Ian Odgers: When you look back to the late 1970s when you started, how have you seen search change particularly within the Danish and European markets?
Kurt Brusgaard:I have seen change towards more specialist functions and focused CEOs. Typically a background as an engineer (like myself) was a good start for becoming a good CEO. But that was then, and the landscape has changed a great deal since those early days. Having said that, good results, proven track record and a good personality – that has not changed – and probably never will.
I would find a file with a really important description of what a potential candidate was like and it was always ‘a good chap’!
IO: I agree. At first all search was very generalist, there were no specialist sectors at all and the firms were really quite small, you would typically find search firms up until the 1980s in the UK of not more than six people or so. There was a view, certainly up until the early 1990s, that anything more than 12 consultants would prove unmanageable. Compare that now with the 100s of consultants we have across Odgers Berndtson today – that has really allowed those specialisms to come out.
At first there was absolutely no technology, so the little black book played a very important part: who did you know and who had you met? I remember looking in a filing cabinet for some sort of coding system to help me identify a candidate, but there was none. Finally I would find a file with a really important description of what a potential candidate was like and it was always ‘a good chap’!
That was it, nothing more, no comment about skills or abilities and they were always male I’m afraid to say.
There was a strong sentiment among a certain client base that felt they could use the internet and technology to their advantage such that they would effectively put us out of business
Jennifer Ward: It’s interesting listening to both of your stories. I entered the industry in the 1990s and used to hear the stories of how candidates were interviewed and how they were coded and managed like you described. But I joined the industry at a very interesting time because in the early to mid 1990s a lot of things were still being done manually. But within about two years, this incredible thing called ‘the internet’ became a very useful tool for us and it seemed like virtually overnight we went from doing things very manually to doing them with speed – effectively and efficiently. I remember there was a strong sentiment among a certain client base that felt they could use the internet and technology to their advantage such that they would effectively put us out of business, or no longer need our services.
In the early years a lot of the strategies that we had to employ in the industry were really around how do we remain relevant when everything is changing? And things changed very quickly.
So we started to record information electronically, but at the same time there became this big concern about privacy. Where is all this information going to be held? Who has access to it? We didn’t understand it. We had many discussions about what we can say and what can we ask candidates and clients knowing that it’s out there somewhere and that the wrong person could get their hands on it. So, it’s fascinating to look back on this really dramatic period and to see how it’s evolved from there.
KB: And of course now there’s the impact of social media and the speed things happen.But you also have to remember (and use) the basics: that a good interviewer is still one of the most important aspects of strong search and recruitment.
IO: I agree that some things haven’t changed at all and I’d maybe try and relate that to where we stand now. Years ago we developed a certain concept behind our search which arose from a search I did for a divisional chief executive of a significant firm in the UK. Three years later I happened to take the Chairman of that company out for lunch and I said: ‘How is X doing?’ and he said ‘Oh I’d forgotten you’d put him in; that was the best appointment we ever made and you were worth 10 times your fee’!
At the time I said what we’re doing is really important if you do it well. We’re not just looking to find someone who fits a jigsaw puzzle at a particular moment in time. We’re looking for somebody who will perform over many years. So we developed this concept of saying the outcome we would really like is that a minimum of three years after an appointment, a client would say that it was the best appointment he or she ever made. The better we know our client and candidate the better the chance of long-term success.
So what we did (and still do) with senior assignments was to talk to as many people around the position as possible and to try and predict what is likely to happen to the company over the next five years or so. What decisions are going to be made? That’s very important. And then we ask: what is the chemistry? Who is the person going to be working with? What are their relationships? And only at that stage can we start our search because all leadership depends on context.
Some of my very best searches had maybe two people on the short list, that’s all. There was an occasion when the client only saw one candidate, just one and he said: ‘that’s it’. And what happened? 25years later that chap was head of the biggest operation within one of the largest companies in the world in that particular sector – our approach worked.
But the basic point and why we have been able to stay a step ahead of technology up to now, is that the first bit of the work we do – which is true for any search – is context...What is the context? Technology has helped us enormously as has assessment. But I would never use assessment as my number one tool for making an appointment, never. But it’s often quite useful to enable you to analyse certain other areas you might want to explore a bit further.
JW: I agree. You’ll never be able to replace the value of having trusted relationships with your client when they know that you understand their culture and regardless of how technology is leveraged to help you in your search work, at the end of the day they still trust that you think this is a ‘good chap’ or woman! So aside from the great relationships and the trust clients have in our judgement, it comes down to the fact that clients know that we will most likely never put candidates in front of them who don’t fit the corporate culture and whose personality and leadership style aren’t right.
KB: As an interviewer if you talk all the time you do not get one characteristic out of these candidates. You must really listen. I once had a candidate in the early days and I was really doubtful about whether or not he was the right fit for the job. So I called Per Berndtson and he said ‘did he impress you?’ and I said ‘not really’ and he said ‘forget him’. Per always looked for well-educated, young, energetic people who could run the show and if they could have two degrees, it was an advantage!
IO: I take a slightly different view. I think again it comes back to the understanding of your client. For instance our appointment for who was to run the 2012 London Olympics. The last person you would have thought would be right to fill that role would be someone from Goldman Sachs (Lord (Paul) Deighton, who was a former COO of Goldman Sachs, took on the role). I mean it just doesn’t make sense at all, does it? But it did, it made absolute sense and it was, as you know, hugely successful.
