10: Integrating an Executive Search Organization

An executive search organization reached national scale through organic growth in its major markets coupled with the acquisition of numerous smaller ‘headhunter' and boutique firms. The overall objective of this strategy was to quickly increase capability in the market for executive and professional (E&P) searches. While these had longer cycle times, relied heavily on interpersonal skills, and were highly competitive, they offered significantly higher margins than other searches. More importantly, the E&P search market seemed to offer some buffer from the disruption brought by online job boards. Internet-based search and recruiting services devastated the market for more traditional searches directed at mid-level employees. It was hoped that a focus on E&P searches would delay threats from online.

Once the dust settled, the organization’s structure more closely resembled a collection of offices than an integrated company. There were nearly as many systems and duplicate processes as there were acquisitions. Company leaders planned two projects to remedy these problems. One was to restructure the organization to better clarify roles, strengthen service lines, and institute comprehensive management practices. The other project was to deploy common technologies to support standard business processes and reporting. They decided to deploy the technology first.

The initial wave of systems deployments (six offices) was not successful. However, there weren’t any technical issues. Instead, there was resistance to change. Despite understanding that integrated systems would greatly benefit the organization, many senior search executives were hesitant to transfer their local data (and without saying so prevented this through a number of tactics). Leaders halted further systems deployments and authorized an organization and change readiness assessment.

Through confidential interviews and focus group sessions, it was learned that many of the acquired search professionals linked their success directly to their personal contacts data. Making that available throughout the new organization was perceived as a step toward elimination. Similarly, organization leaders failed to sufficiently communicate the value they attributed to the personal capabilities of the acquired professionals. The final solution focused first on the organization design. The resulting structure was based on industry teams within regional divisions. Job descriptions and performance plans were created to recognize the nature of E&P work and align objectives. Then, the systems deployments continued. One year after completing the standardization project, open search times were reduced by nearly 25%.

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