This article was first published in the November 2015 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every organisation must be in search of a leader at some point. What is usually far less clear is where this leader will come from. It’s one of the perennial challenges of executive search and one that executive search firm MERC Partners has dedicated some 35 years to resolving. Far from being a one-off issue, emerging when a chief or C-level position becomes vacant, the quest for leadership is an enduring one, if not the single biggest talent issue facing businesses around the world today, according to Ruth Curran FCCA, managing partner of MERC Partners. ‘In a recent global survey we conducted, leadership was rated by 42% of respondents as the skill most lacking in organisations,’ she says.
Curran will shortly get a bird’s-eye view of that global challenge when she takes up the position of global chair of IIC Partners, a network of independently owned and managed member firms which collectively form one of the world’s top 10 executive search organisations. MERC Partners’ relationship with IIC Partners stretches back some 12 years, reflecting not only the Irish firm’s leadership position in executive search internationally in Ireland but the increasing significance of the country as the location of choice for many global brands.
The role of chair follows Curran’s election as vice chair in 2013 and makes her the youngest person to hold the position to date. She says she relishes the opportunity for a number of reasons. ‘I see it as an honour and my vision over the next three years will be to elevate the IIC Partners brand internationally,’ she says.
Curran joined MERC Partners as a junior consultant in 1999, having spent a number of years in industry finance roles.
‘MERC was the first management consultancy company in the world to have achieved a quality mark accreditation and it had a stellar reputation in the industry in terms of integrity,’ she says. ‘I felt I was joining a very impressive company where a partner’s word was their bond.’ She would quickly see that her background in finance could open up valuable conversations with CFOs and CEOs in the financial sphere, enabling her to ‘carve out a niche for myself very quickly as a result. I got entrusted with responsibilities by the partners from an early stage.’
A decade-and-a-half later, and in the wake of economic highs and lows, Curran says that the profession of executive search has changed, largely in tandem with the growth of globalisation. ‘We now operate more on an international scale and that means we will source, search for, identify and place talent not only locally but globally too,’ she says.
As to what is changing in terms of client expectations, Curran says that this, too, needs to be understood in the context of globalisation. ‘Companies are seeking high-calibre business professionals who are technologically adept, globally aware, operationally fleet of foot and, from time to time, open to global relocation or, at least, to spending some time overseas.’
For candidates who can deliver on that, she adds that the picture is an increasingly positive one. ‘Executive remuneration in certain sectors has risen dramatically over the last few years, and hiring clients recognise a need to offer a material increase on salaries in order for the opportunity to be attractive.’
In addition to expecting flexibility from candidates, a further trend is companies being open to building flexibility into their remuneration packages. ‘This can take the form of flexible working hours, mentoring services, performance-based packages and improved long-term incentives.’
At the core of this is the recognition that the ability to retain and engage talent is of paramount importance, and businesses generally ‘need to think about how they will continue to stay ahead of hiring companies in defining innovative means to motivate talent and build loyalty’. While she sees evidence that this is recognised at higher executive levels, Curran also cautions that ‘talent development needs to be nurtured at a much earlier stage than is currently the case in most organisations’.
The internet has been a disrupter of many business models, and with LinkedIn one of the world’s most recognised websites, its impact on C-level executive recruitment is an interesting one to consider. Curran sees LinkedIn and its peers as forming part of an overall change in how candidates are engaging with opportunities. ‘One thing we would certainly see is that the traditional job advertisement doesn’t appear to be as effective as it once was, so there is certainly a value in developing creative campaigns, perhaps using social media channels, to drive talent to an organisation. From our own direct experience, LinkedIn has a credible role to play in validating and supporting our research efforts, particularly internationally. It can also assist us in mapping the structure of an organisation, which may be helpful. However, we don’t see it a disruptor in the area of C-level appointments, rather as a facilitator.’
Curran adds that, in at least one respect, the virtual world has a long way to go before it can compete with the traditional executive recruitment process: ‘The role that silent data plays at C-level can’t be underestimated. As an organisation in operation for 35 years, we are in the privileged position of working with executives through significant career moves as well as with organisations through their multiple incarnations. This allows us to pre-empt needs in some cases. It’s only by forging close associations and relationships, on a personal level, that you can really understand organisational and candidate needs and help define the next set of requirements.’
