June 21, 2023
Dualta Doherty

Inside London's Top Executive Search Firm with David Angel

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Thank you for listening to the Recruiter Startup Podcast.

Dualta: Welcome to the Recruiter Startup Podcast. I'm joined today by David Angel from Redgrave. Hi, are you sir?  

David: Yeah. Good morning. Yeah, very well, thank you. How are you?  

Dualta: Very well. Life is, uh, life is good here in Alta today. Tell me, uh, you're,  

David: you're in the capitol. Yes, I'm in, uh, London today. We have light weather as well, so we've had a cracking 10 days or so of sunshine.

So I suspect your weather will last longer than our, but all good here today. Yeah.  

Dualta: So for anybody listening, uh, I'll let you tell a little bit about Red Grape, but one of the top exec search firms in London. So I suppose today a lot of our listeners are contingent search for firm contingent owners, um, some hybrid firms that do a bit of search and contingent, and a lot of senior recruiters from, you know, a, a broad range of STEM backgrounds.

A lot of them will have thought at one stage or another. What would it be like to work in executive search? Like what is, what is that world like? How do I, how do I get into it? Is it that different and it's a bit of a mystery now. Your background is really interesting because you came from our world.

Mm-hmm. And then you did it within that world. And then you moved over, but talk to me just a little bit about how you got into recruitment. Started the journey.  

David: So interestingly, listening to one of your other, uh, podcasts recently with Gil Doy, uh, he was telling the story of Robert Walters proactively looking to hire part qualified accountants out of the big accounting firms.

And that is exactly my story. So I was working for the business that today is called Deloitte. It was called, uh, Back in the day when I worked there and year two wasn't happy, didn't do well in a set of exams, fell out, and I literally stumbled across an advert that Robert Walters had put in the evening standards looking for accountants for this newfangled industry.

Recruitments. This is 90, 94. I went along, I met Giles literally on that day, and 29 years later, I'm still in the industry. So it was a, it was an accidental journey for me. Like, I guess many people you end up falling into the industry.  

Dualta: What is Walter's like back in that day? Cause I, I, I, we both started our career there, uh, me in the far flung area of, uh, Western Australia, you and the capital.

Um, what, what, what was it like, how many people, how many, what was their headcount at that stage?  

David: So when I joined, the business would've been in the uk, maybe 8 80, 90 people all in one room. In actually not from

f. Of continental European business across kinda Amsterdam and lop, and they were just starting to open up in the US as well. So it was a relatively small organization compared to the the business that it became over the years. But I think a lot of the DNA of the firm had, had been established. And of course, you know, Rob Walters himself was still.

Front and center of the business back then. So, you know, it was just a smaller version of the business. It became.  

Dualta: And you, you're an accountant, um, you studied up north, right? You're, you're, you're in the capital, you're young, gay, like what was the, what was the environment like? What, what was this recruitment or like, was it, was it hectic?

Was it intense? Did you have dreams of your candidates and clients at night? Was it intense experience that you've ever had? Like I had.  

David: It was, um, it, I mean, it was mind blowing. And I, I, I distinctly remember the first six months being just a haze of confusion. Look, I think I took the job. I really liked the people and, you know, it was pitched to me.

In a really sensible way, it ticked a lot of my boxes, and the learning curve was super steep for me. Um, I hadn't really appreciated that it was a sales job, right? Um, and, uh, you know, cold calling was new. Remember we're talking. Pre-internet, pre email, pre mobile phones. So we were fax machines with cvs, we were calling candidates, you know, in the evenings when they were back from, uh, doing the audits during the day, proper old school recruitment.

And it was great. It was. Pacey, it was, um, you know, volatile. It was great fun. Yeah. You know, look, I was in my mid twenties in the big city. Wow. And it was, it was really, it was fun. Yeah. It was. They were good times. Good times were, were you, were you recruiting accountants? Yes. So I was basically recruiting people just like myself.

