David Nosal, Chairman and Managing Partner, San Francisco, USA

February 2022

How Search Firms Are Transforming Organizations

David Nosal is chairman of NGS Global, a premier midsized global search firm. Before founding NGS Global, Mr. Nosal spent 20 years with two of the largest search firms in the world, Heidrick & Struggles and Korn Ferry. He served as Leader of Korn Ferry’s CEO practice and was a member of the firm’s global operating committee. Mr. Nosal brings a unique understanding of how search firms of all sizes work and has provided insights on a number of important topics. In this interview, Mr. Nosal shares his thoughts on selecting the right search firm and how search firms impact their client organizations top to bottom.

Explain why it is important for many organizations to consider using the right executive search firm to fill senior leadership roles. Is it more important now than ever?

It is my belief that not all organizations should immediately go out to executive search. I think there is often a lot of work to be done to conduct the right internal search strategy as a first step, and in many cases, leverage a company’s own extensive network, especially at the board and ELT level. However, there are a significant number of situations when I do believe that an organization should consider using the right executive search firms to fill senior leadership roles. I am not sure if it’s more important today than it was before, but I do believe that the competition for the best talent in the world is fiercer than ever. As a result, I do think the importance of selecting the right search firm to conduct any executive search is going to be the key to success.

What benefits do the right executive search firms offer that in many instances would be better options than internal recruiting organizations? 

What we find often with internal recruiting organizations is that many tend to use traditional models of LinkedIn and other databases to look at candidates who might be proactively looking to make a move. It is my strong belief that the best candidates often are the passive candidates who are not actively looking to make a move and are therefore not keeping their LinkedIn profiles updated. More often than not, passive candidates need to be sold by a search consultant who can articulate why that specific opportunity is something that they should consider. 

It is my belief as well that if you have the right search consultant in the right firm actually making the outreach calls themselves, you will get a higher level of engagement from passive candidates. It is no longer acceptable to many executives to have a junior associate or a senior associate calling them from one of the major search brands versus someone who takes ownership for the search themselves as the partner in charge.

How would you suggest a corporation selects the “right” executive search firm? What should they be looking for and what kinds of questions should they be asking?

Companies should select search firms whose model has a search partner who sells the work doing the work versus a partner who sells the work and then has a junior associate doing the work for them. Additionally, they should choose the firm that has the best access in the world to talent. This means that on any given assignment they should choose a firm that absolutely has 98 percent, 99 percent of the addressable market available to them to recruit from. Why a major corporation hires a major brand to do any significant search is a bit mind-boggling to a guy who came out of two of the biggest firms in the world where I know we were often blocked from 25 percent to at times 50 percent or 60 percent of the target audiences we wanted to go after.

How do executive search firms transform organizations by placing the right talent? How do search firms impact culture?

Throughout my 30 years, I have seen numerous examples of one individual transforming an organization. It starts with leadership. When you find the right leader as a CEO to come into an organization who brings a strategy, a vision, and a track record of transforming a business that one individual has the ability to take an organization from one level to another. In one situation, I recruited a CEO into a billiondollar business when the share price was $2 a share and through their leadership strategy and vision, they were able to drive the performance of that company to a share price of over $90 per share. 

It is really important to recognize that individuals at certain inflection points of an organization need to focus on the cultural DNA of an organization as much as the specific business issues at hand. If you have a caustic environment or non-customer service-centric business based on previous leaderships lack of focus and understanding as to the right cultural DNA that is required, you then need to find an individual who can very quickly understand that that cultural piece of the puzzle is as important as anything else they might do within the business. Transforming a culture from a nonresponsive, somewhat caustic, and non-team-oriented approach to a very positive team-centric, customercentric approach can very quickly change the overall performance of an organization and the overall retention of individuals at all levels of a company.

What should the executive search industry do as a whole to be held more accountable for their overall performance in working with a corporation?

Search firms need to take seriously their roles in helping transform organizations. To do that, there needs to be a fundamental shift away from any search firm who is more concerned about driving their revenue (i.e. public company search firms) and get focused on doing better, fewer searches. 

Speed and quality are the key to success for any retained search firm moving forward. Incentivizing your partners to sell more work and to add more associates to do their work so they can sell more work is the antithesis of where this industry needs to go and be. We need to hold the search firms and their search partners more accountable for delivering higher levels of results in a shorter period of time and holding them accountable for the end-to-end search process. If we accomplish just that and recognize that in the world of executive search today, “bigger is absolutely not better” then small, medium, and large public and private corporations will begin to understand that there are many other search models out there that are going to be more consistently effective in delivering the kind of results they should demand.


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Additional Interview with David Nosal: 3 Ways to Find Executives in a Tight Market