How Executive Search Firms Add Value with Talent Insights

As part of The World Executive Search Congress, Charlotte Moffatt, Client Services Manager at Armstrong Craven, and Mark Senior, Managing Director at Henley Research, led an engaging session showcasing their expertise on Primary Insights.

This session will explore how you can incorporate primary insights into your service offering and gain valuable talent insights into why clients place such significant value on this particular service and how you can leverage this to your advantage.

What is Primary Insight?

Charlotte: Strictly speaking, it is the insight that we get by speaking to talent. Talent Insights can be anything talent-related in our world. It can be about salary, EVP, or how businesses are structured. 

Primary insight is talent insights we get for the first time and don't exist anywhere else. In comparison, secondary insight is the insight that already exists online. So it's the insight out there, and it takes great skill to find, analyse, and present it. But that is the fundamental difference between the primary and secondary insight; they can work well together. 

So here at Armstrong Craven, we have secondary and primary insight teams. Primary insight can enhance what the desk research and secondary insight show us and even help alter our recommendations. So, at a fundamental level, we, as executive search consultants, will be used to ask candidates about salary. 

Any salary insight that we get from candidates is insight. So you could look online, a candidate could say I've seen a salary survey; it says I should be being paid this; this is what the market's saying. But how up-to-date is that salary survey? How nuanced is that salary survey? They could be pitching a cyber security manager, but the nearest they can find is an IT manager. Is that comparable? 

How the primary insight works is when we're speaking to the candidates, we can get that real-time data from the candidates:

  • What are they earning? 

  • What is the market saying? 

  • What is the projected salary increase over the next few years?

If a client has a particularly strict salary band, we ask:

  • What else will interest these people if they wouldn't move for salary?

  • What are the benefits they would want? 

  • What are the career path interests of those individuals? 

So, it's about gaining talent insights to support and help make recommendations for our clients. That's a topic we find a lot in research and recruitment.  Mark, you shared an interesting example about your experience in Eastern Europe.

Supporting a Global Manufacturer with Talent Insights 

Mark: The example I wanted to give was our work at Henley, a global manufacturer based in the UK. They were looking at locating a new research and development (R&D) function in Eastern Europe, and they wanted some talent insights into the positives and negatives of doing that. So they decided on three locations - Krakow, Bratislava and Brno. So they just said, can you tell us as much as possible about the viability of doing this from a talent perspective in those different locations? 

So we looked at the secondary data; you're looking at areas such as: 

  • What does the local labour force look like? 

  • What are the salary rates? 

  • What universities are there

  • What sort of grants are available?

The best research we could do and the most yielding and exciting bit was our conversations, speaking to people who knew the answers. So this was people in the local government. It was people in inward investment organisations, chambers of commerce, etc. But critically, what we did was we picked half a dozen or so companies in each of those three locations. And those were companies, all of them, that had themselves set up R&D functions over the last three or four years. Due to this experience, we approached them and asked: 

  • What was it like? 

  • What would you do differently if you did it again? 

  • What were the mistakes that you made? 

  • What were the good bits? 

  • What were the problems? 

Those conversations were golden and provided expert talent insights to give back to the client.

Journey into Talent Insights and Executive Search

Mark: Charlotte, just talk about how you've got into primary insight and what sort of journey it's been to get to where you are now. 

Charlotte: So my background was recruitment. I studied languages for my degree and contacted a language recruitment agency that helped me get a position. It wasn't my initial plan, but I had a great time and loved the company's international focus. 

I joined Armstrong Craven in 2011. Again, the appeal was the international focus. I just fell in love with the talent insights offering. I was doing executive search and Talent Pipelining, but we also had this talent insights offering, which I was interested in. 

So, I did the dual role of talent insights and executive search. Then, in 2020, they created a dedicated insight and talent analytics function and a true primary insight role, which I took on. Last year, I was promoted to the client services manager for primary insight, and now I have a team of three under me doing primary insight. 

So, it is a growing function. We're getting a lot of demand for it. My background is definitely recruitment through to talent insights. 

Mark: I've been in recruitment for some time. My journey is similar, but I go further back than you do. I've been doing research interviews for many years, hence my passion and belief in them. 

