Can artificial intelligence replace executive search consultants?


by Alexandra Ene, Executive Search Consultant at Signium - Stein & Partner, for


This month marks one year since our lives we­­re completely transformed, both professionally as well as personally. Although we all faced the same common threat, each of us lived this experience differently, learned certain lessons, and perhaps reconsidered the priorities and path. From a professional point of view, for me this year implied a reconfiguration of the way I manage my activity, as I work in recruitment of senior management and I previously relied extensively on face-to-face interaction with clients and candidates. Whereas before the pandemic we only had online discussions with candidates from other countries (and even in that situation we always saw them in person before proposing them on the shortlist to the client), digital recruitment suddenly became the standard, the only viable option for us to continue to exist in the market. This change came with a number of challenges varying from technical issues to interviews with cats or children in the background. We moved from the formal environment of an office, to the personal space of our houses, the time spent in traffic was eliminated, and the overall dynamics changed completely. At the same time, the screen does not allow the recruiter to see the candidates as a whole, to get a real sense of them, making it much more difficult to outline a full picture.

Thus, even though digital activity has become an integral part of our day-to-day lives and we have adapted, and recruitments will certainly look different in the future from the way they were conducted before the pandemic, I wonder how it would be for the whole recruitment process to be completely replaced by technology or, more specifically, by artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a topic on everyone’s lips, a promise of a simpler future, based on increased efficiency and profitability. At the same time, it is a concept that generates fear – how will things change in the coming years? Will the labour market require the same jobs, the same people, the same skills? What happens to the professions we have prepared for at a time when no one anticipated the extraordinary evolution of technology?

AI is represented by the system or machines that mimic cognitive functions generally found only in humans, such as learning and problem solving. From the Automotive sector to Retail, Medical and Manufacturing, artificial intelligence is used in countless forms – speech recognition (e.g., Siri and Alexa), self-driving cars, customer profiling, predictive technology, or chat bots. But what happens in the area of ​​professional services, such as audit, law, consulting, recruitment? How much can you make use of technology in industries in which the capabilities and experience of employees have always determined the quality of services provided by the company?

How artificial intelligence is used in recruitment 

As companies progressively understood the value that smart recruitment and good employee retention bring to the organization, technology has found its place in human resources as well. Investments in the development of talent management tools have increased over the years, so today we see smart systems that automate significant parts of the flow being used in recruitment, such as CV screening, searching for candidates on various channels, matching candidates experience with job descriptions by using keywords, contacting them and even conducting the initial interviews.

Recruiters can use tools that analyse the job description of the open role and search the database for candidates who have applied for similar positions. They can automate reports for clients / employers, use chatbots to interact with candidates and virtual reality in simulating work situations, as well as tools which analyse in video interviews elements such as facial expressions, voice, tone, and micro-expressions.

All these and more are used in the hope that the volume of employment will increase in the labour market, the process will be simplified for all parties and there will be less administrative / routine responsibilities for recruiters. However, the risk is that, exactly in those initial stages, the company loses sight of valuable candidates.

Why artificial intelligence cannot replace people in executive search 

Before anything else, a distinction should be made between recruitment and executive search. Although both have as their ultimate goal finding the right person for a particular role, there are considerable differences in the business model, methodology and level.

Recruitment is suitable for roles from junior to mid-level managers and is based on promoting the position through different channels and targeting candidates who are actively looking for a job. The recruitment service for top level managers (executive search) represents the process of placing candidates in Board, top or middle management roles (GMs, financial directors, COOs, marketing directors, etc.), namely strategic placements in executive positions and proactive search for potentially suitable professionals. In executive search, the activity is more complex and nuanced than in recruitment and often we do not even use CVs in the first phase, because we approach people we identify through a variety of channels (using the company’s or the consultant’s network, recommendations, references from previous projects, the database, but also various platforms).

For this reason, human interaction in C-level recruitment, at top management level, is essential; people are always approached directly by consultants on the basis of a prior assessment taking into account the experience and professional skills of the candidates, the industry in which they operate, the business models to which they have been exposed and the potential fit of all these elements in the ongoing recruitment project. Thus, a human mind is needed to understand beyond titles and responsibilities – someone who knows the market and the context in which the respective candidates worked, who can read between the lines, who understands the challenges, opportunities, and trends in the industry.

As an executive search consultant, I coordinate placement projects for top and middle level managers, both in Romania and in the Eastern Europe region. Preparing for such a role takes years, and it is done through study, but especially through the contact with hundreds of clients and thousands of candidates. We are discussing an educated ability to understand the strategic impact that a person will have in the organization based on detailed knowledge of the industry and the customer, and the ability to assess the potential fit of a person in a new company, beyond skills. Because at this level we are transcending professional abilities: we evaluate alignment in terms of vision, values, ​​and culture, but also the ability to solve problems or critical thinking.

During the interview, we correlate all these aspects with the candidate’s personality, energy, and motivation, as well as with other interpersonal skills (empathy, emotional intelligence), analysing previous performances and evaluating his/her potential, so as to ensure long-term strategic collaboration between the employer and the placed candidate.

The usefulness of technology 

Artificial intelligence, as a selection tool in executive search, can be extremely useful, but only as a support for the work of consultants and the improvement of the recruitment process, not to replace the human interaction, which will always be the epicentre of our work.

For example, we use systems such as ATS (Applicant Tracking System), which helps us monitor the correspondence with our candidates, the stage of recruitment processes, but also to record details about the professionals we interview. This type of tool allows us to provide better services and manage data efficiently, without diluting the essence of our business, namely the important knowledge about the market, the relationships we develop with candidates and customers, and the vast experience in working with people for people.

I estimate that the future of top management recruitment will include an important component of technology, but the most important input will remain that of the consultant, who can put in context all the elements, from the candidates’ experience, to their skills and personality, to the overall matching with the role and organisation of the future employer.

© Alexandra Ene