2022 is a special year for IESF – the International Executive Search Federation – celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. In 2002 four executive search consultants from different continents met and started the conversation on what later would be the foundation of a successful global Executive Search network. In this interview with the founders of IESF we take a trip down memory lane. They not only shared details on the history of IESF, but also described the biggest leaps in development of the network. Looking at the the biggest strengths and challenges of the network today to make strong decisions for its future. A special thanks to Normand Lebeau from IESF Canada, Daniel Liu from IESF China and Achim Moraw from IESF Germany.
IESF was founded in 2002 by partners from Asia, the Americas and Europe with a clear vision of growing a Global Group, unhindered by corporate restrictions and rigidity and clients’ growing needs. The initial foundation was an organization called Inesa (International Executive Search Association), but in 2001 Inesa faced some organizational problems. When Inesa decided to no longer proceed, a group of 9 partners decided to create the foundation of a new global network with a new brand name: the International Executive Search Federation (IESF) was born. IESF partners are business leaders experienced in addressing the requirements of growing businesses around the world. Carefully selected and vetted firms may enter partnerships with IESF, to enrich and broaden their global search abilities. “For our local businesses we decided we need to strengthen our international reach. Not only to serve our clients better in their growing needs, but also to work together on cross border assignments and learn from each other’s business process”, explains Daniel Liu from IESF China. “But also, the local know how is so important, we needed a solution with someone who’s established in the market, who knows the culture, the recruitment processes and the language,” adds Achim Moraw from IESF Germany. “Our first meeting was in Copenhagen, which is honored by hosting the Regional Meeting in 2022 also in Copenhagen.” “We joined IESF at the Annual Grand Meeting in 2004 in Moscow”, Normand Lebeau from IESF Canada adds. “The internet was just beginning and there was no social media, so it was not so natural to be a part of an international network. It was somewhat groundbreaking. IESF was one of the first initiatives in this field.”
IESF has rapidly proliferated around the globe as clients demanded executive search and leadership in new planetary markets and industries. As people-centric enterprise, with global influence and local expertise, IESF lets clients reach these leaders, so they can understand and then meet their needs in a new business environment. Normand Lebeau: “IESF started as a European centric network. One of the leaps was when Tim Smith joined from the USA in 2007, and later also Latin American countries joined. We started to really have a global footprint.” Daniel Liu: “By 2007, IESF was the world’s largest search firm with around 34 partners in the network.” IESF continues to grow by meeting client needs in every corner of the globe. When we look back, we can define big leaps in time and certain steps in the development of IESF, which demonstrate the evolution of the network. Normand Lebeau: “Under each presidency there where clear targets and a footprint of where we were going. Mark Geary as the first president started it all, I focused on transparency and trust and Victor Carulla from IESF Spain further professionalized our network with great support.”
Daniel Liu: “Before 2015 IESF grew a little bit too fast. The criteria for joining IESF where very loose. This sometimes meant that the network wasn’t that solid, and the meetings weren’t that often. Between 2009 and 2011 we faced the financial crisis in Asia, and we had a lot of partners from that region pulling out. Since a discussion with all the partners in 2015 we decided to change course.” Normand Lebeau from IESF Canada: “Since then, we won a lot of transparency and involvement of partners, created our partner charter and an official leadership council. We also decided to rotate the Presidency role for a period of 3 years. And finally, update the financial details for IESF to become an association founded in the Netherlands with a Dutch chamber of commerce notification and regulations. I believe that everyone contributes to the network the way that they can, so we don’t pressure any partners to push international assignments. We still had objectives, but from another point of view: to help each other.”
Daniel Liu: “Why I’m still faithful to IESF is because IESF is not very commercial, it’s also about sharing expertise and learnings. The biggest reason is the relationship.” Achim Moraw, IESF Germany: “I agree that our profit from IESF is not only from cross border assignments. But it’s all about exchanging ideas, hearing how other executive search firms are doing in their countries. Learning what you can do in your local business as well, what you haven’t thought of before. You can strengthen your relationship with your client with all this international information. When your clients have a global footprint, you need to be part of an international network yourself to talk on the same level and get access to business opportunities. At IESF meetings there are no competitors at the table, which is a big difference when you meet IESF partners.” Normand Lebeau: “IESF has been of great business value for us. I tell about our IESF meetings all the time, our unique aspects are that we really know each other, this gives an extra layer of wanting to do a good job for your partners. And also, because all the partners are centrally vetted, it’s a matter of trust.”
Achim Moraw: “If we look at the biggest strengths or unique aspects of IESF it’s the fact that IESF works with exclusive partners in each country. Besides that, all the partners really know each other very well, both businesslike and personal. Because we meet each other, and we learn about different skills and challenges. Daniel Liu: “All of our partners share the same values and sharing this market intelligence and knowledge is a very important part of IESF. The focus is not only on the commercial part of the business, but more on the knowledge sharing and, in that way, making creating an inspiring environment for each partner country.” Normand Lebeau adds: “We all trust each other; we vet properly on performance as personality. Our culture is that we cooperate with each other, help each other, and trust each other.” What do you see as the biggest changes/developments within IESF the last 20 years? Daniel Liu: “IESF is not in an easy market, we’re very dependent on the local and global economic developments and the human capital situation in each country. IESF is a strong network with loyal and open partners. Within IESF it’s more than just business, it’s about developing yourself as an executive search professional, as a manager as an expert in your field. But also, to develop yourself personally within a network of likeminded people who become your friends.” Achim Moraw adds: “When we first became partner of an international network, we knew it would be important for our local position, to also help our clients worldwide. But we really had to learn how to practice an international partnership. The network grew step by step. Nowadays we are much more professional and solid in how to cooperate and how to handle things then when we started 20 years ago”.
The war for talent
The executive search industry has experienced dramatic developments because of technology over the last decades. What do you think the future of Executive Search will look like? Achim Moraw: “The biggest challenge in the future is to attract potential candidates. We need to find new ways to contact this group of latent potential candidates and get them interested in a new career opportunity. It’s not the problem to identify these candidates, but to personally get in touch with them is difficult, because they’re not actively searching for a new opportunity themselves at this moment. The unemployment rates are extremely low. We must develop the skills of our researchers and consultants to win the war for talent. Maybe new software tools will be developed to support this process. Normand Lebeau: “The search process will be more and more technology influenced. I do believe that for the lower levels of positions eventually our client won’t need personal executive search services because of this technological development. It will take layers away from our intervention. Our focus will keep moving up the scale to more senior/director level. A robot won’t ever be able to have the judgement of the skills for a great CEO or Director.” Daniel Liu: “In my opinion executive search hasn’t change that much in 20 years. It’s a challenge for the clients to see the value, it’s a challenge for the candidate to see the advantage of an executive search firm in generating their next professional opportunity. That’s why an executive search firm also demonstrates it’s added value with extra services like mapping, market intelligence and competitor analysis.” Achim Moraw adds: “The demographic trend is helpful for our business. The baby boomers are retiring and the group of professionals in the next generation is a lot smaller to fill these gaps that are the result of the generational change. It’s getting more and more difficult for the companies to find the people they need. The war for talent will be getting even harder.”
Daniel Liu: “We are still searching for new partners to join IESF. We hope in the next two years more partners will join from Asia and Latin America.” Normand Lebeau: “Our strength is to be present in the major markets with solid partners that are trustworthy, believe in our culture and deliver the job. Once we established that we need to have a President that keeps us together and keeps organizing inspiring meetings. This way we will extend and broaden the success of IESF even more.”