Smart moves: Searching with one eye closed

Britain has lots of talented managers, but the headhunters can't see them, says Andrew Garner

Andrew Garner
Saturday 03 April 1999 23:02

Where is the evidence that industry and commerce face a growing battle to find world-class management talent to replace departing and under-performing key executives?

If one knows where to look, and is able to take a wide-ranging view, there is no shortage of top managers in the UK.

There is also no shortage of executives chasing those jobs. Even in the most competitive and turbulent of sectors, talented management shines brightly. The performance of GKN and Rolls- Royce Engines are just two examples.

The fact that a number of vacancies exist at any time in major companies is inevitable. In a rapidly changing economic environment there will always be situations calling for a change in leadership in order to keep the business up to speed with what is happening in the marketplace. It is a reflection of both the speed of change and flatter structures.

By definition, there is less scope for in-built succession planning. Companies can no longer afford this historical luxury. At the same time, in the global economy there will always be chief executives and senior managers who don't perform.

Why, then, are so many companies looking abroad for their top managers - for example Barclays' replacement for Martin Taylor, recruited from the US?

The answer is partly because that is where chief executives of big banks and telecoms and technology companies are most likely to be found.

But there is another important reason - the propensity for large companies to use the same few search firms to find board-level directors and chief executives. The problem arising here is that some sources are off-limits. Search firms cannot recruit individuals from their own client base. And the top five headhunters in the UK represent well over 50 per cent of FT-SE 100 companies, which limits where they can search.

Inevitably, therefore, major companies which use the leading search firms are more likely to be presented with candidates from a reduced selection drawn from the top 100 companies, from smaller organisations or from companies based overseas.

Chairmen and chief executives of leading companies should challenge their appointed headhunters to make certain there is no ambiguity about their restrictions, thereby ensuring that the search they commission will be as wide as possible.

The same situation can arise when specialist, boutique search firms are appointed. By definition these practices will have been built through the execution of assignments in one functional discipline or market sector.

As a result, a high percentage of the most eligible candidates are off-limits because their companies are already clients of the search firm.

In reality, we all know that there is no shortage of talent at the top of British industry. One only has to consider individuals such as Sir Iain Vallance at BT, Niall Fitzgerald at Unilever and Gerry Robinson at Granada to give credibility to the point.

But what of those that are to become the next heads of British industry? Is this the level where there is the supposed dearth of talent? The following young high-flyers suggest not: Tamara Ingram, 38, a joint chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi; Keith Weed, 40, chairman of Elida Faberge; and Ian Livingston, 34, the group finance director of Dixons Group, who became the youngest finance director in a FT-SE 100 company when he was appointed six years ago.

Talent is abundant out there. One has only to know where to look and to be free to look widely.

In that, executive search is rather like writing, as defined by W Somerset Maugham: "90 per cent perspiration and 10 per cent inspiration".

n Andrew Garner is chairman of the executive search group Garner International.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments