looking for hard to find talent with executive search

The top executive search trends to look out for in 2021

Executive search is an increasingly popular alternative to contingent recruitment models, particularly for niche, hard-to-find hires. But which trends underpin this specialist, data-driven form of recruitment?

It’s not controversial to say that we are going to see the impact of COVID-19 for years, if not decades. Since the pandemic first began, the collective race to find a vaccine, consolidate supply chains and get around regulatory challenges has rapidly accelerated changes that were already afoot in the STEM industries. 

With innovation ramping up and companies adapting to new operational models, we can also expect to see (and are already seeing) a rise in the number of executive searches. (For the uninitiated, executive or technical search is a specialised recruitment service with a focus on sourcing and onboarding hard-to-find talent for client companies).

With furlough schemes and budget freezes being unfortunate hallmarks of the last year, executive search has offered a lifeline to many hiring managers — harnessing data insights and market expertise to help them identify the best people in an increasingly competitive and unpredictable talent market. 

Likewise, this burgeoning recruitment model has also helped managers and C-level executives who lost their jobs during the pandemic return to work. In today’s digital-first world, executive search offers businesses a palpable competitive advantage when it comes to recruitment.

In this article, I’ll talk you through the executive search trends that are realigning the STEM recruitment landscape and think about how they will likely play out in the near future.

1) Increased flexibility

Building flexible businesses was already a growing trend prior to COVID-19, but now it is firmly at the forefront of all HR and hirers' minds. Far from being a hindrance to productivity, remote working is now seen as an advantage — especially as the majority of employees want some form of flexibility in their work.

If the restrictions of 2020 taught us anything, it's that outputs have become more important than the physical location of teams. (Outputs can be defined as actions or items that contribute towards achieving a business goal).

With business leaders needing to find new ways to motivate remote or partially remote workforces, the pandemic has also changed the face of leadership. As senior skill sets evolve, leaders who can galvanise their people will be in high demand.

Of course, certain STEM positions such as Medical Scientific Liaisons (MSLs) or other roles with Key Account Management (KAM) skill sets are expected to regularly travel for work. But with the cultural zeitgeist around work and employee wellbeing changing, businesses are thinking how to make these roles more flexible and more attractive to candidates.

As work becomes less structured and more flexible, more STEM businesses are now splitting operations across geographies. This is particularly true for companies that have fully digitised and embraced Industry 4.0 technologies, with digital transformation making it easier to scale areas such as R&D manufacturing via wider trends such as strategic outsourcing or nearshoring.

This “new normal” — in other words, an increasingly remote, digital and internationalised way of working — is giving businesses more scope to look further afield for talent. At Search by SRG,  around 40% of clients have asked us to look across borders and run global searches for senior talent. As businesses return to operations (albeit in wholly new circumstances), we can expect this trend to gather pace within the executive search market.


2) Diversity and inclusion (D&I)

Claims of “diversity” can rightfully be derided as mere lip service if the term is used without sufficient action to back it up. On a more positive note, however, STEM companies are investing more time and money than ever to ensure their teams are truly diverse.

The benefits of a diverse workforce are manifold. Aside from levelling the playing field and providing equal opportunities to all (and cultivating a more engaged, harmonious and less resentful culture in the process), all the data suggests that more diversity is better for your bottom line. When it comes to the hiring process, most high-level or specialist searches therefore require diversity data to aid decision making.

According to research from McKinsey, “companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.” 

The opposite is true of companies in the bottom quartile, with McKinsey going on to suggest that “diversity is probably a competitive differentiator that shifts market share toward more diverse companies over time.” Further research by Catalyst backs this: companies with higher levels of gender diversity (particularly those with HR policies and practices that focus on gender diversity) are linked to lower levels of absenteeism and employee turnover.

Increasing diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background is now a strategic priority for most businesses. What’s more, the last couple of years has seen a surge in the search for neurodiverse individuals. The GCHQ, for example, is currently on the lookout for candidates with dyslexia as they are seen to have a preferred skill set for certain roles.