KB: I have a similar story. I remember I had to find the CEO of Copenhagen Airport which was a grey, dull building outside Copenhagen. Now it’s one of the best airports in the world. The candidate I thought would be perfect for the role said no the first time I discussed it with him. In fact I had him in for another position, (he came from the insurance industry), and he rejected that particular role and then I said "what about Copenhagen Airport?" He said "no, never" but the next day he called and said "let’s talk". And we did and he was so successful in that role. He was there for 16 years, I think. So for me it’s about knowing your client, its culture and ambition and then combining that knowledge with a candidate who may on the surface seem entirely ill-suited, but, like Lord Deighton and the London Olympics, really fits like a glove.
We’re looking for a lot of Generation X candidates now to succeed the baby boomers and I find that the younger ones are demanding a lot more from us than just our good judgement and opinions on people.
JW: With clients I always talk about the je ne sais quoi candidate, the one that there’s just something about them. To me that’s one of the things I like best about what we do, when you’ve got that sort of relationship with a client and they’ll interview anyone you ask them to because they really do trust your judgement. Yet when I look at some of the people we’re currently putting into either VP or CEO level roles, particularly in small to mid-size organisations, they represent a bit of a different demographic. We’re looking for a lot of Generation X candidates now to succeed the baby boomers and I find that particularly the younger ones are demanding a lot more from us than just our good judgement and opinions on people. Which is where reliable assessment tools can really play their part. These are people who have grown up in the tech generation, and for whom technology is part of their everyday lives. They want to know that we’re leveraging technology as much as we can so we’ll be better at what we do, so that they in turn are building better companies.
IO: Indeed and today we’re talking about the era of big and heavy data mining and other leading edge technologies. I think it’s going to be very interesting over the next few years. I suspect we’re going to move in that direction and I think search firms have got to keep well ahead of the technological curve – as indeed we do. And at the end of the day we’re going to be successful because there’s intelligence behind our searches, not only abstract data mining.
KB: Our business is one of the few businesses where experience and knowledge really count, otherwise we would have stopped years back. But, if you’re good at what you’re doing you become better and better – with and without technology.
IO: And we do have these specialities in depth across our network. There is a lot of working together across the specialities. We don’t have little silos working in isolation. Specialities provide huge knowledge and expertise in a particular area which can be called on by any country. On top of that, searches can be cross fertilised from other sectors and countries providing a rich source of potential candidates. This emphasises our strength in joining forces across different specialisms and different geographical locations.
The Higgs Report in 2003 was the watershed moment for board governance in the UK. Odgers Berndtson was the only major search firm to have made a significant submission to Derek Higgs, garnered from our extensive experience in recruiting for boards, and the report reflected much of our thinking at the time.
KB: We think outside of Denmark because we are not big enough to have all the resource in our local base. So we say who could be the best person in London, or Frankfurt or New York to help find the perfect candidate? And that is why I love these assignments!
JW: Yes it has led to a robust situation where you really trust your colleagues across the entire Odgers Berndtson global network, and can call on them for advice, support and partnership to effect the best outcome and place the best candidate for our clients.
KB: Which is why, just to give another example, we recently placed an Italian from Australia who was living in Europe and who is now a senior VP covering the Asia Pacific region. You never rule out what Jennifer rightly describes as the je ne sais quoi candidate!
IO: Almost all our senior searches are looking in a series of different countries and if you look at the chairs of the FTSE 100 nearly a third are not British but come from other parts of the world. So again our global collaboration across our offices and specialisms becomes infinitely more important.JW
JW: One of the aspects of our business that I’ve seen change over the past few years and I think will continue to change is the emphasis on looking for diversity in our rosters of candidates. For boards or exec teams, almost every search that I launch these days involves a discussion around the need for more diversity within the organisation I’m working for. So we pay special attention to that. Related to that I’d like to just mention our CEO x 1 Day programme which runs in many countries around the world and is about to launch in the UK as well. And as you know, the programme is really gaining momentum in Canada.
The CEO x 1 Day programme aligns university students with CEOs of various organisations. The last step of the selection process for that programme involves bringing 12 finalist candidates into Odgers Berndtson offices to spend a day with partners. At the end of that day we identify the few who will be matched up with our CEOs. I had a real epiphany when we went through the programme in 2015 and brought those 12 finalist students to our office. I was immediately struck when they walked in that not only were they 50 per cent male/female (and that was completely random), but only three of those students were Caucasian. We really were in awe of those students, because not only were they high academic achievers but they were also comfortable and gregarious and personable and involved in all sorts of altruistic activities. We concluded that if these are our future leaders, diversity really isn’t going to be a big issue in 15 or 20 years from now as these are the people who are going to be sitting on boards and executive teams...and we joked that at that point the diversity candidate will actually be the middle-aged, white male!
IO: I completely agree with you. I think that diversity will become the norm and we will be looking for different sorts of diversity in the future. Ultimately though we need to consistently upgrade the quality of our consultancy because the most important decision a client ever makes is the appointment of its CEO and who are the people who are actually there helping make that right choice? It’s the search consultants.
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