specialist boutiques building great (and sometimes large) businesses by developing niches and placing execs within specific industries or roles. I know this approach firsthand.
All this is to say that executive search has transitioned from an elite club into one of the most hyper-competitive industries on Earth. It’s a bit like real estate, only without the licenses.
The future of executive search
I often think about what Spencer Stuart would do if he were starting his business today. Given he was a pioneer, I doubt the business he’d form in 2023 would look anything like the one he launched in the 1950s.
I’m not Spencer Stuart (surprise!), but I’ve got some ideas as to what’s next for the industry.
1 — There is real opportunity to go back to the roots of executive search. To return to a focus on relationship building.
But rather than sporadic one-on-one relationships tucked away in personal rolodexes, it’ll be ongoing one-to-many relationships built and nurtured through platforms like Substack. In other words, by content creators building engaged audiences. Aka people that actually look forward to reading the latest post as it comes out, not just engaging when they’re in the market for a new job (or to hire someone).
This means the output has to actually be fun to read. Unlike the tripe you find plastered all over LinkedIn.
I don’t think these kinds of content creators will necessarily run searches themselves. Instead, they’ll let 3rd party search professionals and hiring companies share opportunities with their audience.
This idea is by no means rocket science and some folks are already actively doing this. For instance, Packy McCormick, who writes a popular tech Substack called Not Boring, has a recruiting arm. There are even companies, like Pallet, that help content creators easily share career opportunities with their audience.
I can see a pretty big universe of content creators becoming a career resource for their audiences. It’s still early days, but this is something I hope to do with The Right Stuff in time.
2 — an ever-growing percentage of executive searches will be done by specialist boutiques or in-house talent at hiring companies. Legacy search firms will continue to lose relevance.
Search firms, including the big ones, will never go away, but LinkedIn and other tools have made it possible to find and engage candidates without a big team. What’s more, as the Baby Boomers continue to age out of executive positions, the next generation of leaders will have fully grown up on the internet.
I believe this will lead to more reliance on subject matter expertise over legacy brand names. This bodes well for specialist firms that build a deep understanding of the spaces they recruit in.
Why pay top dollar for the old guard when you can hire a group that lives and breathes your industry?
My vision for The Right Stuff
I got into executive search because I love building relationships with ambitious people that are great at what they do. The Right Stuff is my attempt to do this at scale.
But almost all advice given to online content creators is to “niche down.” To pick something narrow and pump out relevant content day-after-day. There are even templates available to help with this. Maybe it works, but at what cost?
That’s not who I am. That’s not what I’m about.
I’m not interested in things that can be easily categorized. I am interested in investors and executives who operate at the highest level. The things they build, the paths they take, and the ideas that drive them.
And people with the motivation and ambition to be like them, but on their own terms. People who understand that the road less traveled is the only road worth taking. People who would rather dare to be great and fail than choose to lock themselves in the prison of comfortable obscurity.
In other words, I’m interested in people with The Right Stuff. This is my vehicle to find them.