So I was a part qualified. For, so I was talking to people who were my age group, my peer group, absolutely. So, so like for like,  

Dualta: yeah. Interesting. So it didn't stop you moving to the enemy  

David: though, right? No. No. And um, I think look back in the day, yeah. Um, there was this whole back and forth Michael Page, Robert Walters, and.

Yeah, I, I, you know, I jumped ship, um, and spent nearly 20 years at Michael Page. Okay. So,  

Dualta: fair to say you're probably more aligned to Michael Page and that experience, even though Walters was your first, from the outside looking in the industry council as the one company in terms of processes, the way they work, do you see  

David: any difference?

So when I first moved there, there was a huge difference, um, because Michael Page become so much bigger, more quickly cause it was an older business than, than than Robert Walters. So they were further ahead in. So they were more international. They were probably a bit more corporate for want of a better turn of phrase.

And you know, Robert Walters probably had more energy and more, uh, it was more fun.  

Dualta: Right. It felt like a, it felt like more of a startup. Did it? Yeah, it was a, it was  

David: a more energized, more fun, slightly wilder. Yeah. Business. Michael Page had already become a bit, a bit corporate and I think looking back, Having been at Deloitte's, perhaps I was naturally more suited to the slightly more corporate environment.

And actually what Michael Page became back then for me was a perfect compromise between Robert Walters, where, you know, I loved the people, loved the job. Yeah. And made the slightly more kind of corporate life that you get in a Deloittes. Yeah. But I think over the, over the 20. 2, 3, 4 years since I think that the, the differences between the businesses of, of, of Shrunk to, you know, next to zero because, you know, Michael Page is still a hugely successful, you know, great organization, but Robert Walters has just, just gone on and on and on and on.

Um, so I would imagine that working in those businesses is probably more similar. Than perhaps would've been, you know, when I first made that move. Yeah. It,  

Dualta: it, it fascinates me that somebody starting their career, you know, sometimes dictate the type of company they build during the road, the environment that they go in and like, I feel like if you've started in Walters or Page, you're very much suited to boutique life.

Um, well, a lot of people who start in S3 try and replicate that. Yeah. There, there's a qualitative nature to the training that they put you through. Do you think that that there, that that stood the test of time in terms of entering you into executive  

David: search? For me def definitely, you know, that that early years learning curve, when I was, you know, doing contingent recruitment in the mid nineties, the understanding of process control, influence, relationship.

All still relevant to what I do now, and actually that's why I still do what I do now. Cause I loved it then and I love it now. Obviously the, the nature of what I do and the clients that I work for, very different, but the, the intrinsic skills, behaviors, enjoyment of the job. Absolutely. You know, two peas in a pot.

Dualta: Yeah, it's like you've grown up with your cl with your candidates and  

David: clients. Yeah. Yeah. But I think that's why I made the move into search in my early forties because I, you know, I'd enjoyed my previous life for 20 plus years and then it was time to do something else.  

Dualta: Can I take you back a step? Um, You say you moved into search, but you were in paid executive before that it what?

What was that? Was that, was that contingent or was it a mixture?  

David: Something you told me  

Dualta: previous was there's difference between retained and search and that's it. I was like, oh, okay. I'm a newborn. Tell, tell me what the difference is.  

David: So, The, the big difference is the conversation that you have with your clients upfront, and then the process to deliver successful outcomes for your clients, but fundamentally, For me, page executive was a stepping stone outta high-end contingent recruitment, which is what I've been doing previously into full blown executive search.

So I would say page executive had more. In common with what I have done at Red Grave for the last 10 years than my previous life at, at Michael Page or Robert Walters. But the big, big, big difference is the, the, the, the, the brand and the organization that you work within. Cause if you, if you work within Michael Page, whatever you are doing in that business, You, you, you kind of carry the whole firm's baggage with you.

So you can, you can get close to doing the type of search that I do now, but you don't have the time, the resource, the, the, the credibility necessarily to, to work at board level in the way that, uh, you know, a search firm. Like the one I work for now does, so that you, you're slightly boxed in in terms of the brand.

