Group CEO, Wilton & Bain
Since its founding in 2001, Wilton & Bain has grown exponentially, becoming a world leader in executive search and leadership advisory expertise. With offices in London, New York, and San Francisco, Wilton & Bain’s performance has surged, resulting in 4-fold growth in just 4 years. David Heron has been instrumental in that success. David serves as the Group CEO of Wilton & Bain. Since he joined the team in 2011 as part of a group diversification strategy to grow the company across product, geography, and customer, he’s developed a unique approach to achieving Wilton & Bain’s ambitious goals. He recently shared his recipe for success and his outlook on the executive search industry.
Technology as a driver for speed and innovation
“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in executive search is that the client audience has become more educated,” David says. “They’ve become broader in their thinking. As a consequence, boutiques and super-boutiques are taking market share off of the bigger firms. There’s clearly been bigger growth in the role of HR strategically within organisations, and they drive change in major hiring processes. This is a great development because it brings innovation to the forefront and gets rid of ‘black book hiring’ that we see in larger firms. Businesses want more than executive search—they want an integrated service offering that accesses talent partners at all levels of their hiring. Technology can help the industry by improving efficiencies and delivering results faster.”
Regarding digital transformation, David considers embracing technology a means to deliver an incredible customer experience. “We’re mindful of the impact that technology could have on our business. Executive search and recruitment is typically behind the curve, but we have a 3-year plan—it involves not only increasing investment in third-party software, but also impacting who we look for. We’re looking for tech-savvy, data-oriented people, and it’s exciting because it’s a new type of talent we’re looking to bring into our business. This can be a challenge for culture. The impact its had is the want to explore the art of the possible. Through partnering with Invenias, we’re offering a lot of new products and services. The main question isn’t necessarily what impact has digital had on our business, it’s how can technology make our business more efficient and enable us to get our highly-skilled people delivering higher-value tasks,” he remarks.
“The main question isn’t necessarily what impact has digital had on our business, it’s how can technology make our business more efficient and enable us to get our highly-skilled people delivering higher-value tasks.”
David Heron, Group CEO
Executive search in an increasingly shrinking world
When David considers the state of the executive search industry today, he sees so many opportunities to better leverage data to identify and assess the best talent. “I think the market to date has an antiquated approach. A lot of boutique search firms are sector-oriented in terms of how they approach the market. The reality in tech is that it’s not a matter of sector, so if a firm aligns by sector, they’re limiting their potential talent pool—you’re only finding the best talent within a particular sector, rather than finding the best talent within an entire market. Due to the global nature of the market, the world is becoming a smaller place. We see a lot of examples, like when at Australian bank asks to look for candidates on the west coast of the US because there’s a lack of regional talent. There’s a general want for businesses to look vertically as well as horizontally for talent, and that’s a challenge because a lot of companies aren’t organised that way. Companies have invested large sums of diligence and increased time at looking at the quality of hires that they’re taking in. They’re looking at more references and a well-rounded assessment. Data plays into that, so we’re training our teams to understand that it’s about how you link the disparate parts,” he states. “The other challenge within executive search is that the industry has historically been an ego-driven sector, and clients are looking for more humility. They want a partner to consult and advise. There’s something we’ve used to our advantage in hiring—we want to be business that people want to work for.”
“The reality in tech is that it’s not a matter of sector, so if a firm aligns by sector, they’re limiting their potential talent pool—you’re only finding the best talent within a particular sector, rather than finding the best talent within an entire market.”
David Heron, Group CEO
Achieving alignment and speed
For David, technology is an avenue to encourage alignment and increase speed. “One of the biggest issues impacting my business’ ability to achieve its future revenue and growth goals is alignment. As a business that’s grown quite quickly in a 2-year period, one thing we need to address is that we want our people to think as one, not 100 ones. So there’s a huge amount of value that business can add or lose through our own internal ability to leverage our combined networks and brains. We need a structure to work fast, be fast, think fast, be efficient, and that’s a real challenge.,” he says. “If I look at clients who talk about their frustration with the industry, they feel like they’re we’re working with a person and not a brand. So there’s a huge opportunity to build a brand that has the clients’ issue at heart. Tech will be at the heart of enabling that, but it’s a cultural thing for sure. We’ve focused on building our business on our culture first and thought about revenue second.”
“The number one issue for our clients in 2019 is speed. I think it takes too long for businesses to make the hires they need. I think if you assume at an executive level, people are on pretty lengthy notice periods. You’re looking at 9-12 months, and I wonder whether these businesses have 9-12 months. I wonder if the process needs to be more closely managed and that if speed needs to be put first. I look at our own business, and it takes us longer to hire than we think it is. I look at organisations that are trying to achieve major business transformation, accessing quality talent quickly is a limiting factor. However, the flip side is that organisations have an expectation that isn’t realistic in terms of how long it takes to transform their business.”
“The number one issue for our clients in 2019 is speed. I think it takes too long for businesses to make the hires they need.”
David Heron, Group CEO
“In a market where you can get anything anywhere anytime, it’s still a huge part to work with partners that are able to help you take a step back from all of the noise in order to take a systematic, diligent, measured process when hiring people. There’s always a pushback from clients who presume that we must be able to find someone on LinkedIn. I don’t think the value is in the identification of the person—it’s in the management of the process and the narrative that needs to be created to go out and attract extremely high-quality people in a noisy market. Engagement is critical. The best process is where there’s 100% transparency and alignment on how we get to an end goal.”
David on the spot
Is there such a thing as an average day for you – and if so, can you describe it?
“No. I see my role as the CEO is also the Chief People Officer, and it’s my obligation to create an environment where people feel fully invested, bring themselves fully to their work, admire us as a brand, and feel that this is a great place to work. You need to be a listener and create a dialogue. At Wilton & Bain, we talk about three things: team, customers, and innovation. If we have the market’s best talent, we have the market’s best performance.”
What has been your biggest achievement in business to date?
“It’s been creating an environment where people believe and feel they’re going somewhere. If you look at the things we’ve done, we’ve doubled headcount, EBITA, and revenue, but the thing I’m most proud of is having a management team in place to make that possible. I’m most proud of our people.”
What keeps you awake at night?
“At the moment, I sleep pretty well. What used to keep me up is worrying about the fact that there’s always people, tension between individuals in the business, or challenges in the business and someone doesn’t end up happy. I believe in win-win situations, and I care about the outcome to get my people what they’re worth.”
What would you be doing if you weren’t in executive search?
““I’d coach rugby. Coaching and developing people is what executive search people build their lives on anyway. It’s great working with a team of people to achieve a common goal, and if it’s one thing we’ve achieved here, it’s that we’re aligned around the purpose, the mission, and the client. It’s how the best sporting institutions are formed and deliver.””
- Born: Leicester, middle of England
- School: Uppingham
- University: Bristol
- Home: Parson’s Green, southwest London
- Car: Range Rover sport
- Last Holiday: Cornwall
- Charity: The Daisy Trust, which supports underprivileged people
- Hobbies/Relaxation: Watching sport, any sport
- Inspired by: My dad
- Book: Legacy by James Kerr
- Movie: Shawshank Redemption
- Music: Coldplay
- Gadget: My car
- Food: Asian fusion