Generalists are having a moment. “Having more diversified knowledge and being a Jack-of-all-trades actually allows you to master knowledge that is farther away from your expertise in ways that can be beneficial,” says Frank Nagle, assistant professor in the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School.
And in his book “Range,” journalist David Epstein argues that in most fields, it’s generalists, not specialists, who are set up to excel—and that generalists are more creative, more agile, and better able to make connections that their specialized peers can’t see.
Despite the advantages of employing a generalist, for private equity firms seeking an executive search firm to help them fill essential roles, the options can seem endless and overwhelming. This is often why, in the quest to find the right search partner, some PE leaders turn to an industry-specific firm. After all, if you’re limited on time and have a very specific executive role to fill, it would make sense that a niche firm would be able to quickly target top candidates in your industry.
Though it initially seems like a logical decision, industry-specific firms may actually be limiting your pool of available talent and oversaturating the niche market you’re seeking to target. In today’s hiring market, executive search firms with a generalist focus can offer private equity several distinct advantages. Here are four points to consider.
Generalist firms are positioned to offer the best talent.
If your specialist search firm of choice is engaging multiple clients—in the same specific space as yours, and for candidates in the same pool of talent—how can you be sure you’re getting the best candidate? Competition is tough enough without your search partners sharing your pool of candidates with your industry peers and potentially leaving you with the candidates they haven’t chosen.
When a firm only handles one industry-specific type of candidate, and engages many of them at a time for multiple clients, you’re selling yourself short and may be cutting yourself off from the very best talent. Seek out a generalist search firm that focuses on quality for each of its clients above all else. The right partner will complete a search for your specific candidate before taking on another candidate search with similar parameters. This gives you the greatest opportunity to find the most qualified candidate, as you’re not competing with other searches within the firm.
“Candidate access” is now a level playing field.
Over the years, the research and access portion of the search business has changed. With industry-leading social media tools, advanced online search capabilities, and rapidly expanding AI, search firms now have a wealth of candidate information at their fingertips. Once antiquated and slow search processes have drastically changed in modern times due to robust technology and better practices. This has leveled the playing field, giving all search firms access to the same candidates.
Though specialist firms may emphasize their unique access to niche candidates as a differentiator, that no longer holds true. The success of search firms, or lack thereof, is now more about how they’re engaging the labor market. The firms that are most skilled at search will have access to a higher-quality database of talent, regardless of whether they’re a generalist or specialist firm.Being based in a particular location or industry doesn’t give a firm an edge anymore, as many generalist search teams are plugged into both large pools of resources and local communities around the country, regardless of their specific location.
Specialist firms may have a more limited view of the market.
When a private equity firm is looking to staff a CEO in the healthcare space, they may immediately look for healthcare specialist. But is that still the right move? Since specialist firms are working with candidates in one professional space or industry, they’re only focusing on that static pool of talent. This means that there’s a large percentage of the market they’re not capturing or engaging. This is the talent equivalent of driving to 20 shoe stores to find the ones that fit all of your qualifications, versus searching quickly on Amazon and instantly accessing a much bigger marketplace.
Also, because generalist firms aren’t limited to a particular niche, they’re often more able to fully utilize that access to select the best-fit candidates from the widest available pool. This may or may not include candidates in a variety of industries or those with unique specializations who would bring the right mix of qualities to the role you need to fill. As “Range” author Epstein says in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, “I think we should think about it that way…to cultivate this diversity and not define jobs too narrowly, because you’re going to screen out some of the most interesting employees.” Generalist firms are experts in search, period.
The right generalist firm is able to focus on niche or highly complex positions and quickly get up to speed on its intricacies. Its team members are search experts and know what to look for, regardless of the industry or specialty. With the right training and experience, a generalist search consultant can successfully navigate any type of role, drawing on their expertise to select the best fit from a pool of the brightest executive talent.