3) Pipelining and talent pooling

Although the last year has been tough for most industries, the life sciences market has been central to the fightback against COVID-19 and has undergone rapid growth. But as any business leader knows, scaling sustainably hinges on the ability to attract and retain the best talent. 

This isn’t always as simple as recruiting on an ad-hoc basis, however. In an increasingly competitive candidate-led market, building robust skills pipelines and talent pools is crucial for a business’ recruitment prospects. This is why growing numbers of Search by SRG’s clients are working with us on monthly pipelining projects to identify hard-to-recruit or in-demand skill sets.

By identifying talent early and balancing that with a strong employer value proposition (EVP), a company can ensure continuous growth and create the best possible environment for innovation.

Though some businesses choose to use this information internally, partnering with an experienced executive search agency can give businesses direct access to some of the best talent pipelines in STEM.


4) Technology and data

Whether we like it or not, technology exerts a huge impact on the world — a trend that has been particularly profound since lockdown measures restricted our ability to meet face-to-face. This cross-sector development certainly hasn’t been missed within the executive search market.

For most companies, video interviewing has become the norm. At Search by SRG, this is built into our process as standard. This can involve one-way interviewing, one-on-one interviews, or panel interviews. Most high-level candidates need to be prepared to go through a range of these as part of the interview process.

Personality profiling and assessment tools are also being used more. Organising group meetings and getting a feel for personality can be difficult or problematic, so multiple forms of tech-based profiling and psychometric tests are now used -- even more so than before the pandemic.

Perhaps the most dynamic technology-based in the executive search market, however, is the growing adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) to augment and support the expertise of the consultant. AI technologies enable consultants to interpret larger data sets at speed, which in turn informs hiring decisions and allows leaders to predict business outcomes. Crucially, AI also helps remove human bias from the decision-making process.


5) Social recruiting

LinkedIn is one of the ten fastest growing brands of 2021. With three new people signing up each second and a further three people being hired on the platform each minute, it's no longer an optional tool for either job seekers or recruiters. Increasingly, executive search firms are calling on social networks to source, attract, and hire talent. 

With everyone spending longer at their computers, the uptick in social media usage means that executive recruiters are able to reach individuals in different ways. By tapping into channels like LinkedIn, executive search recruiters can enhance their network and bolster one-on-one engagement with potential candidates. 

Social recruiting is not just a trend in executive search but also in contingent recruitment. In fact, it’s becoming progressively central to a brand’s recruitment strategy: I have even heard instances of individuals recruiting through Tinder and TikTok!


6) Salary and benefit reviews

In the fast-paced and ever-changing business climate, it's becoming more important to attract, retain, and reward employees. 

Salary is no longer the most important factor in attracting job seekers to a role. According to the SRG 2021 STEM Survey (produced in association with New Scientist Jobs), “a good work-life balance” emerged as the most important aspect (37% of respondents), while “an attractive salary and benefits” was only deemed the second-most important.

In candidate-led markets, building an attractive EVP is crucial to every business’ recruitment efforts. Only by offering a well-rounded employee experience can businesses hope to attract the best people.

Calling on the data expertise of executive search firms can help businesses ensure they are creating attractive propositions for the right type of candidate, whether it be in the form of salary reviews or an in-depth competitor analysis. At Search by SRG, we’ve been engaged by businesses to review everything from pension packages to bonus schemes, as well as a host of other flexible benefits.


World-class talent insights with Search by SRG

Our STEM-focused search offering combines the technical expertise of SRG, Lorien, and Carbon60 to offer a data-led approach that delivers much more than just a list of CVs.


  • Search by Carbon60 – Senior technical hires within the product life cycle.
  • Search by Lorien – Digital, Transformation, and Technology.
  • Search by SRG – Scientific, Technical & Operations, Commercial, Medical & Clinical Development, AI, Machine Learning, and Bioinformatics.

By specialising in your business’ niche, we help you to attract and retain the right talent via:


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For the latest on industry and recruitment trends in STEM, stay tuned to the SRG blog.

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