AI & Executive Search - A help or a threat?

Posted on 29th January 2020 | Thought Leadership

A while back I was chatting with a friendly competitor in the search sector who surprised me with his view that executive search as a profession faces an existential threat with the growth of AI over the next decade. His rationale was simply that like many roles, as AI advances and enhances, it will soon replace human search consultants, making them obsolete in the hiring process.

There is little doubt that technology has and continues to change the way that the recruitment profession operates, not just at the executive level, but we disagreed fundamentally on the idea that tech innovations along with AI can replace the human role altogether. Let’s face it, there are elements of the hiring process we can all agree won’t be missed and we would gladly hand over to a more efficient software package, but to assume that the value of a human consultant’s ability to understand a client’s intrinsically unique situation, could ever be replaced by AI, I for one would argue is an overly pessimistic view (or optimistic – depending on your view of recruitment consultants!). 

When it comes to tactical, repetitive actions required through the research and identification stage of a headhunting assignment, there are definitely benefits that technology brings to the table. Consider how Linkedin has transformed the recruitment industry. I’ve been headhunting for nearly 20 years and I remember going through the Yellow Pages to search for target organisations in the days when the internet was almost as slow, way before Linkedin was really a ‘thing’. I remember posting interview confirmation letters on a daily basis to candidates who didn’t have an email address. We all know how much tech has helped improve the way we recruit, but to suggest it can ever replace a human consultant’s intuition when seeing the whites of a candidate’s eyes is naïve. Some may say that I’m actually the naïve one, reminding me that ‘people didn’t think the internet would take off’, or ‘smartphones’, or any number of tech innovations that have had revolutionary effects on the way we do things over the last decade (and there have been many), but when it comes to questioning the ability of AI to replace the beautifully simple way in which a human consultant can instinctively match a human candidate to a human client based on their completely untactile human understanding of the two party’s personalities, I suggest it’s an entirely different question. 

Let’s take a closer look at Linkedin, for example. We, of course, like any other recruiter, use Linkedin as part of our research methodology. However, I’m acutely aware of its limitations. When I look at my own profile page on Linkedin, I’m told that I’m a ‘Linkedin All-Star’ for the level of ‘completedness’ of my profile and my number of connections. However, I regularly receive job-suggestions (not that I’m looking) that are completely irrelevant to me. Take this one I received this morning…

Screenshot 2020 01 29 At 15 09 16

Apparently I’d make a great CFO! Who’d have guessed it? I have neither experience at CFO or FD level (which the job advert states I need) nor any experience of working in technology start-ups (which the job advert states I need) and neither have I ever led a variety of fundraising or exit transactions (again the ad says I need it), yet according to Linkedin I’m in the top 10% of applicants. Either the advert response has been completely irrelevant which doesn’t make a great statement for the value of advertising jobs on Linkedin (we never do), or Linkedin’s algorithms are just so rubbish that they somehow think a headhunter in Chester (the job’s in London) is right for a senior finance role. 

When I click into ‘How you match’ Linkedin helpfully breaks down how they’ve matched the skills for the role. Apparently I have 6 of the 10 required skills for the job, but one of them is ‘fundraising’, clearly meant in a financial investment fundraising context (something a human recruiter would realise immediately) whereas my profile refers to charity fundraising I’ve done over the years – I get the impression the employer is more interested in the CFO’s hard experience of winning deals with PE and VC investors than my philanthropic endeavours.

My point is this. Tech is great and we will continue to use Linkedin along with the other platforms we use regularly for mundane research and identification, but we’ll deliver it manually through a human consultant who can apply a human perpective rather than automating the process. Do I think technology and AI will change how we do things in the future? Absolutely. Am I worried that Sherrington and our peers in the executive search profession need to think about a change of career in the near future? I think we’ll be alright thanks.