Norman Broadbent: Executive Search Gets Personal - Sue O'Brien

Norman Broadbent re-launched its brand in 2009 after a reverse takeover in 2008 and has already seen strong feedback from clients about its new positioning. CEO Sue O'Brien explains to Ellie Broughton how the careful approach is making a big impact on the business.

You don't have to work in executive recruitment to know that most of Britain's industries are changing. But, while returns on a product may fluctuate, the value of human resources has never been more apparent. Fresh thinking is more valuable than ever and more highly rated than specialist experience. Talent is no longer locked into the sector that created it, and, though it's a well-worn cliché, it's not what you know, but who you know in a broad range of sectors that counts.

Norman Broadbent's consultants have expertise within one industry but share their clients and candidates across the company to give clients broader scope. This change of tack moves away from silo-based models towards a cross-functional approach. The search process becomes more personal, and the relationships that develop during a headhunt become the focus.

A new approach needs a new image. Look around at other executive recruitment businesses and the view is like a sea of suits: blue, black and grey. So it was a bold decision for the company to make its logo red. But colour was just the starting point for the re-branding.

"Clients and candidates were crying out for a new face of executive search," says CEO Sue O'Brien. "We feel the colour represents the pace, energy, quality and fresh thinking of how our people work and how we're perceived by our clients." The board of Garner International acquired Norman Broadbent in December 2008. "It was a reputable brand, with a good history of boardroom recognition, but it was ripe to be revitalised in today's market," O'Brien says. "It had started to dwindle in profile, and needed the right investment and leadership."

Part of that revitalisation saw O'Brien and her fellow board members apply the tactics that drove Garner's success, such as new leadership behaviour. They spent 2009 restructuring the organisation, reinventing the brand and integrating the businesses. Norman Broadbent re-launched as a united company in 2010 and now occupies offices in St James's Square, London.

This is a business where the personal touch is important; front of house staff greet clients as guests, not customers. It also provides ample opportunity for networking events and for clients to hear leading speakers discuss and debate industry challenges. All of these confirm the dedication of the firm to provide helpful advice as industry colleagues rather than as recruiters.

"Behaviour is a strong part of the brand re-launch," O'Brien continues. "It comes down to small things, like understanding the relevance of who is coming in to the office and how to greet them. We have a customer-centric focus and I think that's important in our marketplace."

"We work as a team. It's not just about individual performance and individual relationships within the business. It's about corporate entity in the brand."

The company is also aware of how stressful headhunting can be for a candidates, and treats them with due care. "If you intrude into someone's life, as search firms do, you have to take responsibility for the fact that it's about their career, their finances and it could involve a family move. You are dealing with a sensitive part of someone's life," O'Brien says. In the midst of corporate turmoil, this new approach, boosted by word-of-mouth interest, has caught people's attention. The company's repeat work and referrals rely on good client relations. They also act as an indicator of whether the company is doing the right thing.

O'Brien is aware that it's not only clients who are looking for change. With so many industries going through transition periods, she says that the board of Norman Broadbent are aware that their model might change too.

"Most of the industries that we deal with are in turmoil and undergoing transformation," she notes, "so it's ridiculous to think our industry shouldn't be undergoing transformation as well. I think the transformation will be more about value-based relationships, additional elements of service that we can offer in terms of guidance and almost objective formulation of employee structures; not just, 'here's a brief, find a new finance director'."

Building bonds

Norman Broadbent has abandoned the traditional executive search model built around silos of talent for distinct industries such as HR, finance and the consumer market. Instead, the company takes a 'cross-function' approach. 

"We've established centres of excellence so we have experts in the consumer market, finance, pharmaceuticals, telecoms, among others," O'Brien says. "They work in a team across a sector with the clients because they have a relationship with the business; not belong to the silos. A client in financial services, for example, will benefit from insight in all of the other areas we touch, not just finance."

Candidates are no longer restricted to working in their original industries; experts can move them laterally into new ones. Sharing knowledge across teams means that experts can spot a good fit between a client and a candidate, and never miss an opportunity.

For O'Brien, it's a testament to the bonds between those working at Norman Broadbent. "We work as a team," she says. "It's not just about individual performance and individual relationships within the business. It's about corporate entity in the brand." Every Norman Broadbent employee is a shareholder, which helps support the team-based mentality, and team reward, that O'Brien talks about.

The cross-functional method was inspired by the needs of clients. "Executive search is undergoing an interesting transition," she explains. "Be they clients or candidates; people are looking for something different. Clients want you to represent their brand. The responsibility of a search firm to be a brand ambassador is much more important than it used to be."

The brand has now moved to the heart of the executive search process. "It's more important to clients that the person sitting in from of them represents their brand, identifies with their brand and can show that they 'get it'," O'Brien says. "'Getting it' is vital for clients, and it's important that candidates understand this."

Take the long view

Search consultants are now expected to look for candidates who are not just suitable for the role, but suitable for the future. Ability is no longer enough. More and more clients want to see passion for long-term involvement, especially in succession planning.

"Clients want to know that candidates aren't just capable of doing the job but also that they have the passion, drive and motivation to be part of the business for longer. Therefore, it's more about finding talent that can grow and succeed with the business, not just to do a two-year turnaround."

"Executive search is undergoing an interesting transition."

Norman Broadbent also develops diversity of thought in the boardroom. The consultants start by looking at the business strategy for the next five years. Then they align that strategy with the current make-up of the executive and non-executive boards, and look for areas that could benefit from a fresh point of view. "For instance," she says, "if you're looking for a finance director but your business is going through substantial transformation, rather than looking for an FD with sector experience, we'd start the search with another sector in transformation that had excellent FDs."

But, as O'Brien points out, integrating a new element onto a board must be an objective and thorough process to succeed. "It's about bringing together challenging and disruptive thinking with a cultural fit and an alignment with the clients' brand," she says. The word she often uses to describe the process is 'nuance'. Creating diversity in the boardroom is a sophisticated science.

The company sees the recruitment process through to the end, supporting candidates as they join new boards. "The more a search consultant is involved with 'on-boarding'," O'Brien explains, "the less likely it is that they'll have dressed up the reality of what's approaching. The search consultant is, and should be, a trusted advisor.

"Ours is a personal business," she adds. "It's built on long-term relationships, and the appreciation you get for making personal connections is phenomenal." The company has been working with some of its clients for eight, even ten years; enough to make any human resources director green with envy.

O'Brien knows that the secret to good relationships is a tireless interest in people. "You can never get complacent," she concludes, "and I think people in the industry can suffer from that. They know a business or an individual and they take it for granted. As a true business advisor, you have be tireless in maintaining relationships, particularly as you grow, and we intend to grow considerably over the next few years."