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We talk to Philip Darling, Halsey Keetch’s newly appointed Head of Relationship Management, about the changing landscape in our industry, and the ways in which we can support our clients in navigating the opportunities and challenges of the coming months.

H/K: Philip, it is great to have you involved again with our long-established business and exciting to have you with us as we collectively lay plans for how to best serve our clients and to grow over the coming years. For the benefit of our readers, would you give us a quick summary of your career to date and how you have come to join us this summer as our new Head of Relationship Management?

PW: Thank you, Alex. I am particularly excited to be here because the firm’s founder, Nigel Halsey, gave me my first job in asset management executive search in 1998. I spent five years at the firm, then known as Halsey Consulting, before joining the world’s largest executive search firm, Korn/Ferry, in 2003, again to focus on asset management, albeit with a focus from that point onwards on the front office functions – portfolio management, research, distribution and business leadership. Since then, I have worked in or led the asset management practices at several leading boutiques, both UK- and US-based, which has given me a lot of useful experience of international search work across various facets of the investment industry. In that time, the global economy has evolved considerably, which has made for a fascinating backdrop.

In my previous role, which I held until earlier this year, I was Head of Partnerships at an innovative and disruptive search firm with a focus on the buy-side, and I was tasked with growing the firm’s client base across all disciplines. Now that I am back in the fold at Halsey Keetch, I plan to continue building on my years of executive search experience by playing a commercial role within this business and also advising select clients on hiring in the front office within portfolio management, capital raising, ESG and fiduciary management.

For us, it’s a pleasure to be able to welcome you back to the firm and an interesting validation of those old sayings about the world being a small place and the importance of maintaining good relationships with your contacts over the long-term. What will your key objectives be during your first twelve months with the company?

Well, coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic, as we shall all hopefully do in the coming months, will put us all through our paces, but one of several reasons it is great to be back at Halsey Keetch is that the firm has one of the longest and most respected track records in governance, regulatory and controls search across asset management and financial services. This is highly complementary to my experience and this space remains incredibly busy and dynamic, with so many interesting conversations taking place across a wide range of pressing topics. Additionally, the modern, evolved executive search firm must have the ability to differentiate itself in a crowded market and Halsey Keetch can do that in several ways. Many of the firm’s relationships go back many years and my focus will be on helping the management team to maintain and broaden those further, whilst simultaneously adding clients with whom I have strong relationships.

I will also be taking Halsey Keetch’s expertise to pastures new and ensuring we deliver the firm’s full range of expertise and where appropriate my front office experience to clients, particularly within asset management. With regards to maintaining long-term relationships, I met today with a repeat client of eleven years’ standing who has recently started a successful non-executive career. Those relationships are invaluable and I am looking forward to catching up with lots of my contacts over coffee in the City or virtually over the coming months.

More broadly, what is most exciting to you about the industry landscape for search firms at this point?

We repeatedly hear from our clients the difference that having an external and sophisticated executive search firm makes to the hiring process and many of the processes both I and Halsey Keetch have run recently have done justice to those endorsements. The network, access, industry context and judgement that we bring to a search is still appreciated and valued and this has been a huge motivation for me personally. The feeling of successfully completing a thoughtful but decisively executed search process – genuinely solving a problem for a client, whilst creating a major career opportunity for an individual – is exhilarating.

In addition, we are increasingly being mandated to provide in-depth market intelligence on particular disciplines to help clients make important strategic decisions about the talent and structure of a particular business unit. Only this week, a senior individual within a client organisation disclosed he had never seen a search firm produce research of the quality or insight that we showed him. There is a genuine opportunity there for us to make a real difference to our clients’ strategic planning, facilitating continuous improvement that will bind us to clients over the long-term.

What challenges do you see lying ahead for our company over the next 12 to 18 months?

The challenges facing the UK economy and indeed the world in 2020 and beyond, due to Covid-19 and the after-effects of global lockdowns, are likely to be significant and are still to a large extent unknown. I think it’s likely that we will see caution on the part of clients when it comes to expanding corporate functions in an environment like this and a continuing slowdown in hiring across financial services in general, albeit with pockets of activity. We’ll need to demonstrate that we understand and respect the cost pressures under which our clients are operating and how ‘value-for-money’ is under considerable scrutiny. To give our clients comfort that we’re seeing things from their perspective, we will offer fee structures which reflect the environment whilst still recognising the calibre of our work.

All this being said, challenges can bring opportunities: we will keep moving forward and will endeavour to maintain a presence on our clients’ radars through networking, both virtually and increasingly in person, circumstances permitting, and publishing thought leadership pieces online via LinkedIn and our website. There is certainly a lot to talk about! Additionally, during uncertain times, I believe that clients will look to a highly experienced team with one of the longest track records in its field as the trustworthy and reliable partner of choice. Indeed, the continuity and resilience of Halsey Keetch through good times and crises of different kinds may give us experience and perspectives that less experienced firms will not have. There is no doubt, though; the events of this year have created an environment that is as ‘uncertain’ as any I have ever known. It’s a bit daunting for businesses of all kinds, but these are historic times and so in a way, it’s also quite exciting.

Beyond Covid-19, what else are our clients and their HR and talent acquisition teams across the financial services industry focused on at present?

Diversity is of course a major topic and the discussion has rightly taken leaps forward in recent months. Progressive-minded financial services businesses and their HR functions are justifiably laser-focused on this topic right now; search firms need to keep up and if they can successfully do so, will have a major role to play in improving things. I am new to the firm of course but I know Halsey Keetch is highly committed to making a positive contribution on this front. For example, I understand that one of our best clients has now adopted our post-search diversity client report as a standard requirement when hiring across all areas of its business, through us and other providers. I believe the report that triggered this response laid out some fairly stark findings in regard to the ethnic diversity in controls functions at leadership-level, so there is clearly work to be done here and we are well-positioned to have a say. This topic holds additional significance for Halsey Keetch in that it feeds into the broader discussion around ‘organisational resilience’, an evolution of the concept of operational resilience to encompass a broader range of factors, but which has up to now been more naturally the territory of risk management professionals. The blurring of the edges between these concepts is a very interesting and topical development in the field of corporate governance and we are following this closely.

Beyond this major topic, talent acquisition teams are increasingly being asked to fill roles themselves in order to save money on search fees, but may actively seek external support in doing so due to resourcing limitations or specialist knowledge gaps, particularly when it comes to hiring into mission-critical leadership roles. As mentioned above, our evolved model allows us to fill that gap in their hiring process with qualified, accurate and comprehensive research that fits into their process as required. I have done a lot of work on this in recent years and have seen quite significant demand for this intelligence – it is cost-effective to the extent that it is quite hard to turn down, especially given how impactful it can be, so we will be making this a focus over the coming months.

Thank you, Philip. We are looking forward to working with you through this challenging period, and beyond.