Let us start with a case of Marina Somers. Marina Somers has a personality that tends to eclipse those around her. Tall, arrestingly dressed (she has a weakness for flamboyant spectacle frames), and with a tone of voice that means business. This art historian by training, headhunter by profession is quite happy to be seen as an evangelist for her tribe.
In the 70s when she started working in executive search, headhunting was a pejorative term but she always saw it as a job that allowed her to contribute to a positive change in a person’s life. Somers, the founder of Somers & Associates a boutique executive search firm founded in Moscow originally to assist multinationals with finding superior local talent.
But it is more than just Somers’ persona that is making her colleagues sit up and listen. It is the know-how that comes from 30 years of industry experience, not to mention the cultural perspective.
Having quality partners like Marina is what excites about being a part of the network. The “network” referring to is AltoPartners, an international alliance of independently-run search firms in 32 countries with 30 million Euros in combined revenues; the Accord group was one of its founding members in 2006. What the network gives us is global coverage, but because they are independently-owned firms they offer expert local knowledge in each of their domestic markets.
Having a network also means the ability to share best practices. At the AltoPartners’ offsite in Goa, the largest it has engaged in so far, Corinne Kladja has come prepared. As partner at Accord Group Eastern and Central Europe (ECE) operating across five Baltic States since 1992, Kladja is trying to templatise the search process for the entire group. “The idea is to eventually develop a common centre of research excellence. In Russia people jump jobs so quickly that the firm would go out of business if they devoted time to systems.
Member firms like Somers & Associates are inducted into AltoPartners on an exclusive basis and about five new members are added each year. Agrawal, who is one of those responsible for recruitment, says she always looks for a strong entrepreneurial mindset. “We are typically boutique firms of strong standing in each of the markets that we are present rather than small flags on a map,” she says.
AltoPartners, however, isn’t the first at this game; there are other similarly structured global recruitment networks. While over all executive search firms are seeing good times with the global war for senior talent intensifying, there is also greater scrutiny of firms that companies hire on retainer. At stake are their individual brand reputations, their track records, the visibility within markets they serve, and increasingly — their delivery capability across markets.
More and more independent recruitment firms have discovered that forming networks makes it easy to recruit anywhere in the world. Global scale is no longer a source of competitive advantage; it is a question of achieving parity, parity with top headhunting multinationals like H&S with branches in 57 countries or Egon Zehnder with offices in 37.
For multinational recruitment firms, the business model is organised around a single profit centre partnership; AltoPartners though allows member firms to operate autonomously; there’s no minimum fee size and no restrictions on the profiles of clients.
With a global firm, business is so driven by volumes and profits that it puts pressure on quality from the start.
Also while fully-owned firms have rigid solutions, in the case of a network, member firms are free to design market-specific solutions. Kladja, for instance, says that because most clients at her Warsaw headquarters are non-local, she has introduced a “cultural orientation” service. Having an Indian face and a French-Polish name actually helps me bridge cultures. Other firms have chosen to introduce services for outplacement, management audits, board replacements, or CEO coaching.
Where the lack of definition may not help is when cross border work threatens territorial integrity about 12% of AltoPartners’ global turnover is directly attributed to cross border work within the network . The choice to work with each other or not lies with each firm but there are often referrals from country to country for local searches.
The basis of effective partnership lies in respect, reciprocity and good old fashioned communication. Global companies have complex relationships with clients and it often creates off-limits between offices. Here they actually tap into other markets to get candidates via their partners.
What the network also helps in is developing cultural sensitivity to conduct successful cross-border work. The legal ramifications of revealing more than a candidate’s initials in the long list — Polish data protection laws don’t permit that. In some markets, facial hair can be an impediment to getting an executive role.
The network still has teething problems. In Goa, members are still coming to grips with how to leverage the common intranet. They haven’t begun common advertising or branding either. The approach so far has been to keep operating costs low, so there is no headquarters and the chairmanship rotates every two years.
Clients, so far, have responded well to the idea of international coverage via the network although ultimately, she believes, the single biggest factor for clients still remains the confidence in the individual consultant’s ability to deliver.