“The age of the generalist is over”

13 Mar 2015

“The age of the generalist is over”

Carl Lovas, Chairman of Odgers Berndtson Canada, describes how the firm’s recent restructuring has made them stronger than ever

How do you differentiate yourself in a world where technology and social media are threatening your business?” asks Carl Lovas, Chairman of Odgers Berndtson Canada. This is the question on the lips of many of the AESC’s members – global and boutique firms. Although the relevance at senior level can still be questioned, social media sites like LinkedIn create a perception that clients can identify candidates without an executive search firm, while the Global Financial crisis created an economic environment where this had to be put to the test. Some commentators have gone so far to suggest that social media marks the beginning of the end for executive search.

But while the executive search profession has faced a degree of disintermediation from these factors, firms like Odgers Berndtson in Canada are still posting record figures. Lovas explains that business was up 40% last year, making 2014 one of the most profitable years in their history. “We’ve gone into 2015 with extraordinary momentum,” he says.

“The Age of the Generalist Is Pretty Much Over”

Odgers Berndtson is a centrally-owned global firm, with a presence in 27 countries. It believes that its local expertise provides executive search partners who are more attuned to their clients’ specific regional needs, while benefiting from the brand and reach of a global firm. Lovas explains that the firm has shifted its mindset to becoming industry, as well as geographic, specialists.

“Executive search and the professional services sector is changing. The age of the generalist is pretty much over. Clients are no longer prepared to pay for articulate, bright people to show up and say they’ll fix the business. They expect someone to show up with in-depth knowledge and start adding value in the first minute. You do that by adding deep sector expertise. We knew we had to integrate.”

To succeed with this plan, Odgers Berndtson Canada has marked the last 14 months with numerous milestones: launching three new practice areas (a CFO practice, a board recruitment practice and a mining practice), opening two brand new offices in Western Canada and, acquiring Renaud Foster to build a presence in Ottawa, while expanding their leadership assessment and executive interim practices nationwide.

Lovas explains that implementing a strategy focused on industry and functional specialists “was like taking the brakes off – all of a sudden we started to gallop. Not only has our business increased dramatically in terms of financial results, but also the quality and level of the work we’re doing.”

Winning Hearts and Minds

Lovas is a realist who is attuned to the changes taking place in the executive search profession. He believes that the value proposition for executive search firms has changed in recent years, resulting in search firms having to fight harder to win business. “Under- standing what makes a great CFO, understanding why a CFO is a great fit for an organization, and getting that CFO to return your calls is a key differentiator," Lovas says.

In order to position themselves as sector and industry specialists, Odgers Berndtson has launched a range of new initiatives that, collectively, seem to speak to the hearts and minds of their clients. It has just announced its partnership with Rotman School of Management, Canada’s number one business school according to the Financial Times, on a new five-day leadership course for CFOs. The firm and the business school worked with leading CFOs, CEOs and audit chairs to design a course that will help participants develop the core skills that are central to individual and team success in the finance function.

Furthermore, the firm has rolled out its leadership assessment services across the country, as part of Odgers Berndtson’s national and global strategy to develop stronger relationships with their clients. “My thinking has always been that executive search was handicapped as a one product business,” Lovas says. “Even the largest organizations can have long periods of time where they don’t have a significant executive search. A broader service offering allows you to stay relevant and engaged with clients between searches. And assessment leads to better search work. If you’re better at assessing talent, you will do better search work and clients will put you in a different league.”

Lovas explains animatedly that he was recently approached by one of Canada’s largest banks. They had appreciated the firm’s assessment techniques so much that they asked Odgers Berndtson to provide the same service for all internal promotions. “Can you imagine the benefit that has?” he asks. “We’re always at the table!”

CEO For One Day

Perhaps the most high profile program Odgers Berndtson has launched in Canada in the last two years is the CEO X1 Day scheme. Garnering national news coverage and slots on morning television, the program pairs students in third and fourth year university with 20 CEOs at some of the largest companies in Canada – including GE, Aon Hewitt, and Hugo Boss. The students are put through a rigorous assessment, which Lovas claims rivals the intensity of an executive-level assessment (see box-out), to evaluate their suitability for the program and their fit with the participating CEOs. The winning candidates then spend a full day with their selected CEO to experience leadership first-hand, which, Lovas explains, is as valuable to the CEO as it is to the student.

“CEOs are very interested in how to make their organization friendlier to the generation entering the workforce so that they can attract the best,” he says. “This program gives them an insight into what’s on the minds of the top talent coming out of universities.”

So what is on their minds? Is this next generation likely to be as disruptive to management structures as has been reported? “When you look at the top 10% of any generation, they have much more in common with each other,” Lovas says. “You’ll hear it said that Generation Y is more interested in work/life balance, but when you’re looking at the potential leaders in that generation, they’re as driven and engaged as leaders always have been.”

With CEO X1 Day, Odgers Berndtson has created a program that positions them as experts in leadership, strengthens relationships with CEOs at some of the largest companies in Canada, serves society by investing in the future generation of leaders, and garners public interest. “It is unique to us,” says Lovas, “and every time I say that I pinch myself.”

So it seems that 2014 was the year that Odgers Berndtson Canada’s strategy kicked in, after five years of planning. By looking at themselves, understanding what they provided and then comparing that to what clients were asking for, they were able to reposition themselves as specialists without losing their geographic spread across the country. By accompanying this with a kind of charm offensive, the firm has found a way to differentiate itself from the recent technological advances and from competition in Canada.