Deciding Who Leads

How executive recruiters change the course of global business, and how my immersion in the world of top headhunters changed my perspective

"Executive recruiting is arguably the most important task in the world of business…"

So begins the endorsement by Wharton School Management Professor Peter Cappelli for my new book, Deciding Who Leads: How Executive Recruiters Drive, Direct & Disrupt the Global Search for Leadership Talent (April, 2008, Davies-Black Publishing). Deciding Who Leads is the first book in more than two decades to explore executive recruiters' unparalleled global influence on corporate performance, culture, succession, and profits.

For me, however, the book's publication is more than that. It marks a two-and-a-half-year examination of how executive recruiters control access to the world's most highly paid corporate management jobs, and how their confidential business influences modern-day careers, companies, and economies. This at a time when the demands of corporate leaders have reached an all-time high, while executive tenure has hit a record low.

Mysterious Reach

The reach of today's executive recruiters should be neither underestimated nor discounted, even though one could argue that it largely is both, given the lack of media, academic, shareholder, and institutional attention to this specialized form of management consulting. Indeed, despite the growing body of knowledge on leadership and its role in driving organizational change and corporate profits, the business of executive search consulting remains widely overlooked.

The results of executive headhunters' work have influenced simmering public debates and congressional testimony about executive pay, leadership diversity (or the lack thereof), high-profile CEO searches, and the very definition of corporate leadership for hiring organizations around the world. Surprisingly, few people have made the connection.

Yes, the business of executive recruiting remains a mystery to most businesspeople, including a startlingly large number of the very board directors, C-suite leaders, line managers, and HR professionals who regularly engage their services. Some of them, my research for the book reveals, are just satisfied to get close to them as a form of their own career insurance.

Succession Planning

This is especially jolting given the surprising number of companies lacking a formal management succession plan. Hiring organizations need just such a plan to continually keep their fingers on the pulse of their own leadership, and on how and where to source key executives to meet their company's changing management needs.

What's more, the vast majority of companies, large and small, remain completely uninformed about how their brands, reputations, and overall ability to attract top executive talent are influenced by the messaging of their external talent scouts.

After all, executive recruiters are most responsible for fanning the competitive instincts of hiring companies who have largely become convinced that an infusion of new executive blood from the outside is usually the best course of action, much to the exclusion of many outstanding candidates for internal promotion.

Executive search consulting was always intended to be engaged sparingly by companies whose own internal talent development couldn't yield a key successor to a critical executive role, perhaps a role just created. But somewhere along the way, perhaps in a bid to make up for their lack of investment building leaders from within, too many hiring organizations moved to search outside their walls as a reflex reaction to almost any vacant leadership post.

Executive recruiters orchestrate the confidential process that ultimately leads to some of the most consequential decisions ever made by any business, large or small. They are decisions about hiring the senior executives who will mold the strategy that drives shareholder value, knit the fabric of workforce culture, and set the course that dictates the customer experience, the corporate brand, and financial performance.

Disruptive Influence

Something I've had to remind a good number of executive recruiters is that their work also regularly disrupts the growth, culture, and financial performance of any company from which they recruit a particularly high-performing executive.

The inclusion of the word "disrupt" in the book's subtitle has, at first blush, rankled a few executive recruiters.

But each of them has quickly if begrudgingly acknowledged the point that, invariably, someone is going to think they were hurt by the executive search process. There will undoubtedly be a disruptive influence on one organization (the one that just saw a high-performing executive leave for greener pastures) even if it goes extremely well for another (the hiring organization that just added a key executive to its team, or the executive who has just transitioned into a new role within it).

Those left with a few bruises regrettably also include far too many executive job candidates who were left at the altar when the hiring company stopped showing interest in their candidacy and the recruiter stopped answering their e-mails and telephone calls.

Looking ahead to the challenges now confronting many businesses around the world, it's clear that sustaining competitive advantage over the long term will require equal measures of creativity, resourcefulness, and partnership from both corporate HR and executive staffing leaders, as well as their external recruitment agents, who, in many ways, are still busy deciding who leads.

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