Executive Search Trends Report 2020

Invenias is pleased to share the opinions, insights, and concerns of 400 executive search professionals for the year ahead. What does 2020 look like for executive search professionals? Respondents are excited about the possibilities provided by technology, anxious about the economy, and (still) struggling with the talent shortage. Read on to discover how your peers feel about digital transformation, diversity and inclusion, candidate engagement, and more.


Industry Outlook


The executive search outlook for 2020 is a case of good news, bad news. While respondents expressed a general concern for the economy (half predict a recession in 2020), the outlook for executive search businesses, in particular, is largely optimistic.

How do you expect revenue to change in 2020?

Nearly a quarter of respondents expect revenue to rise 25 percent or more year-over-year. Just six percent expect business to slow down in the year ahead

  • 72%  expect revenue to increase
  • 23%  expect revenue to rise 25+%
  • 6%  expect revenue to decrease

Will agencies ramp up their investments in 2020? Roughly half of businesses plan to bolster their tech and operating budgets in 2020. Even if you aren’t planning to invest in the year ahead, your competitors might be. 

How do you expect revenue to change in 2020?

Nearly a quarter of respondents expect revenue to rise 25 percent or more year-over-year. Just six percent expect business to slow down in the year ahead.


  Operating Budget   27%
  Technology Investments   23%
  Reskilling Efforts   24%

Top Priorities


2020 is primed to be the year of the candidate (again), with respondents citing candidate acquisition as the top priority for 2020. Embracing digital transformation—the implementation of innovative technology into all areas of business—also emerged as a major priority (and challenge).

What are your top priorities for 2020? (Top 5)

Relationships will reign supreme in 2020, with candidates and clients dominating the top priorities. Digital transformation is an especially high priority for large firms and C-suite leaders. Tellingly, candidate acquisition is the top priority but candidate engagement (23 percent cite is a priority) did not crack the top five.


  Candidate acquisition   39%
  Client relationship management   39%
  Digital transformation   25%
  Employer branding   25%
  Expanding into new markets   24%

Top Challenges


What are the obstacles firms will face in 2020? Some challenges are a reflection of respondents’ top goals for the year ahead (embracing digital transformation), some are a continuation of years-long trends (the talent shortage), and some reflect concern about what the future holds (economic uncertainty). Read on for a deep dive of the many challenges firms anticipate for the year ahead.

What are your hiring challenges for 2020?

Beyond the perennial skills shortage, leaders grapple with how to get employers to increase candidate pay rates and how to mitigate attrition and turnover.

  • 77%  Talent shortages
  • 40%  Accelerating pay increases
  • 29%  Rise of non-traditional labor markets
What are your top operational challenges for 2020?

Pricing pressure and margin compression are always big challenges, but respondents say the top operational challenge they’ll face is how to embrace digital transformation to improve operations.

  • 58%  Embracing digital transformation
  • 39%  Pricing pressure/margin compression
  • 29%  Competition due to globalization
What are your top macroeconomic and political challenges for 2020?

Respondents were far more likely to cite economic uncertainty as a challenge for 2020 than they were for 2019 (64 percent to 49 percent). Respondents from all regions and all sizes cited it at their top macroeconomic challenge for the year.

  • 73%  Economic uncertainty
  • 40%  Data protection regulations
  • 34%  Unemployment rates
What are your top overall challenges for 2020?

Finally, respondents were asked to cite their top challenges overall. From a pool of 25 choices, nearly half cited the talent shortage as a top-three challenge for 2020.

  • 48%  Skills Shortage
  • 30%  Economic uncertainty
  • 28%  Embracing digital transformation

For years, we’ve been hearing about talent shortages and how they’re a top challenge for the industry. It seems like there simply aren’t enough qualified people with the right skills to fill existing job openings. But just how troublesome are talent shortages? Are they getting any better or worse? 

Skills shortage woes continue

When asked if they think skills shortages are better or worse now compared to five years ago, nearly half (45 percent) said they’re getting worse. 


  Better   30%
  Worse   45%
  Not sure   45%

Executive search is rife with challenges, but what’s the single biggest issue impacting an agency’s ability to achieve its future growth goals? Overwhelmingly, responses centered on one thing: people. Respondents say finding quality candidates, working with the right clients, and hiring quality staff matter most in running a successful business. Increased competition also emerged as a recurring challenge.

What is the single biggest issue impacting your ability to meet goals?
“Validating talent for clients and getting placed individuals to consider staying for longer periods of time rather than job hopping."

- survey respondent

“Not enough clients. period."

- survey respondent

“Economic uncertainty impacting clients decision making."

- survey respondent

“There's a shortage in diverse candidates. They tend to be too junior for senior/top roles."

- survey respondent

Opportunities or Obstacles?