And also the reality is that at each stage of the recruitment pyramids, there are firms that are brilliant at what they do at that point of the pyramid. So, you know, high street recruiters, local recruiters, they're brilliant at what they do. Same with. You know, specialist contingent recruiters, mass market, contingent recruitment firms, first tier search, mid-level search, and you know, top, top, top, top, top tier search, you know,  

Dualta: so, uh, time, resources, and influence.

Um, so that's the, the ability to win the work and then the ability to deliver it. What, can you walk me through what it looks like at. Red gray from going to pitch for work. Like how do you hear about the work to pitch for it firstly, and then from there, what, what does the lead up to that pitch look like?

What does the bit slightly after where you're kind of wondering if you've won it or not? How do you make those, some of those decisions? And, and then we'll, we'll jump into the rest.  

David: Sure. So it, it, it won't surprise you to hear that it varies massively. Sure. You know, a lot of, a lot of the searches that we do will be repeats for clients.

So we, we, we have a hugely trusted set of clients who will use this repeatedly for different searches across their organizations. So there wouldn't necessarily always be a. Pitch per se for that type of work. I guess the scenarios where we do a pitch in the sense that you've just. Wants to benchmark us against another firm.

Mm-hmm. Or whether we are having our first interaction with an organization who are considering us amongst the, the, the small handful of firms that they're, they're considering almost like a, and I guess a lot of our work, um, comes through word of mouth. Um, just, just reputation as a, as a high quality search firm.

But the conversation might be, um, look, we'd want you to come in and pitch for this work. Here's the, here's the job, here's information. Um, sometimes we would get a lot more data upfront and we would need to do pre-pitch documents. We'd need to do capability documents where we outline our expertise in a function and in a sector.

Talk about our specifically comparable track record. It's about giving the clients. Confidence that not only do we have a world class process that will deliver the outcome that they want, but actually we know the talent pool that is most relevant to that search, be it geographic, be it sector, be it function, or frankly be it all three.

So what we have to demonstrate sometimes even before the pitch can be significant. You know, we can produce 20, 30, 40 page documents before the pitch. That is really about giving the clients comfort that we've got genuine expertise that stands us apart from another search firm. Um, you  

Dualta: guys have managed to grow and quite a lot.

Um, how, how have you done that when other search firms struggle to get more than like four or five and lots of other, the top tier search firms have lost people? Lots of people and my inbox. Is hammered by the most average exec search for people you would ever see in your life. And they don't wanna do bd.

They're bit particular. They're, they, they all wanna work for the same company. But, but, but yet, you guys, you're on your growth.  

David: What's the secret to success? Search firms are, are, are groups of people and, and fundamentally I think what we've. Um, expand from a strong core that we had, you know, 10, 12 years ago and, and retain that talent and, and, and build around it.

And, and I guess we've tried to differentiate ourselves, not, not not just to our clients, but actually as a, as a platform for people to work. Cause, cause fundamentally, All we are is a bunch of people. And if we have more great people working here, we will. We will be a bigger firm. We'll more work, we'll deliver, more work and thing, thing snowballs.

And you know, the matter is in. You, you've got some unbelievably successful lifestyle businesses where they don't wanna grow. They, they're, they're very happy being 5, 10, 15 people. It works for the employees, it works for the owners. They've got, right, they, they're just comfortable. I think what we have is we have.

Um, a, a yearning to keep growing and to become bigger and better and more professional and more sophisticated. And I think for a lot of people in search, that energy, that entrepreneurial flare, that desire to keep going, it is quite energizing for people. So if you're looking for, A platform that's full of energy and ambition then it, it it's firms like this that, that, that offer that.

I, I don't think there's magic beyond that really. Cause we're just a group of people. Yeah.  

Dualta: The, well, when you say the word platform, I think a lot about technology. Uh, when I think of technology and marketing and I think of exec search, you're not as good as contingent. Like the, the, it's a. And it baffles me because, and I appreciate it.