I used to work as a research executive in a market research consultancy, and what we specialised in was doing market strategy studies worldwide. We'd work for big corporate clients who wanted to know what was happening in their markets. In Europe, I used to do a lot of work in Germany, the Far East, and elsewhere.

What we used to do was go and interview people. We'd get dispatched on aeroplanes, have to make appointments, and very often speak to chief executives of our client's competitors. It was pretty challenging, but it taught me the value of talking to people who knew about those markets. There was less secondary data available in those days, but you could still find it. You'd get the information about what were often relatively niche markets by talking to people.

I moved to Henley 13 years ago. We offer a range of Talent Insights: Talent Intelligence, Talent Pipelining, Talent Mapping, and Executive Search services. 

How have Executive Search Firms Evolved?

Mark: Executive search has evolved to the stage now where search firms who only offer to present a short list of candidates will increasingly need help to demonstrate they can provide value for money. They may struggle to win searches in the face of competitors offering that insight. 

The service executive search firms have offered over the years could be transactional. We demand a fee for giving you a short list, and we'll have another fee from you if we place a candidate. That doesn’t cut it anymore. It's so important that everybody involved in executive search has to deliver candidates. They've got to deliver a shortlist, but they must also deliver talent insights. 

When we're carrying out a search, we've got that fantastic opportunity to have those conversations with potential candidates, sources, and networks. And those conversations are so meaningful. They're golden opportunities to get that sort of talent insights and to be able to present it back to our client and add value. 

Charlotte: When I think of the evolution of executive search, internal talent acquisition roles have become more strategic over recent years. The thirst for talent insights and knowledge on the market is growing. As Mark said, it was quite transactional in the past; we just needed to fill a role. Now, it's all about the data that we can provide. 

A recent project I did was for a company looking to restructure its talent acquisition function. We wanted insights into:

  • What were the key people it needed in the function?

  • What were the key roles? 

  • What were the key metrics they would work to? 

When we were speaking to some of these best-in-class talent acquisition functions, these are seen as strategic partners to the business. They influence business decisions from the talent data that they provide. 

What Can Primary Insight Offer Talent Acquisition Teams? 

Charlotte: Where Armstrong Craven, talent intelligence, and primary insight can help is giving talent acquisition the data that can make them more informed in front of stakeholders, giving them the ammo to influence those decisions. So if we're working on a search, for example, a pipeline, or even a pure talent insights project, we can ask about salary as we've discussed, and the insight that comes back may force the decision about whether we need to make changes. 

We've been talking recently about businesses with work-from-home policies where employees spend three days in the office. However, when we spoke to the markets, we found they would need help to recruit for that. People want a maximum of two days and enjoy greater flexibility. That will be a barrier to hiring talent, and we can prove that with data. Even providing training opportunities can influence hiring strategy. Businesses need to ask - what will make this talent join us? What can we offer them? 

So, any insight we give to talent acquisition comes directly from those candidates as potential reasons they wouldn't join a company. What would make a company attractive will be fantastic opportunities for talent acquisition to meet their stakeholders' demands. 

It's often the non-viable candidates that give us the best insight. Those that aren't interested. In the past, if you were doing a search and someone was not interested in a role, you might ask for a referral, but then that's the end of that relationship. With talent insights, it is an opportunity to gain more information from the candidate about areas such as location, salary expectations, and work-from-home policy.

Having honest, open chats with non-viable candidates can be eye-opening. So it's always worth thinking about what information we can get from those candidates that we're not progressing.

If we look at evolution even further, is AI part of the future of talent insights? 

Mark: While AI is increasingly becoming a highly powerful and useful tool, you will only get the prevailing trends from speaking to people because they'll be sector-specific, company-specific, and relevant to your clients and the exercise you're going through. That shows the power of speaking to people who know, and it is constantly evolving.

Companies need to learn what their working-from-home policies are and what flexible working means. It changes every week, every month. So, to get an up-to-date view, you've got to talk to people and hear it from the coalface, so to speak. 

AI is developing all the time, and we should always appreciate its potential. What we're talking about is tailored information, which we're getting from people who I call informed respondents. 

