The Industry’s New Kid On the Block

In the crowded world of executive search, where five legacy firms roll out old methods, CTPartners is playing by its own rules

"Search is no longer poaching a second-in-command from a company and making him CEO.”  —Brian Sullivan
“Search is no longer poaching a second-in-command from a company and making him CEO.” —Brian Sullivan

Brian Sullivan noticed something almost 30 years ago. Executive search firms that seemed cloaked in secrecy billed themselves as omnipotent gods. He knew their clients would eventually tire of the charade and set out to provide an alternative. He started Sullivan & Company and developed and perfected the unique approach now offered through his public company CTPartners. Unlike its predecessors and competitors, Sullivan’s modern firm works transparently with clients, harnessing emerging technologies to identify, attract, and land a new breed of modern executive. 

You basically set out to change the industry from day one. Why? 

Brian Sullivan: I saw executive search as the only consulting business that operated behind closed doors and totally shut out its clients. Firms claim they know everything, tell clients what their goals should be, come up with mysterious data, and present a narrow take-it-or-leave-it solution. I wanted to target demanding Wall Street clients and knew they would never put up with these big search firms.

What is the alternative?

Sullivan: There’s obviously a better way to do business. I started my own company and we worked closely to understand our clients and to be their eyes and ears while we presented an entire solution to them. We say yes or no together while we orchestrate the hiring process to get things done. It was wildly successful and formed the philosophy we use at CTPartners today.

You’re setting the tone for a $130 million revenue company that’s basically turning the whole industry upside down. What’s behind it all? 

Sullivan: We’re the sixth largest executive search firm, and my vision has been to offer global clients an alternative to the outdated oligopoly who refuses to embrace technology and other major changes. They have their market position and they don’t want to adapt. We’ve always been about change, and I wanted to harpoon this slow moving beast to be a new kind of company to give clients a boost in their executive search results.

How have you been able to do that? 

Sullivan: We are all about accountability and transparency to our candidates, our clients, and each other. We’re not omnipotent. We do a real market-research study to educate our clients, we show our logic and research, and by time we’re ready to refer candidates, our clients know why they are meeting the executives we present.

We’ve also driven the adaptation of technology in the industry. We’re basically paperless. We have a proprietary product called ClientNet that provides 24-7 access to the search status. Our clients can access our whole dossier of their search to view comments from their associates on each candidate, analytics scoring on their five key attributes as defined for the job, and other info. Executive search is becoming more than saying, “I like this guy because we shared a bottle of Bordeaux and talked about baseball.”

What other information do you share? 

Sullivan: We prove our abilities. We track our annual placement success rate, which is between 76 and 82 percent, compared to an industry whisper number of 63 percent. Nobody else even tracks the number, and ours is externally audited. We also track the number of days it takes us to make a placement and how many of our placements stay in their positions 18 months or more.

And what about the people you place. Is the modern executive the same as 15 years ago? 

Sullivan: Sophisticated clients have pushed a change forward. Companies are growing at staggering paces, literally from nothing to $1 billion in three years. Think about the stress that puts on a company in terms of information, distribution, supply chain, equipment, quality, staffing, et cetera. We have to find talent for these kinds of companies, and search is no longer poaching a second-in-command from a company and making him CEO. Execs for these modern companies might come from America, India, China, or anywhere in the world, and we have to know how to find them. Everything is changing, and executive-search companies have to be willing to change, too.