Executive search specialist or generalist? A new perspective – by Matt Schwartz

When you’re looking for an executive search expert, should you pick a specialist or a generalist?

It’s one of the oldest arguments in our industry…

So let me give you a new way of thinking about the problem, and a new way of choosing the right executive search firm for you or your organization.

First, let’s define our terms.

Executive search specialists often focus on one or two industry verticals only. They have an extensive book of industry contacts, which can help them find candidates fast. And because they have such a deep knowledge of their area, they know which probing questions to ask candidates and have the right vocabulary to communicate the role in an attractive way.

On the other hand, since their world is relatively restricted, they may have significant lists of companies and candidates they can’t approach and end up ‘reshuffling’ candidates frequently. This specialisation can be a disadvantage when clients are looking for best-of-breed skills versus industry-specific knowledge, and it is more beneficial for them to appoint a C-level leader from outside their sector to have a broader perspective.

Generalists, on the other hand, can move seamlessly from industry to industry and job role to job role. One day they might be recruiting a CMO in Technology and the next day they may be looking for an HR director in healthcare. They get to know each role and each industry. This can be particularly useful if you’re looking to fill a wide variety of roles as an in-house HR function might do.

But while their knowledge is broad, it may also be less deep. It can be harder for these headhunters to build up useful networks of specific types of candidates, or to be able to talk to them about the roles in a meaningful manner.

So back to our problem. Which is better – specialist or generalist?

The difficulty is that these are both designed for a job market that no longer exists, particularly when it comes to very senior roles, like the ones, we deal with at HIEC.
Both assume that the most important factor in recruiting someone will be their industry or job title.

But when you’re searching for a leader at the top of the house, what’s really important nowadays is their skillset.

That’s because technology is evolving fast. So many of the positions that global companies need to fill today, particularly around big data, artificial intelligence, digital, and sustainability, simply didn’t exist a few years ago. They may not even exist right now!
There are very few people who can fill these new transformational positions.

They could come from practically any vertical – you will almost certainly have to look beyond your own industry.

And the right people may not be obvious at all… It may not be easy to identify them simply by job title. They may currently be fulfilling a very different role to the one you’re searching for.

What they will have in common though, is a specific set of skills or experiences, that will equip them to do the role well.

That’s why you need an executive search firm which is a specialist…
…but a specialist in a particular type of person or mindset, rather than a particular vertical.

That’s exactly what we do here at HIEC, where many of the roles we recruit for concern digital and other types of transformation.

The candidates who can fill these roles span many verticals. In the past, for example, I’ve helped people move from consumer packaged goods to financial services, or from IT to Industry.

These candidates have usually already shown an aptitude for re-imagining business at the highest levels. And their skillsets are fluid enough to allow them to have a similar, profound impact on their new companies as well.

We systematically identify these people and build up long-term, deep relationships with them, understanding their achievements, skills, personalities, and career plans. So, when you come to us with what might feel like an impossible brief, looking for an innovator or disruptor or transformational leader, we have a ready source of candidates.

This is a new approach but expect to see more of it. The digital revolution is transforming many industries and companies; Executive search is one of them!


If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article, please feel free to contact Matt Schwartz directly.