As recruiters, researchers, and resources, we've got the skill set to do this sort of insight. Suppose you think about the core skills that we have. The first thing we're good at when looking for candidates for a role is talent mapping and locating people. Locating the right people first is key. When you’ve located the right people, you've got to ask them to speak to you, and you've got to be very persuasive about how you talk to them.

If you've got a job to discuss with them, you need to hook them in. If you're having a talent insights discussion, it's the same thing. You've got to create a credible reason for talking to them. If you're trying to pursue them as a candidate, you need to ask them the right questions to see if they fit that role. But if you're doing talent insights, you know the answers that your client wants. 

So, locate them, pose the right questions, and capture the information. You've then got to analyse the data and present that information to your client.

If you're dealing with internal talent acquisition or HR teams, they're often happy to get the information fairly rudimentarily, like spreadsheets. If you're presenting to a broader group of stakeholders within the client company, they will want to see it in a more accessible or user-friendly format.

People out there for whom gathering insight is not something they would necessarily think of doing every day; not only will it add value to your daily work in your firm, but you also have the core skills to hold those talent insights conversations.

Remember the acronym LAPCAP - locate, ask, pose the right questions, capture, analyse, and present the data.

Why do Businesses Choose to Outsource Primary Insights?

Charlotte: The main thing is confidentiality, both for the client and the respondent. On the client side, they might not want the market to know what they're up to if they plan to do some talent pipelining for a senior role. They can't go out themselves if that person's still in a post, or if they want to get some EVP insight on themselves, it might be that people would be more honest with a third party. 

People might be more open and honest with a third party. Often, it's just that they can’t do it themselves. They might not have the capability as well, that in-house capability, to go out and ask those questions. 

We were working for a company that wanted to set up a new business division and wanted to copy a different company. However, that company was a current client of theirs, so there was a lot of conflict of interest there. They couldn't go and ask themselves what they were doing, and they couldn't go in and do industrial espionage; they had to find a way to get that information another way. 

They wanted us to locate people who had been in that business at certain points, go in and find out:

  • What worked at that point?

  • What didn't work?

  • What departments were set up and when?

  • How were they set up?

They wanted to understand how this competitor had been so successful so we could give some insight back to the client on how they could replicate that.

We were working for an FMCG company, and they needed help to attract talent in France. They wanted to know what about this location, which was making it difficult to attract talent. They initially thought it was because they were located on the wrong side of town. The commute posed challenges, and our conversations revealed a reluctance from candidates to endure it.

However, we got through a bigger underlying problem about how that brand was perceived in that country, which was very different from the rest of Europe and the US. We uncovered that, and they hadn't done that themselves.

The reason for that is if the company had approached a candidate about a role, they might just say, Oh no, I'm not interested, but they might not criticise the company to them, to their face, and that's something that they might reserve for a third party.

Candidates always want to present themselves in the best possible light to clients. So, if they have something negative to say, they might not share it. They might simply say, well, I'm not interested in that role. EVP is an important part of why companies would outsource it.

Mark: In terms of cost, it is difficult to give a general figure. It's not a percentage of salary, and if you're doing a dedicated insight project, you're essentially costing it as a research project. Obviously, if you're a search firm and your normal charging rate is a percentage of salary, you may want to add talent insights into that so you're creating more value for money. It's an ongoing service that both Armstrong Craven and we offer. So it's not a one-off thing; it can be surveys you do on a tracking basis as well. 

Listen to the podcast: 

Can Diversifying Services Benefit Search Firms?

Mark: Many businesses find it difficult to move away from their traditional search profile and commercial models. So it's got to be very well thought through. As I've said earlier, search firms must offer talent insights as part of their package, even if they continue with executive search as their primary service line. 

One thing a lot of companies do recognise, and they talk a lot about the importance of employer brand, you know, what, what we look like in the market, how we appeal to potential candidates and how it's so important we get the best people and all this sort of rhetoric is so common, you hear it so often. 

They recognise the value of insight, but very often, nobody's ever really defined or allocated responsibility within that company for gathering that sort of talent insight. Talent acquisition people internal recruiters within companies usually their metrics are about filling roles quickly and not about gathering insight.

Most companies don't have talent intelligence functions that are capable of gathering this sort of insight. They may have DE&I and employee communication functions that gather it, but generally, this sort of thing falls through the cracks. 

