AI is changing and reshaping the ways, methods, and practices of the recruiting industry even as I write these lines. AI is simultaneously both elusive and tempting. Those who are in favour of AI and strong advocates for the use of AI feel it promises us the world. I belong to those who advise treading cautiously with the use of AI in Executive Search. Especially so when talking about Senior Executive Management Search. Here I feel there are big risks.

I am not against AI, new ideas, development, and changes. I feel I am as Best Practice minded, Knowledge Management minded, Continuous Improvement minded as they come. When I was working as an Executive Search Research Manager, not a day went by without me trying to find a way to do something more efficiently and better. What I am saying is, be careful! Don´t use AI everywhere – just because you can. There are risks!

E.g., when the GPS tells people to go in a certain direction, a great many do so unconditionally. People have driven into the sea, off the road, into cul-de-sacs, into shopping centers, to the wrong city or even to the wrong country, just because some device has told them to do so. If the GPS tells people to turn right, many do so, even if there is no road. The same thing has already happened enough times with automatically driving cars to prove the same point. People have drunk coffee, read newspapers and even slept in the car when the car was driving, only to a little later die or kill someone else in a car crash.

We are not here only talking about “stupid” people doing stupid things. In my opinion, more like about an increasing, and already a rather common behavioral change among people, which is caused by blind trust in technology. We let technology take over, and then we lose control. Imagine a world full of automatic cars driving around according to what the GPS tells them. AI may indeed be an excellent servant if we get everything right. However, if we get it wrong, the expression dire consequences will get a new dimension.

AI can, e.g. certainly screen the Internet, and then, in a moment, print a Candidate list for you. However, if AI really could develop a list containing all the very top Candidates you are looking for, why would the hiring Company need the Search Industry in the first place? It could just buy some AI computer time and order the list itself. Don´t worry. It takes more than this. That said there will always be people who believe that AI has all the answers.

However, should we, in Executive Search, let AI do the Search and Candidate evaluation work in an ever-greater degree, our work will eventually be restricted to only reading Candidate lists provided by AI, without us not even knowing from where those names came from. On top of this are the moral and ethical dimensions. If you let AI decide who´s to become the finalist candidates in an Executive Search Assignment, you walk on thin ice.

The more we start relying on AI doing the job, the less important our trusted advisor network might start feeling. Our desire for developing good person to person relationships with top business people might start diminishing. Why should I waste valuable time on going to lunches with people to get an update on what’s happening in their industry, when I can ask AI, someone might think and instead increase his/her interaction with AI. This cannot have good consequences.

You may remember me saying something about blind trust in technology. There are already Search Firms whose Search strategy is called LinkedIn because they feel that this is all they need. However, if we are talking about Senior Executive Management Executive Search and the Search strategy is called LinkedIn, this is, in my mind, more like a disaster.

No matter what some may think of the benefits of AI, Top-level Executive Search is not quite so easy, that we could let AI do our work for us.

The importance of good personal relationships

In my mind, the only way you can develop into a top-level Executive Search Consultant is by meeting and working together with top-level Executives. This is about getting to know and learning about what the makings of top-level Executives are. Who they are, how they think, what they think, and why they think the way they do.

If you have developed a good relationship with, e.g. 100 top-level Executives, this is a tremendous asset. These people are at the top of their business and their industry. They know their products and services, their markets and the market trends inside out. Face to face, you can discuss things confidentially. Via these Executives, you may potentially gain access to their network. Each Executive may have a network of 100 top executives, potentially at your disposal. Who feels these relationships are not important for an Executive Search Consultant – that AI is better?

Some issues that must be discussed in an interview and where we need human input

  • Personal traits, general behavior, style, attitude, anything extraordinary.
  • Ambition level, goal orientation, career potential vs career ambition.
  • Key motivation factors, must-have factors, absolute motivation kill factors.
  • Core expertise, the substance, professional strengths, weaknesses.
  • Management/leadership skills, also vs expectations regarding their boss.
  • Decision making easy/difficult, fast/slow, pays attention to other’s opinions or not.
  • Delivery ability, timetables, quality of work, trustworthiness.
  • When the going gets tough, stress endurance, stress behaviour, can he/she cope?
  • Extraordinary achievements/failures.
  • Strategic skills, conceptual skills, problem-solving skills.
  • Analytical skills, mathematical skills, detail-oriented or sees the big picture.
  • Communication skills/Presentation skills – verbal, writing, listening, credibility.

Issues like chemistry, company cultural fit, humorous or not, if and why the Candidate is interested in the job, must be checked in person.

Subjects like strategic vision, goals, action plans, e.g. must be discussed face to face before the Executive Search Consultant knows what the Candidate stands for.

A human can recognise, analyse and react to issues which may impact on the interview, in a way that AI cannot. A human can, e.g., react to the tone of voice, the feelings and the emotional state of the candidate, the eye contact, the difference between normal nervousness and unnatural behaviour, see the difference between uncertainty, modesty, healthy confidence and unmotivated overconfidence.

A human can have a discussion with a pre-planned direction but also knows when there arises a need to move away from the plan and when to move the questioning into new areas.

A human knows when to change the line and tone of questioning in a situation requiring empathy, sensitivity, and flexibility.

A human can show interest in the subject discussed and in the Candidate. Talking to an AI-robot, that we all know could not care less, certainly must impact on the motivation and the answers given by any Candidate. How would you feel as a top-level Executive, if you would have to try to impress a robot? How do you connect with a robot? The answer is, you don’t!

Lastly, I do not want to be the Devil’s advocate, but what if AI has the intelligence needed, but one day not anymore, your or your Client’s best interest in its mind?

For those who are interested in learning in more detail about this subject, I advise reading my book How to recognise excellence in Executive Search.

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