Recruiting leaders for clients in the Built Environment – my key learnings from the past year

You never stop learning and complacency is a very dangerous trait.  Having headhunted within the building materials and wider construction industries for 15 years, I feel well placed to offer advice on experiences gained throughout this year 

This fiscal year has been another successful year for the practice, with a broad range of both clients and disciplines satisfied (and a 94% success rate in filling roles). Don’t worry; this article isn’t designed as a rather blatant way of me peddling my services. Reflecting, there are some key takeout’s I have experienced that should be of value to leadership teams in the industry.

There is rarely a quick-fix solution

Unemployment, for the time being at least, is at its lowest rate for a significant number of years. Put simply, good people are not looking, they are happy in their current jobs, are being looked after by their current employers and need to be enticed. 

A prime example being a Managing Directors role that I managed earlier this year. Against a challenging brief, some 110 individuals were researched and approached to accompany the c.150 advert / social media respondents. Long story short, I interviewed a handful of these and concluded that I was probably missing “the one”. However, through proactive headhunting, I was kindly referred to an expat who was actively looking to secure a UK role from his base in the Far East.  He was perfect and shone at interview. This result took six weeks of hardened research and phone work to achieve.

A utilities contractor Collingwood has partnered for four years came to me four months ago looking for two Senior Project Managers. I know that these people are in high demand and are notoriously hard to pin down for a conversation let alone have the time to write and publicise their CV’s etc. The client had attempted to use their preferred supplier list of contingency recruiters but had found, after some eight weeks, that these agencies were not fully committed to unearthing such passive candidates. Being open, both roles were hard to place, but the proof is in the pudding – one successful candidate came from a referral off a headhunt call, and I initiated communication with the other through a determined set of proactive approaches. 

To conclude on this point, retained headhunting is never going to be the quickest or cheapest solution but it is by far the most comprehensive and the client will definitely get the commitment to drive to a successful close.

Plan ahead and don’t rush

Any retained headhunting approach takes a number of weeks to gain maximum value from. Anyone who tells you differently is not being honest to gain the work or isn’t doing a thorough job. Sure, I could present a shortlist within two weeks but it is not what you’re investing in. I would not have exhausted the market for the best available candidate in a fortnight, it is impossible.

A long serving client referred Collingwood on to a sister manufacturer who was starting work on a new manufacturing plant last year. Whilst taking the brief for this Operations Director role I was told by the UK Managing Director that their Central European based Chief Technical Officer wanted to interview in a weeks’ time. A typical assignment takes five to six weeks to do properly and we were only three weeks in. Understanding that this deadline was rigid (although I did explain that the client would not be getting maximum return on their investment in Collingwood) we rushed three to first interview stage.  The client plucked the best candidate out and, upon meeting for a second time within the week, offered the role. Forward wind six months and it was clear that the fit wasn’t right. Second time around we were allowed the time to research the regional market properly. The result – not only a very credible Operations Director has been appointed but we also found and recruited an Engineering Director through the same retained search assignment.

The message here is clear; please plan in advance and do not be sold the dream by a recruiter who states they can turn an assignment around inside a couple of weeks. You are not getting the best value from your investment.

There needs to be a joined up approach

At first sight this would seem a bit of an odd statement. Most leadership teams would naturally think that this is a given. There is nothing revolutionary to Collingwood's approach early into any assignment from taking the brief. We document what has been discussed, paying particular attention on where the business wants to get to, what it has been missing, what is required skill-set wise from this person and an agreed strategy to enable us to achieve this. 

All seems rather obvious doesn’t it?  The reality can occasionally be somewhat different and I am consciously aware that businesses put a degree of faith in me when retaining us on a crucial position. To not expose clients I have changed the products manufactured but on two occasions this year this has proved an important factor for a successful placement. 