Digital transformation. The globalization of business. The increased mobility of talent. Online talent platforms. Disruptive forces are impacting the industry, but are they for better or for worse? Opportunity is everywhere, according to respondents.

Digital Transformation

Historically, the executive search industry hasn’t always been known for embracing technology, but that no longer appears to be the case. How do respondents feel about digital transformation—the integration of innovative technology into all areas of the business for the purposes of improving operations and delivering more value to clients and candidates? The results are clear: the digital transformation of the industry is both a positive development and an essential one.

Will digital transformation help or hurt your business?

Relationships will reign supreme in 2020, with candidates and clients dominating the top priorities. Digital transformation is an especially high priority for large firms and C-suite leaders. Tellingly, candidate acquisition is the top priority but candidate engagement (23 percent cite is a priority) did not crack the top five.


  It could help my business   85%
  It could hurt my business   3%
Executive search businesses must embrace digital transformation to remain competitive

The digital transformation of the industry isn’t just an opportunity for businesses; firms that fail to leverage the power of process automation risk falling behind the competition.


  Agree   86%
  Disagree   6%


Thanks to the globalization of business and advancements in technology, workers are more mobile than ever. Is this increased globalization a good thing or does it just create more hurdles?

Does globalization pose a challenge or an opportunity?

Most respondents say globalization and the increased mobility of talent is an opportunity for their business. Perhaps unsurprisingly, C-suite executives and respondents at enterprise companies are the most bullish on globalization.


  Opportunity   71%
  Challenge   16%


United or Divided?


How do executive search professionals feel about some of the most divisive hot topics in the industry? They’re all for AI, reskilling, and candidate pay increases.


Do you agree or disagree with the following topics?

Are we headed for a recession in 2020? Respondents seem to indicate that it is at least a major possibility. That said, respondents are still largely proactive about opportunities for success like AI and reskilling.


  Agree   Disagree
  The economy will face a recession in 2020.   50%   30%
  Reskilling candidates is an effective way to address the talent shortage.   75%   9%
  There is an opportunity divide between affluent talent and less privileged talent.   61%   15%
  AI will have a positive impact on candidate and customer engagement.   56%   18%
  Demand for new labor models (e.g. freelance/gig, SOW) will increase.   67%   11%
  Employers must accelerate pay increases in order to compete for qualified candidates.   73%   15%

Diversity and Inclusion


The executive search industry is uniquely positioned to contribute to the conversation on diversity and inclusion in the workforce. Executive search professionals face questions surrounding D&I internally in their own businesses and through the needs of their candidates and clients. This year, we asked our respondents a variety of questions about representation and inclusion within the industry as well as the D&I demands of their client base.

Are diverse organizations more effective than others?

Two-thirds of respondents believe diverse organizations are more effective, representing a six percent uptick from last year. Women (72 percent) were more likely than men (60 percent) to answer affirmatively.


  Yes   67%
  No   12%

Diversity in the Talent Pool

What about candidate diversity? Are clients requesting diverse candidates and is there a shortage of diverse candidates in the talent pool? Here’s what respondents have to say.

Do your clients require diverse shortlists?

The majority of executive search professionals have at least some clients that require diverse shortlists of candidates. Respondents specializing in IT candidates were the most likely to report a request for diverse shortlists and the most likely to report a shortage of diverse candidates.


  Yes, the majority   18%
  Yes, some   54%
  No   28%
Is there a diversity shortage in the talent pools from which you find candidates for your clients?

Most respondents say there’s a shortage of diverse candidates in the talent pool. Respondents at large companies were the most likely to claim a shortage of diverse candidates (59 percent).


  Yes   60%
  No   31%

Executive Search Technology Adoption


Technology is a substantial investment, but the majority of businesses express adoption woes. While many of the obstacles that prevent adoption are internal (lack of time and high turnover), the most common explanation falls on the vendor: limited training. Look for a provider with robust learning resources to ensure you get the most out of your investment.

How would you evaluate your team's adoption of your technology?

Only 14 percent have adoption figured out and a fifth are barely using their technology at all (little or no adoption).


  Full adoption   14%
  Strong   38%
  Some   26%
  Little   15%
  No adoption   8%
What is the top obstacle preventing internal adoption of your technology?

Why aren’t businesses making better use of their technology? It depends on who you ask; respondents supplied a variety of reasons that stand in the way of adoption. Interestingly, leaders and practitioners provided very different reasons for poor adoptions. CEOs cited a lack of time as the top reason (25 percent) while end-users pointed to limited training resources (24 percent).


  Limited training resources   22%
  Staff turnover   16%
  Team doesn't see the value   21%
  No time   17%
  Cost of training   12%
  Too hard to use   14%

Is your executive search firm facing any of these challenges?
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