Recruitment firms in consulting face changing demands

Consulting is known for its high turnover. Against this backdrop, keeping talent on-board is key, yet so too is recruiting the right new people. Keith Conway spoke to Consultancy.uk about the changes facing the industry.

In recent years, the consulting industry has become more exacting on recruitment agencies, seeking to improve their relationship with fewer agencies such that candidates of the right calibre, motivational and behavioural fit are selected for positions with key messages, such as diversity being clearly disseminated to potential talent and the broader market. According to Keith Conway from Conway Consulting, agencies must transform themselves to meet these changes in professional demand and a trend to decrease reliance on outside agency help.

Keith Conway, an ex-consulting Partner and FTSE100 Director, is the founder and Managing Partner of Conway Consulting*, an executive search firm specialising in the management consultant and consulting industry. Keith says that finding and selecting the right people is a completely different ball game compared to years ago. The nature of recruitment practice in consultancy has, in recent years, been through a considerable shakeup. Up until the financial crisis, as much as 50% of recruitment across the major consultancies was coming through agency channels. In recent times, the trend is to reduce cost and increase the involvement of agencies, transforming them from suppliers to partners to the business. “In our work we see that a strategic aim of these companies is to have reliance on agencies to fall to around 20%, or, ideally, even lower. On the positive side, access to the business and its leaders has never been better.”

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With this decreased reliance on agency recruitment channels, consultancies are also placing an increased emphasis on constantly assessing the performance of agencies. As Conway remarks, “nowadays agencies are being measured according to increasingly stringent criteria, to ensure high conversion rates and candidate quality. However, these criteria are not just on conversion but demonstrable knowledge of the business and its aims.” The resulting rationalisation of activity has, states Conway, “seen a historical reliance on a large number of agencies give way to a preference for a small number of trusted recruitment partners.” Yet it is not all about hard numbers. Clients are increasingly pushing their external recruiters to send out a message which is in synch with their values. “Effectively being able to disseminate the message of the business is becoming a key element for agencies. Agencies are now brand ambassadors for their clients in a very obvious and measurable way.”

After the first cull, the recruitment agencies that survived have sought to become trusted partners to businesses, and through their full understanding of those businesses’ needs, become “proud ambassadors for the businesses they are partnering,” thereby joining their Preferred Supplier List. “They need to truly be at the heart of their clients’ business: as such, regular face-to-face meetings (with HR as well as the business) are vital.  Gone are the days when a recruiter could submit hundreds of CVs through a web portal from a remote location,” says Conway. The new way of working sees an agency’s role as the one that assures that both client and candidate are on the same page about the client’s key messages, and thereby that they themselves understand that message, besides their traditional duty of making sure that the prospective candidates are of sufficient quality to perform the ever more exacting demands made on them.

The rise of technology too is making an impact on recruiters in the advisory landscape. A recent analysis from McKinsey & Company for instance shows that online talent platforms are set to reshape recruitment in professional services, with large efficiency benefits to be realised by consultancies, adding further pressure on value-adding services of recruiters. Consulting firms increasingly want their recruiters to be at the right places, and utilise tech opportunities as well as open up to a richer pool of talent.

A good example, according to Conway, on the demand for agencies toward a comprehensive and intimate understanding of their clients’ needs, can be found in the drive for diversity and equality in the workplace. “Almost without exception, this is an agenda that is vitally important for all of the top employers in the market, with strategies being put in place to ensure that candidates are coming from diverse backgrounds.” EY for instance recently increased the number of women promoted to partner by 33%, while several consulting firms yearly battle to receive recognition as a top employer for diversity. Commitment has too been rising up the ranks, with PwC’s Dennis Nally a frontrunner globally, named aUN HeForShe champion for his work in and outside the firm on equality, while in the UK EY CEO Steve Varley was last year named one of the top 20 list of the most influential allies for LGBT professionals.

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“If a recruitment agency lacks a detailed understanding of the key aims of their clients, how can they hope to pass on the message to top talent that there are no barriers to their progression, regardless of their background?,” questions Conway. He adds: “Recruitment has changed irreversibly. Employers need knowledge-led, high value offering with fully briefed and prepared candidates and an emphasis on long term relationships.” To meet these challenges and survive, in a time of disruptive change, Conway reflects that “agencies must undergo a fundamental shift in the way they work in order to be able to meet these demands.”

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