Recession dictates need for steady hands at top: Wariness is now a watchword for job seekers and hirers at executive level. Ian Hunter reports

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EVERY economic cycle throws up a demand for a different breed of executive managers. The heady late 1980s screamed for mergers and acquisition wizards as well as buccaneering corporate raiders.

The recession-laden 1990s have seen the emergence of careful accountants and steady managers. These stalwarts have overseen a cutback in recruitment and have presided over mass redundancies. They have managed the disposal of unprofitable enterprises and conducted a retreat into core businesses.

Brian Burwash, a senior partner in the largest British- owned executive search company, Goddard Kay Rogers & Associates, has noted a particularly buoyant demand for finance directors. 'In a recession, people look even more carefully at the business's performance and the number of people employed in it. If this survey suggests poor financial management, the finance director's position is likely to become vulnerable,' he said.

Alannah Hunt, a partner and head of executive search at management consultants Price Waterhouse, observes that many employers remain risk- adverse. 'Many will not consider candidates who are perceived as 'tainted' from association with a company that has collapsed. Yet many of these people are very good, and not all can be held totally responsible for the problems their employer experiences.'

Mr Burwash is not so sure. 'Anyone associated with the misfortune of a company is initially regarded with suspicion, but we check candidates out very carefully before recommending them. By talking to their colleagues and fellow professional advisers, we usually get a good picture of the candidate's ability,' he said.

But clients do increasingly look for experience in a particular industry or of a particular country.

John Miskelly, managing director of J M Management Services, recruits information technology professionals primarily for the financial sector. Although he said the sector had remained largely unaffected by the recession, he had noted a 'flight to quality'.

'Increasingly employers in this market are looking not just for information technology skills but also for exceptional business acumen. Employers are asking 'what real value can the employee bring to the business?' Employers will pay according to that perceived value rather than by reference to a particular grading structure.'

According to the consultants, employees have also become more cautious during the recession. The incentives required to entice those in employment to move need to be more alluring. Conversely those who are out of work are prepared to consider appointments that pay much less.

Ms Hunt said: 'Five years ago somewhere in the region of 80 per cent of applicants were in jobs; now the number is close to 50 per cent, and of this group 20 per cent consider their jobs at threat. Applicants who may previously have been earning pounds 80,000 in some cases will consider jobs paying pounds 50,000.'

Employees in the present market look not just for money but for security as well. Mr Miskelly said: 'Those at the senior level earning in excess of pounds 80,000 now want longer contracts. Three years ago, they would have settled for a notice period of six months, now they want a year.'

Unlike in other sectors of the market, 'golden hellos' - signing-on fees - remain popular in the world of information technology. 'These are needed to seduce good candidates from the security of their present environment,' Mr Miskelly said.

Mr Burwash believes that the introduction of the pension cap has become one of the main obstacles to job mobility at the highest levels.

Those who joined an approved employer's pension scheme before 1988 can receive a pension based on their actual final salary, whereas those who joined such a scheme after 1988 can only receive a pension based on two-thirds of a final salary capped presently at pounds 75,000 per annum.

The brightening economic forecast has yet to make a substantial impact on the executive job market.