When Choosing A Search Partner, Does Bigger Mean Better?

by Ian Randle

There is no shortage of participants in the global executive search industry. Clients can choose from a variety of firms big or small, generalist or specialist. The large firms keep getting bigger, establishing offices in every corner of the world. On the surface, some clients may be reassured by their expansive physical networks, but what does that make them other than…big?  Industry data shows that boutiques are growing revenues at four to five times the rate of their larger rivals, suggesting that clients are increasingly drawn to the advantages of being small.

Boutiques enhance client service

Smaller firms can often establish closer and more committed relationships with clients. This allows them to spend more time getting to know the client’s company, its culture, the challenges it faces and the market it operates in. As a result, the smaller search firm is better equipped to represent their client’s brand and to find the best of the best candidates.

Unencumbered by a disparate, franchised network, boutique search firms can respond more rapidly. Many clients prefer to have just one or two senior points of contact as their global interface, people who are directly responsible for fulfilling a brief and providing first hand updates. This keener level of service engenders real accountability, deeper partnerships and higher quality end results.

Collaborative structures promote cross-fertilisation

When hiring C-suite candidates today, clients increasingly look beyond their own market sectors for parallel experience and game changing skills. Partners in smaller firms typically serve a number of different industries and functions and are well placed to identify those candidates best suited to making the switch. There are no Chinese walls to hamper collaboration.

The boutique firms tend to invest in one-on-one relationships with candidates - cross industry, cross function and cross geography – and devote time talking to candidates outside the parameters of a fixed assignment. The smaller structure removes the restriction of separate teams and profit streams, facilitating sideways career moves. So a modern Chief Marketing Officer who has everything it takes to be a brilliant Chief Operating Officer can unlock their ambition, while an accomplished Chief Operating Officer can find an amazing private equity adventure as a CEO.

Within boutiques, practice leaders tend to have a broad remit and a collegial approach, a healthy breeding ground for out-of-the box thinking. If clients want game-changing talent, they need to partner with a game-changing search firm.  Clients gravitate towards firms with a different mindset that are structured to challenge the accepted, traditional norms and to deliver those special people who can make a real difference to their company. Candidates also gravitate towards firms that do not subscribe to the ‘round peg, round hole’ approach.

Small means accessible

Externally, boutiques tend to be more proactive in keeping in touch with people, no matter which hat they are wearing – client, networking contact or candidate. Candidates want a strategic career advisor, a confidante who is accessible and who cares. All search firms try to do this, but the smaller ones are better shaped to carry intention through to reality. Every candidate wants to be treated as a person, not a number.

Internally, boutiques are small enough to know every colleague across the office network and to work in-sync across different time zones, but large enough to have the delivery engine horsepower to drive the research, identification and onboarding of the highest flying executives.

A question of balance

Clients often agonise over whether they expect a search firm to know the market so well that the shortlist ‘writes itself’ or to be so pure that every mandate demands a fresh start. As is often the case, a halfway house is the optimum – the global boutique maintains a strong network of the leaders of tomorrow, while holding thorough research at the core. Furthermore, the boutique tends to have fewer restrictions to their hunting grounds and fewer off-limits constraints than their larger counterparts. Nor does the boutique hold their clients to minimum spend ransoms to guarantee non-solicitation. 

In executive search, size does matter. By removing the layers of a larger business you can create a highly tuned, innovative search firm that serves client and candidate needs more effectively. Small and perfectly formed can be better.