Executive Search and Leadership in the New ‘20s

05 February, 2020

By Fabio Sola, PRAXI (Italy)

The PRAXI Alliance international Executive Search network closed 2019 by hosting its Summit in Rome for the first time, discussing Executive Leadership 2020 with partners from over twenty countries around the world. In an interesting panel discussion with trusted clients, we also focused on how executive search firms can sharpen the leadership performance of senior management teams, driving greater success in global business.

The first take away of the discussion was the increasing importance companies are placing on recruiting for diversified experience and soft skills as opposed to the traditionally sought after formal training or prior experience in a similar company, sector or industry. Even within well-established businesses, what was true yesterday may no longer apply today. In a constantly evolving marketplace, simply arriving with related past experience does not guarantee future performance. Soft skills prove to make the difference and often times the SUCCESSFUL manager doesn’t fit the “ideal profile” designed by HR.

An executive search firm can definitely support clients with ad hoc leadership consulting services like executive assessment and onboarding, but there are other less obvious ways to add value. Directing traditional search activities towards “outsiders” with respect to company perception, by compiling creative candidate short lists and counselling clients over psychological hurdles, helps build the comfort level necessary to hire outside of the box. This requires an interpretation of the business that goes beyond the traditional headhunter’s role of networking and assessment, in order to identify the likelihood of an executive candidate being able to thrive and perform in complex corporate ecosystems.

The biggest surprise from our client panel came from private equity funds. The time horizon is extremely short, given that a two to five year buy, fix, sell cycle means executives must hit the ground running. However, leadership remains a central issue for deal success, and highlights another case where the traditional winning model of placing a manager with a mix of competitor knowledge, plug and play availability and turnaround experience, is encountering difficulties due to the increasing complexity of running a business.

The habit of onboarding managers with good contacts and proven past success, without too many questions or an objective assessments of their fit within a specific corporate culture or setting, creates more and more private equity management failures. To prevent this catastrophe, which can easily burn through the first twelve months of the investment cycle, tailored support can help. One solution is through the creation of an ample pool of managers more targeted than the actual need, providing a richer pool for candidate selection, and the use of an executive assessment as a “second opinion”, rather than relying solely on word of mouth.

Finally, the fundamental question on which characteristics the leader in the 20s needs for success highlights trust as a central element. This goes in both directions: receiving team members’ trust by virtue of a manager’s behaviors and, above all, demonstrating and projecting trust in the team’s ability to meet objectives and perform. Organizations are increasingly global and remote work is a constant. A team’s harmony and commitment no longer depend on common daily exposure but on stated objectives, action plans ??and rapid exchanges, often mediated by technology.

Companies today are typically richer in their diversity of people in terms of nationality, culture, generation. Unlike in the past, blanket judgement criteria must be avoided since what applies to 50-year-old Italian probably differs greatly from a 25-year-old Asian. Managers must trust in themselves and their teams more broadly than in the past while also being able to quickly assess whether a team is meeting their objectives and constantly recalibrate the management style accordingly.

Exacerbating everything are the Digital Transformation and the New 4.0 World Order. A passionate craftsman was almost always the best in fostering collaboration and producing an exceptional product, while a traditional industry leader was not quite as nuanced but still had a vision of the entire business, from production to sales to finances. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution, everything is changing. Today’s CEO might not necessarily understand critical and complex topics like cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, or simply, social networks. Instead, he or she must trust people who are very different from the traditional trusted advisors of the past. It was much more comforting to rely on the classically polished MIT graduate with 20 years of experience compared to today’s young IT geeks in their uniforms of a t-shirt, hoodie and jeans!

Consulting must be the intersecting point between traditional businesses, including global corporations but also small and mid-sized entrepreneurial companies, and the new professional ecosystems with whom they must blend. These may be traditional managers or individual gig professionals, or even open innovation-incubated start-ups. Finding and developing dynamic and resilient 4.0 Managers requires more than simple technological prowess, but hiring outside of the box on cross-sector experience, soft skill savvy and highly attuned emotional intelligence. The consulting world has a new mission for 2020!

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