Executive Search in Foreign Markets With Linda Võeras

Executive Search in Foreign Markets With Linda Võeras

Our second guest on the Recruiter’s Corner blog series is Linda Võeras. For over three years, Linda was an executive leadership consultant and search professional at Gillamor Stephens, an executive search firm based in London. She is currently part of the Karma Ventures investment team, using her skills to identify the most promising deep tech teams in Europe.

In this article, we asked Linda about how she found her way into executive recruiting, the challenges of hiring C-level executives in foreign markets, and much more.

Let’s jump right into it!

How did you get into executive search?

It wasn’t anything I intended to do, it was by chance (or faith). As I finished my university degree in the UK and was enjoying my first months off, I received a message on LinkedIn from a recruitment agency for graduates. They introduced me to a concept called executive search, which I didn’t know anything about at the time. Yet, the concept of talking to high-performing people and helping them with their careers sounded appealing.

Within a matter of three days, they put me in front of ten executive search firms. There were opportunities to work in SHREK firms (established global executive search firms), as well as boutiques. Out of those options, I went with a small boutique Gillamor Stephens, which specialized in technology. They had recently been acquired by a challenger brand called Sheffield Haworth so it was a great match of smaller company culture with a more corporate backing. 

What appealed to me about executive recruiting was the research aspect of the work. When looking for C-level executive talent, most of the time you don’t have candidates coming to you. Instead, you have to find and approach candidates yourself as good people tend to be happily employed. To do this, you first have to study the market, map the ideal candidate profile and do the strategic background work. Besides this, I enjoyed the prospect of having a social side to my job, talking to established entrepreneurs and executives and getting to understand their way of thinking and working. 

I felt that it was a great opportunity for me to learn from very successful people. My mindset was that if at that point I didn’t know what I wanted to do, this would help me figure it out as it gave great insights into a large number of companies.

Which markets have you hired in and which one did you find the most challenging?

The main geographical markets we worked in were the UK, Germany, and Nordics. Yet, we operated across Europe, including in places such as the Netherlands and Poland.

The difficulty of the hires differed vastly depending on the industry, role, and the tightness of the client brief. For us, the most challenging part was doing niche executive searches for deep tech companies. Many of our clients had pioneering technologies, which meant that not many people had a track record in that particular field. That’s why many times we found ourselves asking the same question of “How do we find talent for a company that is doing something no one has ever done before?” 

When you are hiring C-level executives, the talent pool is already very limited. Hiring for deep tech adds an extra layer of difficulty. So, we took the approach of finding people that had done something similar or had transferable skills, but also to find the ones who had similar values and cultural fit to the client.

What do you think is important to know about hiring on managerial levels? How is that different from recruiting specialist roles?

When you hire for specialist roles, a lot of it is based on what the person can do individually. Yet, once you search for executives, it becomes more about the value that the manager brings out in other people. 

Part of what makes hiring C-level executives challenging is that it can be difficult to understand their true impact in a previous role. If they had a well-performing team, how much of the success was due to their personal impact? And can that be replicated in another environment?

Another important aspect of hiring executives is assessing their cultural fit. Qualifying a candidate on paper can be simple, but if you base your decision on skillset and they end up leaving the company within 6 months, then you really did not bring any value to the client nor the candidate. 

So, it is important to find a candidate that is not only able to do the job, but do it in a way that aligns with the environment that has been already created. 

How do you assess cultural fit?

Some of it is developing your ‘gut feeling’ over time, but also listening to what your client is saying. For instance, if the client keeps talking about innovation and you find a candidate that emphasizes traditional values and steadiness, you can tell they are not going to be a long-term match and there is no point in trying to overcome that. Another example is if a candidate has been in a corporate environment for many years, then understanding that it’s going to take them a lot of time to adjust to the start-up culture, if ever. Many leaders are used to working in environments where they have learned to maneuver a cruise ship, but that does not necessarily mean that they will be as successful in piloting a sailing boat.

But in most cases, C-level executives are already good at self-assessment and deciding if something is right for them. It is my job to provide them with enough information and transparency for them to make the correct decision.

How much time does it usually take to fill a managerial role?

In most cases, the process takes around three to four months. For more niche roles or markets with limited talent pools, it can be anywhere from five months up to a year.