Nobody's taking responsibility with an organisation for getting these talent insights that influence a business’s approach to getting the best talent and retaining the talent they've got. As external providers, we can make a case for being the people who get that insight, coordinate it, and present it back to the business. 

How do Search Professionals Gather Primary Insights?

Charlotte: Just to go back to one of the questions about this diversification. At Armstrong Craven, Talent Insights is a standalone division, and we have separate Executive Search and talent pipelining teams. We do the insight, and often if we get a big project, we might need to use people from other divisions to do insight. The first thing we get is someone who is a search professional, and we ask them to jump on a pure insight project.

Often, with insight calls, we're gathering the same information that we get in typical recruitment calls: salary, someone's reporting lines, people's career motivations, and what they think of the client we're representing. It's about how we position the call and how we present it.

We would never call someone for an insight call and say, ‘Hey, we're a recruiter, we want to talk about a job, but can you just give us some information first?’ That doesn't work. There has to be full transparency, GDPR compliance, and all of that. But often, when we approach people about an insight call, it creates intrigue. People aren't used to being approached in that way. They are used to more of a recruitment message. We are therefore keen to communicate with them that:

  • We are very transparent. 

  • We're working on behalf of a company that's keen to see how it's perceived in this market. 

  • We want to speak to professionals in your industry to gather thoughts on this. 

  • Would you be open to a 15, 20, or 30-minute chat to share your thoughts?

Openness, honesty, and knowing what we will ask people can help engage them. People will not often get to sit and chat, not about their career motivations, but a reflection on their business and industry.  When we talk a lot about a trade of information, it is a two-way conversation when we have these insight calls. 

Mark: I talked about doing competitive interviews, and we used to trade information then. What you're doing is having a conversation with somebody about a certain aspect of what your overall project is about. A topic that's interesting to them, something that they can provide input to, and they learn from the conversation. 

You might then trade some of that information and feedback to them. Some of the findings you've got are relevant to them from other conversations you've had. 

What you have to do is think of it like a jigsaw. Your client is paying you, and they get the whole jigsaw; all the pieces joined up make the whole picture. 

What can Search professionals do to Succeed?

Charlotte: The first is asking questions beyond the candidate screening. Ask more than just the typical candidate questions. What questions can you incorporate into a search right now where the answers are going to give something a bit extra to the client, and what can you ask non-viable candidates?

Mark: The second takeaway is reporting insight back to the client. If you're doing a search, insight should be part of your offer and a service that the client is wowed by, making them come back to you for the next search. You can do it as part of a search, but you should also think, as we do, of these as standalone services where you're offering insight in its own right because this is such vital information. This primary insight we can gain will help inform your business moving forward.

Charlotte: We are giving the client confidential, non-biased, real-time data they simply cannot get themselves.  We're getting insight about the market from the talent they want to hear from to inform their talent strategy, and this can be an add-on to a search. 

There are ways to price a service, and it depends on how much information you're giving. A Deck that they can take away, again, that's going to be adding value to the search that you've done. 

Providing Research-Driven Talent Solutions Worldwide

Armstrong Craven is a global leader in bespoke research-driven talent solutions. We work with many of the world’s best-known and most respected organisations, delivering over 500+ projects annually. 

Contact our team today to learn more about our services, including talent sourcing, executive search, talent insights, talent mapping and pipelining.

About the Speakers

Charlotte Moffatt
Client Services Manager, Armstrong Craven

Charlotte Moffatt leads Armstrong Craven’s Primary Insight function in the Insight & Talent Analytics team. Charlotte joined Armstrong Craven in 2011 as a researcher in the industrial practice and has held various roles across all practice groups before taking the newly created primary insight specialist role in 2020. 

Charlotte has been a member of The Executive Research Association for several years and has delivered two webinars on primary insight and its importance and relevance within executive search. Charlotte has a French, Spanish and Marketing degree from the University of Salford. Connect with Charlotte on Linkedin.

Mark Senior
Managing Director, Henley Research International

Mark Senior is a Committee Member of The Executive Research Association and Managing Director for Henley Research International. Connect with Mark on Linkedin.