It, it's been black books and I know these people, and they trust me for this, but generations change. Society changes who we put in these positions are changing. How, how, how are you gonna keep up? Like what, what, like what's gonna be unique in search in the next five years?  

David: I, I, I can't answer that question.

I wish I, I wish I knew all of the answers. It's, it's an ever evolving industry. Te technology is, is a disruptor as it should be. You know, artificial intelligence is gonna be a disruptor in this, this industry from a data mining and, and, and kind of networking perspective. But, but fundamentally, At the heart of executive search is, is a process.

Yeah. You know, a rock solid, robust process and, and, and then a professional leading that process. And I think where firms like us have [00:19:00] success is, is where we have a reputation as, as a genuine expert in, in, in a field or a number of fields. And that's quite hard to replicate. Let me jump into that because  

Dualta: reputation and brand is for a famous quote saying that it's what people say about you when you're not in the room.

David: Mm-hmm. How we  

Dualta: exponentially like build on that is by getting that message out to more people than just word of mouth. Right. Uh, when I set up this podcast, 2016, I could see that our industry was gonna change, and I could see an avenue to make my clients famous and put that out there to a marketplace that would give them value beyond me having a meeting and telling them about the market and them getting something from it.

You're gonna launch your own podcast? No, you, you wouldn't have done that. 10 years ago. What is it about now that you feel the world is ready for maybe executive search to show a bit  

David: more of who they are? I think for us it's about a new phase of growth because I think we've come a long way in the last 10 years.

I mean, we've traveled the size of the business in terms of headcount and, and, and revenue, and we've largely done that through. Repeat business through sales led, um, behaviors and, and, and through the, the, the people who work at Red Grave, I think we've acknowledged that to, to double or treble the business.

Again, we need to have a brand that, that has an echo, that that goes way beyond just a bunch of hardworking people. So it's about addressing maybe the, the. The toolkit that's been missing historically in terms of actually who are we? How do we talk about ourselves? How do. What, like, like how effective are we in outlining the points of difference between us and any other search firm that might look like us to the outsider.

So what, what are the, the little bits of dna, the points of difference. So why would you give us a search rather than someone else's search and, and, and converting that into, Marketing activity into podcasts, into thought leadership, into just, just a more all rounded kind of communication strategy so that hopefully the echo, you know, extends a lot further and that that's new for us.


Dualta: I'm, I'm, it's also very brave for executive search because there's always that, ooh, how we're perceived as everything, and. Did this take a long time? Was somebody driving this internally? Like, wh  

David: where did it come from? I think it comes from ambition. Ambition to grow, and a realization that actually you need a blended sales and marketing strategy to keep growing a business.

You know, lots of organizations, B2B organizations, culturally, are either marketing led or or sales led. The best ones do both. And I think there was a realization from us that we've not invested enough in brand building, in marketing, in really kinda cutting through so that we create a much clearer, distinctive reputation in the market.

Dualta: And if I'm listening to this and I'm at a, an executive search firm or maybe a contingent firm, I mean, how do I get a job at Redgrave? Like what? How do I get into working at the very senior level? Is it like, what, like what does that, what does that look like apart from approaching you, you know, but like, what, what's the characteristics of it?

What, what kind of a track record do we need? Like when you see this person, how do you know? Okay, the, there we go. Because. Surely it's not just a posh boy network, like you seem like a, a very normal straight up guy, um, who's been really successful. And sometimes when I speak to search firms, I. I don't get as much transparency, so I'm I'm just curious.

David: It's really interesting that you've picked up on that. Cause I think one of the points of difference to us as a, as a business is that we're quite uncomplicated, straightforward people. And I think that clients increasingly find that appealing because it's, it's very no nonsense. You know, there's no smoke mirrors, there's no pretense, there's no.

For want of a better words. You know, we we're quite upfront and effective as a firm leads the.

If we want to keep doubling down on our points of difference, we have to be true to the DNA of the firm and, and look to recruit people who are similar and, and being posh to use your phrase is, is totally irrelevant to us. You know, the, the, where somebody was born, where they went, To school who their parents are totally irrelevant to us.