Besides the nature of the role, much of it also depends on the client’s processes. For instance, it can take us a month to find a suitable list of candidates that are interested in the role, but it can take a client two months just to review them. 

In executive search, how much do you deal with passive candidates? (vs those who apply themselves)

I’d say around 90% of the time we identify the candidates ourselves. The remaining 10% is through advertising either on our website or on specific job sites. In executive recruiting, the majority of the candidates won’t be actively looking for new opportunities. 

How do you build trust with your candidates and hiring managers?

I believe honesty is the best policy. A lot of the time we want to put our best foot forward and make it seem like everything is positive. However, trust is built when things get difficult, especially with hiring managers. There could be cases where the talent pool is very limited or the role isn’t coming across as attractive to the candidates. It is important to be able to provide hiring managers with data and candidate feedback. Only by being transparent, will you be able to get through the most difficult times. 

On the candidate side, it is crucial to communicate clearly and provide them with feedback that is useful and constructive. Sometimes clients make hiring decisions based on superficial factors, but it falls on you to find a way to make the end result beneficial for both sides. 

Furthermore, it is important to remain human with candidates. If they are in a difficult position for personal or professional reasons, don’t try to push them. Be an advisor and a partner. For instance, if you have an interview scheduled with a candidate, but you know he/she won’t be able to perform at their best, then advising to reschedule and managing the client might be in the best interests for all parties. 

Do you have any funny recruitment stories to tell?

In recruitment, since you are dealing with people, there are always going to be things that take an unexpected turn. 

There was a time when we hired a CEO who wanted to meet his team in person before joining the company. Yet, due to the pandemic, we couldn’t have him cross the country border legally and advised him against travelling. What he ended up doing was contacting his brother who owned an international delivery company. He ended up crossing the border in a lorry while one of the truck drivers was delivering fruit and vegetables. In the end, he managed to meet his team and return to his home country the same way.

In your opinion, what makes a good candidate experience?

For me, it’s about communication and managing expectations. There are times where candidates may have many offers on the table. You have to be careful to manage their expectations and not over promise.  This is to not only protect the candidate if they are not successful, but they will also respect you more for being open and transparent with them.  Ultimately, you want the best for a candidate and to maintain a relationship with them, being a trusted advisor, so taking a long-term view always helps.  

It is also important to be empathetic. When communicating, you have to take into consideration that candidates have their own personal lives and families.

One of the positive aspects of executive search is that generally you are working with a smaller volume of candidates. This means that you will be able to dedicate more time to each candidate, and as a result, provide a better experience and build stronger relationships.

What do you see being the next recruitment trends?

I think recruiters will be required to value soft skills over hard skills. This has already been the case when hiring for senior leadership roles. Things such as emotional intelligence, cultural fit as well as personal values will be looked at more deeply when making hiring decisions. For candidates, one of the mediums they could use to showcase their soft skills is via video, which could potentially replace their traditional CV. 

Also, I see companies investing more in talent who don’t necessarily have all the technical skills, but who are a great cultural fit and can be trained over time. This is already starting to show in startups, where the median age is much younger, and many companies have internal academies that help train and upskill them.

What is something interesting about working in an agency in the UK that a lot of other people don’t know?

The coolest part is the amount of exposure you get to high-level people. We were working with technology companies across the world and during that time, I got to meet some of the most impressive entrepreneurs and executives with incredible stories. Having a look at the impact that some of the people we helped hire make, is brilliant! 

However, the most surprising part for most people is when I tell them how personable and down to earth these entrepreneurs are. Even though they might run multi-million-dollar businesses and meet hundreds of people every day, they are still people and will make an effort to build rapport. There is a reason these people run successful businesses, and most of the time you get there because people want to follow you, not because they have to. 

Finally, where do you like to learn about recruitment? 

I’d say LinkedIn. Over time, I’ve managed to establish a strong network there. I’m certain there are many great books and podcasts out there, but my biggest recommendation would be to connect with other people in the industry. Sometimes even as headhunters, we are too hesitant to send cold LinkedIn messages, but my mindset, in that case, is “what’s the worst that could happen?” 

There are also useful groups on LinkedIn such as Eesti Personalijuhid where you can get live market feedback and see what other people are struggling with and succeeding at. 

Enjoyed this article? Read our first Recruiter’s Corner article about talent sourcing with Ave Arras.