The Globalization of Retained Executive Search

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Jul 29, 2011

Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s famous odyssey was a predecessor of today’s road warrior. Having recently completed a ‘round-the-worlder’ I could have wished for the lack of jet lag that Fogg must have enjoyed, but maybe the rigors of modern airports are nevertheless less demanding than the Indian jungles, snakes, hot air balloons, and other obstacles with which he had to grapple – or not.

There is no doubt that travel broadens the mind even though it cricks the back and dehydrates the body. But it is a pre-requisite in today’s world of business and in executive search.

I have recently had the opportunity to visit Brazil, China, India, and the Middle East on behalf of the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), meeting our members, listening to market experts and senior HR leaders, and talking to the press. It has been an education but also a revelation since it has brought home to me how much the world is changing, and has changed, post-Lehman (as it is referred to in Dubai).

Every day there is new commentary on the re-balancing of the world economy; of the decline of the West and the rise of the East; of the eastward tilt of global influence; of new paradigms in world investment, consumption, politics; of a resumption of the status quo that existed 500 years ago when the Chinese were masters of the universe.

But it is not all doom and gloom for the developed nations. As China and India grow to the size of the US and Europe in the coming years it is estimated that the overall size of the world economy will have tripled, and that will present plenty of opportunity and time for any creative business. For executive search it could spell a bonanza.

The overwhelming impression of my trips this year has been that of the “Talent Gap” which exists in these rapidly developing markets and of the crucial impact that this will have upon their ability to fulfill their strategic ambitions in the near term. Only fifteen years ago the world was a very different place with only a hint of what was to come for these new markets. Thus they were largely unprepared, and critical support systems, especially in education and management training, were not in place to fuel and sustain the phenomenal growth of today.

In China, the market for executive talent is so hot that it plays to the hand of retained executive search since clients, now including even the State Owned Enterprises, realize how difficult it is to find top talent and keep it. Add in an international dimension as Chinese companies expand abroad and the need becomes even more exaggerated.

The situation in India is not much different since the largest corporations have done too little too late in filling the gaps in management and technical expertise that are fundamental to their future growth. Our HR panel in Mumbai rang alarm bells about the lack of international executive talent, scarcity in niche high tech sectors, the civil service mentality of older executives and the continued need for expatriate talent at high salary levels to fill the gaps.

In Dubai and the Middle East the situation was even more extreme. As the MENA region itself grows, in some companies to embrace as many as 65 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Europe, the lack of senior executives who can bring both experience of the region and offer cultural/attitude fit is acute. The only answer is either expatriate staff or younger executives who can be fast tracked, with the risk that they may not succeed.

In Brazil companies wrestle with a dearth of experience and find it very difficult to attract talented executives — who left Brazil during the days of instability — to return home.

In all these markets the role of executive search takes on a pioneering profile, both in terms of helping clients to resolve very difficult and sometimes intractable problems, but also in professional terms in flying the flag for high standards and a business model that supports those standards.

What is clear is that the market for retained search will only continue to grow in these emerging markets. Asia Pacific now accounts for 18% of the retained executive search market, up from 12% in 2005, and Central / South America, currently 8% of the market, is also continuing to gain market share. For most search consultants, travelling to these parts of the world and even moving to them will become a normal part of business life.

image source: US Mission Geneva

The Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) represents the best retained executive search consulting firms around the world and promotes the highest professional standards in the industry. Visit for more information about AESC, The International Executive Search Directory or CorporateConnect, the AESC’s service for organizations using executive search services.

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