I think what we look for is people that our clients will buy from fundamentally, however, Clients are still buying from an individual, and they have to believe that that individual is the best placed person to deliver that search. So fundamentally, what people need to bring to us is credibility, you know, some life experience.

Our industry or or in business, so that when you are sat in front of a client or potential client, you're having a business conversation with them. It's a proper business to business conversation where you've got some knowledge and some expertise that will help you deliver a successful search, if that makes sense.

So fundamentally, it comes down to presence, gravitas. Commercial flare, an ability to talk to, to customers, potential customers, and, and then it's about, well, what have you done? You know, why would a client trust you to do this search rather than your competitor? Because that's what it comes down to. It's about one person running the search.

They're only gonna give one person the search. So why is it you? And I think around the edges, we can fill in a lot of. Knowledge gaps. Experience gaps, we can kinda open the box to the, the, the reality of search to people. But what we can't do is we can't make people have gravitas and credibility if, if, if, if they don't, if that makes sense.

You know, it's, it's, uh, people have to bring inherently valuable tools into this environment and we can, you know, do a lot and all of us who work here, me included, You, if you, if you were interviewing me 10 years ago, you, you, you would be talking to a, a person who knew a lot less than I do today about business, about search, about, you know, at board level.

It didn't stop me being. You know, useful to Redgrave when I, when I joined 10 years ago. And I think that's the point that we don't need to hire the finished article. We don't, we don't need to hire people who've

hire and we do hire, but. You know, there were a lot of people at Red Grave who were hugely successful, who started like I did at Pays, or Robert Walters or Michael Page or Goodman. Knock and Clark. It, it, it, that's not relevant really. It's about who they are now and, and, and will clients at the right level take them seriously as people that  

Dualta: matters.

Very good. Now, talk to me a little bit about the types of positions that you recruit for. You mentioned board boardroom level. Like what, what, what industry, what, like, walk me through what, what does somebody do at board? Is it a full-time job? Is it part-time job? Is it like, what, what, what is it?  

David: So we do executive and non-executive search.

So if we get rid of the, the non-executive search, first of all, those will be chairman and non-executive directors who will sit on a board. They're not full-time. They will be, um, Representing shareholders or representing owners of the business. And they will hold the executive team to account and advise and guide them in regular board meetings.

So we'll do chair searches for listed businesses and for private equity backed businesses. So we do a lot of search, uh, a lot of hiring for search, and then we will do non-exec appointments and advisory appointments across PLCs into private equity. And actually sometimes privately owned businesses as well, where they want third party advisors on the board.

So that's an element of what we do not the focus is, is executive search, which will be. CEOs managing directors. And then the other functional positions across the board, be it chief financial officer, chief HR officer, chief marketing Officer, chief re any C-suite role that sits, um, around the senior management team or on the exec boards.

And then for organizations at a certain level, we'll recruit one or maybe even two levels down from that. So, Uh, executive board members.  

Dualta: Okay. And has anything changed, like in obviously further down the food chain? We're worried about work from home, hybrid working, you name it, there's been like, the world has changing.

Is, is that the same at the top as well as, as your search has become more complex?  

David: Um, in, in a way more complex, but in a way. More straightforward. So I think, um, at all levels, teams need to get together regularly, whether it's face to face, onsite, offsite, over a platform like this. And it's the same whether you are an executive team or, or you are a team, you know, lower down an, an organization.

So, In, in a way it's got more complicated, but in a way the technology has massively helped. So we, you know, we're doing much, much more global work, more, more international searches than we've ever done before because the technology allows us to do that and it also allows us to move talent, you know, globally or, or, or appoint talent.

You know, globally where you need to hunt more internationally to find the right kinda skillset. But we still have the same conversations with candidates and clients around what their policies. So how often are you expecting somebody to be in the office? Which office, you know, how are they supposed to be managing their teams and influencing across the business so that they're the same.

