Global Leaders Series – John Ellis


John Ellis

CEO, Savannah Group  




Adapt to survive in executive search

Technology has changed the game for executive search firms, making it imperative to find new ways of creating value for clients, says John Ellis, CEO of Savannah Group. “Digital has made it easier for executive search firms to identify potential candidates, which is undoubtedly a good thing,” he continues.

“However, with platforms such as LinkedIn providing readily available information on likely candidates, we’ve seen a disintermediation in the industry as clients go directly to the market. Many organisations have seen these digital platforms as an opportunity to ask if they still need executive search firms, or whether they can do more themselves in-house.”

Ellis certainly doesn’t pine for the pre-digital days when the industry relied on paper-based files and a consultant’s ‘black book’ of contacts, but believes it was easier to differentiate yourself. “In the 1990s when I started out in executive search and in 2002 when I set up in business with my partners Vicky Maxwell Davies and Cathy Holley, the nature of the business was about who you knew and who you had access to – whose number was in your black book.”

In fact, Ellis was a name in the headhunter’s black book of contacts when they suggested a career switch to executive search after more than a decade working in the technology industry. He continues: “In a sense, that’s how executive search firms are still supporting their clients, albeit with a digital approach to capturing, sharing and interpreting information. But with client organisations able to do much of this themselves, we need to go much further than simply identifying candidates. Indeed, that’s only a small part of what a good executive search consultant does.”


“With client organisations able to do much of this themselves, we need to go much further than simply identifying candidates. Indeed, that’s only a small part of what a good executive search consultant does.”

John Ellis, CEO


Selling the dream

According to Ellis, consultants must also be sales people. They sell the dream of that next executive position to candidates who technically might not be on the job market. He explains: “We have a huge number of senior people in our Invenias database who’re in executive positions all over the world. Many of them are comfortably settled in their jobs, with no plans to move on. But what if we’re conducting a search for a client and believe one of these executives is a perfect match for that job?

“The position might be with a company that’s less well known than the one in which the executive is currently working. Or it could be in a different industry altogether. This is where a good consultant adds value, both for the client and the potential candidate. It’s their job to convince the executive that this is the right career move. While networking platforms are great for showing you where people are working and their career history, they don’t build these personal relationships with candidates and that’s a core strength of good executive search firms today.”

He says that further value can be added through deep market expertise across multiple sectors. He believes this is another strength that differentiates external executive search firms from in-house teams. “An in-house solution can only really be generalist, even in the biggest companies,” he says. “Typically, with only two or three top-level executive search people at the most, an internal team’s candidate knowledge is concentrated on industries or functions within their own organisation’s area of operation. This limits their field of search.”

An integrated business

So, how does this differentiation work in practice? “Executive search firms have a far broader reach,” Ellis responds. “At Savannah, where we work as a wholly integrated business, a consultant working for a client in one sector will share candidate insight with colleagues working on engagements in other sectors. For example, a global technology client looking for a senior finance executive doesn’t necessarily need someone with technology industry knowledge, rather it’s about their experience in corporate finance. In this instance, we could have candidates in retail or financial services who might fit the bill.

“The same applies when it comes to the different types of search we undertake, both permanent and for interim positions. A candidate looking for a long-term executive position could be equally suitable for an interim post. With a centralised database, such as our Invenias platform, we’re able to match that suitability to a specific client need, rather than our searches being restricted to ‘this type or that type’ of position.”

This latter point links to a change in executive search that Ellis has observed in recent years. He says that clients want flexibility from their executive search partners. They want them to find both long-term and interim executives, and to be more flexible in the way these services are delivered and priced. He continues: “Our industry has been slow to evolve in this respect, with a three-phase billing process (at the start, mid-way and at the end) that has changed little.

“But now clients want something different. They want an executive search partner to use their deep market knowledge and carry out research as a separate entity, rather than as part of the end-to-end assignment. Then they might undertake the recruitment themselves and companies like ours need to work with their in-house teams, not against them.”

A global marketplace 

The talent pool with which Savannah works is increasingly global. “Our clients want the best talent, no matter where it resides. In the past, executive search firms have often handed off international assignments to a local partner, but I’m not convinced that this is the best approach for the client. Instead, I advocate a centralised model, with consultants using technology to capture and manage both client and candidate information themselves without the need to bring in a local provider.

“Our consultants will travel to support an overseas client and nurture the long-term relationships that are the essence of good executive research. In doing so, they know that they can access all the information they need from our central Invenias platform via their iPad or iPhone.

“This brings me back to my starting point of how technology has changed the game for our industry. We’re using digital to deliver a better service, no matter where a candidate or client is based. Crucially, our approach reflects the belief that those organisations unable, or unwilling, to adapt to new ways of working to meet client demands simply won’t survive.

“In today’s flexible work environment, our consultants can stay connected with the systems they need, whether they’re working from home, at the airport, or on a different continent. That’s the beauty of digital.”

John Ellis … on the spot

Describe your business style
We’re a client-first firm. We know there’s no such thing as a one-size fits all approach. Internally, we are adult, professional – and fun. Yes, we’re ambitious and work hard, but it’s also important that we create a fun place to work in.

What has been your toughest business decision?
We’ve built a family at Savannah and losing staff for whatever reason is painful.  Making a decision to let someone go is the is the worst part of my job, but I am the custodian of the whole team, so it’s something I have to do occasionally.

Where would you like to be in five- or ten-years’ time?
I’d like to keep developing the business. We’re already actively looking at succession plans to take it forward. Savannah has been like a baby that I’ve nurtured, so I’d love to retain a long-term role as well.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in executive search?
I’d have no problems filling my day. I am already chairman of a golf club and, as a cancer sufferer, I’d want to carry on supporting the various cancer initiatives and educating people in terms of prevention.

Tell us something surprising about yourself
I have 130 different gins – and am still adding to the collection.


Fast facts …

  • Born: 1961
  • Status: Married
  • School: Lancing College
  • University: City University
  • Home: West Sussex
  • Last holiday: Mauritius
  • Hobbies/relaxation: Golf and wine
  • Inspired by: Different people have inspired me in different aspects of my life. For example, in golf I cite Seve Ballesteros, who would ‘go for it’ and was a marvellous team player

John’s favourite …

  • Book: Dan Brown-type thrillers
  • Film: Feel good films like The Jungle Book and The Dambusters
  • Music: I am big on music and enjoy all genres, particularly 70s, classical and choral music
  • Gadget: My Sonos system (linked to my love of music)
  • Food: Thai especially, but I love most food


Visit Savannah Group’s website