Any businessperson over 50 years old should be able to remember when IT professionals rationalized their love affair with IBM mainframes with the simple explanation:
“No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”
The implicit meaning was clear: Buying computer products from a smaller company was risky, while buying from IBM was seen as safe and beyond reproach, even if you almost certainly paid more than if you bought from a competitor.
If you were selling against IBM back in the ‘80s or ‘90s, hearing that phrase was probably enough to send you into a rant. You knew that there were lots of situations where your product, technology, service model and pricing structure made you a far better vendor option than IBM. But the industry was young, fear was a dominant customer emotion, and IBM addressed that fear through their incredible financial strength and their legacy as a pioneer.
The Evolution of Executive Search
Today, the computer industry is driven and dominated by specialization and a never-ending flow of innovation and new players. Today, any IT professional who admitted they picked a vendor out of fear is actually taking the biggest risk. Instead, smart buyers today are motivated to pick the best combination of performance and value that fits their situation precisely.
The executive search business has gone through a similar evolution, and while we don’t have a single IBM that is everyone’s default safe choice, we have a cohort of search giants (Korn Ferry, Heidrick & Struggles, Russell Reynolds, Spencer Stuart, to name a few) that are probably viewed by many customers as “safe”.
When our industry was young and undeveloped, taking the safe route made lots of sense. Before the emergence of the web, professional networks were primarily the sum total of the individual rolodexes that search consultants brought with them to the leading firms. The aggregate size of a firm’s network was the sum of their parts. So the firms with the most professionals had the best candidate networks.
And specialization was largely non-existent thirty or forty years ago, so going the safe route by sticking with the biggest players made some sense.
That’s just not true anymore.
Why Specialized Boutiques Are the Smart Choice
First, technology dramatically leveled the playing field relative to building candidate networks. Today, a focused boutique firm has the ability to build a candidate network that rivals any of the largest firms. In fact, boutiques can actually claim a larger effective network because their smaller client base means very few within the candidate pool are off limits.
Second, specialization in the world of search truly means something. Practice specialization leads to greater understanding, knowledge and skill within the practice area. It means a deeper appreciation for the requirements of the positions served and the recognition that position requirements are constantly evolving.
In our areas of specialization, in-house counsel and compliance teams from the top down, we’ve witnessed and participated in the rapid emergence of Chief Compliance Officer as a C-level leadership position. We’ve also seen the steady evolution of General Counsel (GC) as a strategic leadership position, which continues to affect our approach to filling GC positions.
Third, great boutique search firms only take on as much business as their principals can directly and personally serve. There’s no bait and switch between selling and serving. When you hire a reputable boutique firm, you have the assurance that the people you’ve vetted in your selection process are going to be the people running the search. They’ll also be the people who provide counsel during the process, and the people directly accountable to you for the results delivered.
Finally, because of their size and the relative small number of searches they do in a year, boutique firms feel exponentially more pressure than the big guys to deliver an incredible customer experience. So we go to great lengths to ensure clients perceive a better value proposition, a more meaningful and beneficial involvement with our thought leaders, and an unwavering dedication to securing candidates of the quality and fit that clients aspire to land, on timelines that don’t disappoint.
I hope this has been helpful. We live in a time when fear shouldn’t be the dominant motivation pushing you toward the help you need. Instead, allow yourself to be motivated by the desire to achieve the best results and value for your enterprise, and you’ll be sure to find yourself in great hands.