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The AI Boom took off in the 1960s. After many setbacks and breakthroughs, the recent development of large language models (LLMs), such as ChatGPT, has democratized the world of AI, creating new opportunities for adoption and making it easier to use.

Experts in executive search and leadership advisory are ‘genetically curious’. What are the opportunities and risks of generative AI in our world?

LLMs, built on googols of words and phrases on the internet, with all their built-in bias, conscious or otherwise, tribal ranting and other unfiltered contributions are relatively useful for basic research purposes, but a model such as ChatGPT is still primarily a search engine.

Integrating ChatGPT with generative AI opens up a world of opportunities, with advanced machine learning algorithms supercharging disruption across all industries. In recruitment, it takes the time and fatigue out of sifting through resumés, with further capabilities such as candidate screening and creating interview shortlists transforming talent management. Disrupters are already using advanced data science, AI, and machine learning to match people to jobs, using a skills-based approach.

“AI is making a massive impact on mid-level, junior roles, but for executive search, it’s a very different situation,” comments Tina Engineer-McRae, Founder and President of M SEARCH. “There may be something in the future, but where we are right now, we are light years away from replacing search consultants with an algorithm.”

Why? First, because leadership is an art and a science. While science can track technical capabilities, the artfulness of the executive search consultant is mission-critical for a senior executive, C-suite or board-level search. Secondly, because once in the corner office, senior executives are rarely looking to move. They are typically well-established, taking the organization on a particular journey and locked in with highly attractive, performance-based remuneration packages.

Getting a senior executive to make a move requires a sophisticated, discreet and influential approach, that resonates personally, professionally and with market trends. Could AI replicate this? It would need highly nuanced and personal knowledge of the executive, it would need to factor in company culture, reputation and the global economic environment. It would need to switch from informative to deferential, from listening to laying out a landscape, from confidante to ambassador.

Then, the model, robot, or other as yet undefined ‘being’ would need to ask and understand questions such as:

  • 1) How do you create a goal-oriented, performance driven environment?
  • 2) How do you perceive risks to the business today and in the next three years? What will this mean for the senior executive talent you will need?
  • 3) What about your style of leadership is especially helpful in building relationships and influencing people?

There is also a major ‘anticipatory’ element in executive search.

1. “Executive search is future-focused, particularly in a world where faster tech cycles have super-charged the business cycle,” says Tina Engineer-McRae, Co-Founder and President of M SEARCH. “The ability to synthesize vast amounts of data and information is an incredible advantage with AI – hence the excitement – but synthesizing the multiple and varied inputs involved in an executive search would simply not be possible at this stage of AI’s development.”

Valerie Derome, Senior Vice President, Leadership Advisory at M SEARCH agrees. “For our industry and how we work, there are too many variables, too many unique organizational and personal characteristics, to create anything other than a hallucination – the ‘perfect leader’. And we know they don’t exist, because all leaders live in the context of their industry, their organization, and the surrounding team.”

Valerie continues, “However, at this stage it’s exciting to think about what AI could do. For example, if we could train a model to draw out from everything associated with a brand name the kind of culture that company has, the complexity of its environment, the types of projects people might have been exposed to, the capability they developed, that could be really valuable. But then culture is subjectively assessed, and how many companies have external profiles that are matched by the internal experience…?”

So, how do we approach the world of AI?

For every business, leveraging the potential of generative AI is about being thoughtful around how, why and where it is applied. As with all technology, new tools don’t necessarily replace people, they augment and enhance, with productivity gains.

“We will never lose our concierge approach,” asserts Tina. “Because understanding the business and people drivers, particularly at board level, is crucial to sensing the culture of an organization. Every day, clients want to know how we do that and how we perceive candidates’ motivations. It’s getting that alchemy right, that leads to success and longevity. Given retention challenges today, this is always part of the conversation”.

Are clients thinking or talking about AI in executive search?

“At present, conversations about the impact of generative AI on any industry are taking place among the Amazons and Googles,” explains Fernando Vega, Partner, executive search, at M SEARCH. “In mid-sized companies, no-one is raising that conversation with us right now; the focus is more on an early-stage understanding of leveraging AI within the core business.”

Early forays into AI in recruitment revealed the shortcomings of using past data with a built-in bias that fails to reflect social progress. In 2018, Amazon shut down its own recruitment AI tool because it discriminated against female applicants. And Galactica, an LLM similar to ChatGPT trained on 46 million text examples was shut down by Meta after three days in late 2022, because it spewed out false and racist information.

2. “AI isn’t getting everything right, but now is a good time to explore what it can do,” insists Valerie. “There are so many more applications that we can’t even imagine today, automating certain tasks is definitely around the corner. What’s missing is enabling people to experiment in how they could use AI. For people in R&D functions, it’s a natural part of their job, but in most companies it’s more about having people with the right mind set and the right skills to explore AI”.

Could AI help de-risk the whole area of people?

“We need our human fallibility, because this is part of the crucible of creativity and innovation,” says Tina. “Think about how and when your greatest strength becomes your greatest weakness, and vice versa. Think about how skills gaps or blind spots among leaders inspire their teams to step up, speak up and scale up. ‘No man is an island,’ said the English poet John Donne, arguing for the connectiveness of people. Today’s complex world requires teamwork, collaboration and dynamic tension”.

Being human is the ultimate advantage in leadership. Being human is the ultimate advantage in understanding it.

Fernando sums up, “So, AI in executive search is not a game changer yet. No-one has the kind of money to put to that risk, except for a handful of investors. But change is coming. Companies operating in AI raised 25 billion dollars in funding for the first half of 20231. When one of them figures out how to get to professionally-assessed, cognitive input, it will be gigantic”.

Will the democratizing of AI lead to the democratizing of leadership? As diversity champions in a women-owned executive search firm, we very much hope so. To find all potential leaders hiding in plain sight would be a huge benefit to humankind: it’s then for us to evaluate and align the right leaders and top performers to our clients’ strategic goals and the future needs of the world.

Recommended insights

    • Edem Gold: A history of AI (newsletter: Aurum Bits, edemgold.substack.com)
    • The Economist: Babbage — How AI promises to revolutionize science
    • The Economist Intelligence Unit: Why AI Matters
    • Harvard Business Review: How to prepare for a GenAI future you can’t predict
    • Conference Board: AI essentials
    • Digital Technology Guru: The future of work: AI-driven talent management and HR transformation
    • Insider: ChatGPT is like many other AI models rife with bias
    • Daggerwing Group, global change consultancy
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