In addition to the internet, another challenge to emerge in recent years is the development of an in-house recruiting capability among larger corporations. Again, Curran feels these functions are augmenting rather than supplanting the external consultant’s role. ‘In-house teams will undoubtedly become more effective as additional resources and network support is at their disposal and we certainly wish them well. However, on several occasions in recent times, we have been engaged by major businesses when their own search had become derailed or their ability to execute the search as planned has become unstuck.’
‘Direct and honest’
Drawn to MERC because of its visible commitment to high standards, Curran has always seen it as important to live that ethos in her approach to her work. ‘We are the intersection of powerful silent data and are trusted advisers to our clients and candidates alike. There are two elements to that: one is to be direct and honest with people, and the other is keeping their confidence. We represent clients going out to the market but, ethically, we always want to be sure we understand what we are doing. When we are telling a story to a candidate, it has to be a truthful story. We pride ourselves on operating by these core principles. If we felt a potential client opportunity was at odds with those values, we would discuss and deliberate the concern. More often than not, we would not proceed.’
MERC also operates an effective ‘off-limits’ policy, where it will decline to source talent in a client organisation for one year after the completion of an assignment. Its commitment to developing ethical working partnerships has led it to hold ‘a significant repeat business rate at over 70%. We’ve achieved that over the years by being aligned with the client organisation, throughout every step of the search process.’
The recruitment of executive talent also provides a privileged window into the Irish economy and, while senior opportunities are certainly growing, Curran sees a number of ongoing challenges to bringing executive talent into Ireland. ‘I think the government does need to think more about how we can better attract global talent at this level. You see, in some countries, a tax rate of, say, 30% for the first five-to-eight years of an executive’s placement and you would have to ask why we can’t do something along those lines here. We also need more international schools and there should be a focus on developing Ireland as a centre of excellence in international education if we are to attract top executives here.’
Tapping into the Irish diaspora is also central to the global recruitment process. ‘It can sometimes be a better opportunity, given the factors that may deter international executives from coming to Ireland for the first time,’ she says. ‘It is very rewarding to facilitate someone with an interest in returning home.’
Curran’s relationship with ACCA can be traced back to her grandfather, Paddy Canavan, whose educational pathway she would mirror, albeit in different circumstances.
‘My grandfather was a commandant in the Irish army until a government decision in the late 1940s saw the military downsized and him out of a job. An unlikely entrepreneur, he, along with others, founded the Galway Milk Company while studying for ACCA at night. He built an accounting practice from nothing and became involved in every aspect of life in Galway, including secretary of the Galway Race Committee for many years. He was definitely inspirational for me. I admire anyone who is gritty, resilient and refuses to give up!’
Having completed her BComm in Galway, Curran also studied ACCA by night and began working with a small firm that she recalls as ‘punching above its weight in Ireland. The managing partner in charge put a huge emphasis on customer service, and that was very influential on me in my early years. I am delighted to say that a company that he is involved in now is a client of ours.’
The opportunity for a change of pace came as the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) roared to life in Dublin in the 1990s, bringing a host of new opportunities to young finance professionals. It was through the unlikely avenue of the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer that Curran secured her next key roles. ‘He had built up an impressive private media empire and a wealth management division was set up in the IFSC. I came in as a treasury accountant, but soon got involved in every aspect of the business. I had a wonderful managing director who threw responsibility at me.’
As an executive search consultant, membership of ACCA continues to underpin Curran’s career success. ‘ACCA has given me the confidence that a professional qualification should give you,’ she says. ‘It has made me financially literate and if you are financially literate you can sit at any table.’
As she balances her day-to-day work with her new role, Curran says she will continue to be guided by a simple but powerful principle. ‘There’s a business book called Give and Take by Adam Grant. It sums up the philosophy I’ve always had, and that I think a lot of interesting people have, that you should always give more than you take. Success is not just about “what’s in it for me”. Many people have been very helpful to me over the years and I hope I will continue to learn from their example.’
Donal Nugent, journalist