They, they are the same issues at at, at all levels of, of organizations. Um, you know, and, and, and individuals that we approach for our searches, they will always ask us, you know, where's the job based? How much base time is needed? And I don't think that's gonna change now. I think that's that's here to stay.


Dualta: just to take you back a little bit, you, you mentioned about a lot of executive search firms being lifestyle businesses, which is absolutely true, and you're clearly not. Um, usually when lifestyle businesses is a broad sweeping statement. So please don't take feds or message me about that if you're, uh, if you're in a boutique.

Um, but if your business, your size, um, Are you building for an event? Um, is it, is, does that happen in search? Do, do you work under the same parameters of, of the value of the business? Are you thinking we need a temp, we need a, a temporary business here as well to make it a bit more sticky? We need an international office, or is it just the value of the connections at the very top?

Like what, what holds the security of the business outside of the 3, 4, 5? Super connected people in the business can, can you insight into the strategic level?  

David: Yeah. Well, lemme just touch on the lifestyle point for a minute, just, just so you don't get complaints. Um, for, for us, what that means is the business is, Funding a lifestyle for the owners of the business and that, yeah.

Right. And those people are super happy with the business that they've built. Brilliant.

Work very hard, but they, no, everyone's happy. I think sometimes people misunderstand that phrase as, you don't work hard, big time. Very serious that that's not what a lot of them work.  

Dualta: A lot of them work harder because you know, people doing their work.  

David: Yeah. And I think that's, that's what I mean by lifestyle business, right?

So, so that's fine. So the reason why we're not a lifestyle business is that this is, um, now a. Um, an employee owned organization with a third party minority invest. So at the end of, we did a transaction, we sold a minority stake third party with scaling the. Materially and looking to realize some value over a three to five year period, and we're in second year

value for.

Fir. First and foremost, it's about making sure that you are not reliant on 1, 5, 10 individuals. Do you actually have a thriving business and

represented by. People, but actually is capable of, of being constantly regenerated and refreshed by the talent that's, that's coming through. And that's very much, you know, the, the part of the journey that, that, that we are on at the moment.  

Dualta: Yeah. Ja said to me that Brian Hamel is the most connected man in London.

So that, that's where the, that's where the, the the, the question came out of how do you, how do you mi mitigate the risk of. Of that one person having so many connections and obviously growth is the way to do it. Um, part of that growth journey, does it involve international locations as well, or is London going to be the app and.

David:  Interesting. So look, we, we, we do a lot of international search from, from London, either executing the searches from here or out to meet.

We, we, we are, um, open-minded as to whether we have boots on the ground in one or two distinct locations. They would probably be North America, east Coast, US first, and then maybe Asia. But interestingly, our, our, our London headquarters is not stopping us doing a high level of international work. So, I, it would be circumstantial as opposed to a definitively, you know, committed strategy.

Dualta: Okay. Well look, that's gonna be us today. Um, I'm gonna ask you one, one more question, but I want to thank you for your transparency in this pleasure  

David: and.  

Dualta: I've tried to do this before with executive search and I couldn't get under the, the skin, and I've had a couple interviews I couldn't even publish, and I, I really wanted to thank you for that.

Um, what do you still, what gets you up in the morning? Why do you still love this? Why, why should someone who's listening to this want to get into executive search?  

David: So look, I fell into this game as I said to you, you know, nearly 30 years ago. A and it gives me the same pleasure now as it did then. So it's a, it, it's a highly energizing, interesting, challenging, varied job.

And I work for and with really talented people, my colleagues, my clients, the people that we headhunt in our searches. Every day. Every day is different. Every month is different. Every quarter is different. And I guess for us, because we're now on a whole new chapter of, of growth and expansion and, and, and we are pushing, you know, we're pushing to keep building this firm as managing partner, I'm right.

That kind of sits in part on my shoulders. So it's very motivating and it's exciting cause there is a real opportunity for us to. Be even more successful than we've been and be bigger and better and better known and have more great people working here. So, yeah, you know, we, we we're on a journey and it's, it's great fun.

Thanks very much, David. Well thank you. Take care.

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