Having not worked with this building envelope manufacturer before, upon being retained I produced a Strategy Document ahead of ploughing on with the research. The business was looking for a new addition to their boardroom in the shape of a Marketing Director. Their salary cap was some 15% under the market average and so when taking the brief we agreed this person was likely to currently satisfy a management role and be ready for their first foray into a directorship role. Five weeks later, and with some 70 headhunted candidates approached, I presented four candidates for their first interview stage. Feedback was underwhelming with the HR Director and MD only liking one candidate. This candidate was currently a Marketing Director who was willing to take a drop in salary, seeing the wider opportunity with this role. I further refined the research, opening up approaches to more candidates, to include directors. The vast majority of these were too expensive but three additional candidates were interviewed and rejected with the client reverting back to the preferred candidate. Feedback from the HR Director was that none of the other six candidates could satisfy the strategic demands that would be placed on them – in other words, they were looking for a readymade director but salary was unrealistic. The aforementioned Strategy Document was clearly not reviewed by the client even though they had responded with a green light, if it had been we most likely would have several candidates moving forward to second stage interview by now.

Another stumbling block that larger businesses should be aware of is when too many stakeholders get involved in the process. I was asked by a long term client to headhunt a Sales Director last year. As part of this aforementioned Strategy Document we outline stage gates and timings, to include client interviews. Long story short, having agreed everything, and with myself completing the long listing stage, I was waiting four weeks for their first interviews. With the preferred two candidates moving on to finals, the HR Director then stated that the only day the three board members could do was in three days’ time. This was a national headhunt and a remote role!  One candidate could not make the date and the other was abroad on business until the night before, with no time to prepare.  A Sales Director was appointed but, again being open, do I feel the client got maximum return from their investment?  Unfortunately not!

I have learnt from both of the above, and would urge any business to ensure they are very clear of their expectations, timelines and potential barriers ahead of going live with a search. Check all paperwork and ensure you get the most out of your investment.

Be open to the industry your person can come from

I am in throws of finishing an Operations Director role for a lightside manufacturer. When taking the brief, the MD wanted someone from within their particular specialism. I highlighted that this would likely limit us to 5 to 10 potential Operations Directors who live within a 50 mile radius. Having headhunted from a wider industry pool for similar roles I suggested that the important facet this person must have is the ability to lead within a continuous manufacturing process environment.  Taking best practice from the likes of food, beverage, chemicals and pharmaceuticals would open up a richer array of talent. The MD agreed and as a result is due to meet with four candidates later this month, with only one coming from building materials.

Numerous times during my tenure with Collingwood I have been briefed to find a leader within a specific sub sector of construction products or construction. My question is why limit yourself?  I recently wrote a blog on this which would be well worth a read.

Sometimes gut instinct counts for a lot – especially with senior sales roles

I have recruited droves of sales people throughout my time in the industry. Going against my above comment on industry alignment, typically sales people need to have a history in a given market or product sector. Can a pen sales person really sell high-end joinery products to an architect? 

And so this makes the initial part of sourcing and interviewing relatively straight forward for me. Has the candidate got good experience of selling to the civils market? Tick. Does he understand a structural product sell? Tick.

Last year I interviewed a number of candidates for a Head of Sales role for a rail cargo business selling into the aggregates market. Because Collingwood and the client had invested time in meeting with each other to understand culturally what would work, I was able to spot an "X factor" person fairly quickly into the process. One candidate I met with stood out as the fit and was later offered the role.

This made me reflect. Often Collingwood and our clients invest hours in cross examining candidates from various angles.  However, occasionally gut instinct counts for a lot. Being honest, sometimes, you just know within the first few minutes if the candidate is a strong contender and you spend the remaining time trying to prove yourself wrong!

I hope this has helped further shape your own thinking for the next time you start deliberating about investing in a senior hire for your business.  If you have anything to add, or disagree with any of the above, I would love to hear from you.

Please contact me if you would like to discuss the subject further. Mark Goldsmith, Senior Consultant on 00 44 1829 732374.