Exec search is an important art form

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Scientific approaches to executive hiring are too generic, argues Henley's Andrew Kakabadse

“Should we have a more scientific approach to executive search? Emphatically: no. In all sectors you need someone who’s going to make a little extra contribution and that edge is no longer dependent on hard strategy.

“If you’re looking for a person who’s going to get a slightly different level of conversation and build that level of trust, how is a scientific measure going to do that? How are you going to ensure they’re adopting the right qualities, or promoting an appropriate attitude? You can’t. That’s where you need if you like ‘art’, or personal judgement. So search is becoming bipolar. At the lower end where it’s more task-orientated a scientific approach works. But when it’s senior a soft strategy makes the difference.

“You can never get away from prejudices and with a scientific approach you’re likely to drive them underground and make them worse. What you need is a more robust conversation with the client, and a lot of search firms are now doing that. But you will still make errors. You’ll still have people everyone thought were the best but it didn’t quite work out.

“Where things will go wrong is between one-and-a-half and three years. You need someone deeply aware of the business context and relationships, and why things are going wrong, to act immediately. You don’t need someone to measure all of that.

“Where the context is extremely important you can’t have a scientific approach because you would need a series of questionnaires only [applicable] for a certain company at this moment in time. And all these scientific approaches are generic. Bespoking them would be too expensive, and by the time you’ve devised the test it’s out of date.”

Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School

Read more: Balancing science and art in executive search

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