Don’t limit yourself to someone’s black book of contacts when hiring for business-critical positions.

Earlier this month, a small bulletin in a thrice-weekly banking newsletter caught my attention. It pointed the reader to a commentary on the news website about German banking giant Commerzbank’s search for a new CEO. The mandate for this project went to executive headhunter Christina Virzí, who is a known expert on placing women into corporate leadership positions; Commerzbank need this role to be female due to leadership diversity targets.

WELT’s commentary criticised this decision, although not because of diversity. They took offence to the fact that Mrs Virzí isn’t particularly networked within the German banking CEO community.

I find this criticism a little short-sighted.


Faster is not always better

When search firms prospect new business, the question of existing networks and/or an existing database within a certain geography, sector or seniority – the famous “black book of contacts” – is perceived on both sides of the desk as more important than it actually is. In fact, as the prospective client, it is the wrong question to ask altogether.

In contingent “no placement, no fee” recruitment, a strong network and database in your projects’ focus areas is worth a small lorry’s load in gold – because an efficient recruiter can fill a vacancy within relatively few phone calls if they are made to the right people.

This way, the job gets done fast.

Business-critical leadership positions such as Commerzbank’s new CEO, however, aren’t filled on a contingent basis. Here, the focus shouldn’t be on the fastest-available talent but on the best-available talent.

Search for the "what"

Subconsciously, the consultant walks out of the project brief with a longlist already in their head. In organisations specialised on precisely this particular talent pool, such a longlist can then become an almost-exclusive club because of all the work, expertise and history that has gone into it.

However, what should happen with such projects is that the market is researched, mapped out and gone through with a fine tooth-comb – completely from scratch and without any prejudices on which profiles are only a phone call away or will have to be painstakingly tracked down. This is the only way a given talent market can be captured in anywhere near its entirety and even then, its view of the talent pool isn’t necessarily exhaustive.

This requires time, of course – usually four to eight weeks for a thorough project. It also requires someone who knows the industry and its priorities and the ideal target direction vis-à-vis their client’s individual situation and positioning. However, it doesn’t necessarily require a networking expert, whose main claim to a kick-off fee is a particularly full contact list. 

In other words, it requires someone who knows what to look for – not necessarily whom to look for.


Is it worth the risk?

6 Group’s Executive Search methodology combines this “search for the what” with a rigorous, fully quantified assessment process prior to deciding who will be introduced to our clients as part of a project-delivery shortlist. 

The point of these assessments is that they are fully impartial, which is another area where a pre-existing black book of contacts can prove counter-productive. Our sector experts across 6’s Industrial & Manufacturing, Oil & Gas, Financial Services, Infrastructure & Transportation and Retail & FMCG practices have thus placed positions from C-level via Director- and “Head Of”-level to that of a particular subject-expert or Team Lead.

These placements weren’t just successful in the sense that a candidate from our eventual shortlist got the job – they were successful in a long-term, sustainable sense, as they actively and holistically influenced the future trajectory of their new employers.

What this tells us is that when it comes to the decision between the well-networked black book of contacts and the fresh pair of eyes, we are dealing with an inverse perception of risk.

Ostensibly, it is riskier to go with the fresh pair of eyes, as an efficient and direct path to a placement is pretty much guaranteed by the black book. In reality, the real risk lies in potentially excluding the vast majority of your target market and thus never knowing whether you will have settled for second best – or worse.

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6 Group partners with clients to help design their organisational structures - typically as a component of other initiatives e.g. transformational changes, wider organisational redesigns and leadership assessment & development programmes.

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