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Key learnings on international executive search

Victor Carulla

Interview Tim Smith, IESF’ new Advisory Board member as of April 2021

Tim Smith, founder of the ASLON Group Executive Search in the US, has over more than 37 years of experience in executive search and has been a member of the International Executive Search Federation – IESF – for more than 15 years. This April the International Executive Search Federation – IESF – introduced their Advisory Board. Aim is that this body will not only enhance the international network reputation and credibility but will also provide the President and current members of the Leadership Council with information, lessons learned, insights and ideas. Tim Smith – one of the longest (former) partners of IESF, is appointed as first board member. In this interview Tim shares his ‘Key learnings on International Executive Search and partnerships over the years’ with us.

What are your biggest learnings in 20 years of Executive Search?

“I still think my biggest learnings came from the biggest failures. Looking back, we thought we were in control most of the time but you know most of our success just worked out providentially. My biggest learning came from the failed or highly challenged projects. More than once we had trouble delivering the right people at the right time for some of my best clients and that stings. But over time when we focused on taking care of my client no matter the cost (if there was extra service needed, we were on it, rarely did we compromise our fee standards) we were able to build relational capital by going the extra mile that enabled us to retain customers even when we weren’t perfect. Now this required saying no to search work at times so that we could afford to smother our clients with service. For example, twice we chose not to issue final invoices on searches that were not completed but the client insisted on paying our full fees anyhow because of the work we had done even though the desired results were not achieved. Another learning was that it paid to be honest in all things no matter what the cost. If you mess up – you fess up with your clients, candidates and especially your co-workers. If you are honest in the small things you will be honest in the big things, if you are crook in the small things you will be a crook in the big things. It is a big challenge and very difficult, but we did our best to keep our promises and do the things we said we would do and when that did not work, we would own up to it.”

In 2006 you joined IESF. With almost 15 year membership of IESF (one of) the longest partnerships. What does this partnership mean to you?

“Yes we launched ASLON in 2002, the same year that IESF was founded and joined up a few years later. Dror Katabi from Israel and Vivek Ahuja from India answered that question well when you spoke with them recently about their IESF partnership. They emphasized the importance of having deep relationships with international colleagues. That certainly gives your domestic search practice a big shot in the arm. It opened the door for me to speak to the international search world. To have competent search professionals in their home country as partners on a search project gave you instant credibility with current and prospective clients who had a global presence. Learning to be an international search firm was quite exciting as we began to trust our global partners to execute on our client’s projects. It was amazing as my partners in the developing countries proved quite valuable early on as they built deep relationships with the local leaders just as we would and hosted and serviced these hiring managers in a first-class fashion. Partners treated my clients the same way I would threat them here. It enhanced to a whole new level.”

Do you think this network developed itself? What do you see are the biggest strengths? Or unique aspects?

“No, I saw the hard work and intentionality of many of the partners who wanted to have an international presence. A strength and unique defining characteristic is their trust and support of one another in the network. A lot of things did happen organically. Partners desired an international present. They committed to building relationships with partners and clients that are really deep.

IESF is more personalized than other networks and as a result the deeper relationships form a bond of trust that is prevalent across the partner affiliates. Overseas partners are able to share assignments. It’s not as specialized as America is. Most other countries are willing to do search work in more industries. The personalization of IESF is unique. Other international networks are much more corporate. IESF is more friendship oriented. That’s wat retained me over all that years.

A good illustration, I recently observed was a partner recently requested advice from others in the network on WhatsApp. It was a covid related guarantee question and partners responded quickly with wisdom even though it was a new phenomenon for everyone. Recommendations were made that were compassionate and encouraging. These are opportunities to build great relational capital when we sacrifice some on the cost involved and focus on the people.”

Can you mention goals or ambitions you managed to achieve in the time you were partner of IESF?


“Absolutely, although I had no idea what an international boutique search firm in America looked like, looking back, I think we became one with the help of colleagues across the world.

Another goal after reading the classic book the “The World is Flat” in 2005, I set a goal to do international search projects and gain a global business perspective for my clients and candidates. This gave ASLON a market differentiator that opened doors and by increasing our gravitas we were able to compete with larger firms.

The bonus received and hopefully given some was a cultural awakening to the peoples of other nations. I traveled to different places and met clients overseas. And that learned me to look at things with broader perspectives. This quality also helped me in board search assignments, where diversity and having a broad perspective is really important. Aslon became integrated as a global search firm.”

What advice would you give to any new entrepreneurs in the world of Executive Search? Or any new partners of IESF?

“Some of our core values that we leaned on and they paid off with stronger business relationships were:

  1. Do what you say you will do
  2. Remain debt free and meet your obligations quickly
  3. Avoid or resolve conflicts of interest without litigation
  4. Surround yourself with wise counselors such as an advisory board

You have to be adaptable, flexible and respond to today’s changes. Some things don’t change: people should establish and stay true to their core values, a mission, a vision. Surround yourself with wise counselors.”

The executive search industry has experienced dramatic development as a result of technology over the last decades. What do you think the future of Executive Search will look like?


“Technology will continue to commoditize the transactional aspects of our services like research and recruiting. We would call it find, grind and mind a search project. So the mind part of our work which is knowledgeable oversight and consultative guiding of a project will grow more valuable.

There will be an increasing demand from our clients for greater returns on their investment. This will go beyond our identifying and assessing candidates for them to hire to a value that is measured on the placed candidate’s success. This will be very hard to measure because of all the variables and even harder to tie that to our fees. The technology will allow for greater measurement of metrics for success, longevity and accomplishments that will dictate higher quality placements, more value to our clients and opportunities for us to make more fees on our good placements.

Are there any developments in your local USA markets of which other partners of IESF (worldwide) could learn from? Can you mention a few?


“Yes, I think there are some global developments we have to be aware of. First of all, the continuing demand for higher quality people with more robust slates. Also, in house recruiting becoming more challenging to compete with at larger companies. Off course, the use of social media for recruiting purposes is a given fact. I also think verticalization will still rule the day, so we will keep seeing more focused executive search firms per industry. And off course the need for diversity and culture awareness in the group of finalists.”

What advice would you give to the (new) President of IESF or any member of the Leadership Council?

“Character is what will make or break any organization of network. As an organization we have learned from the past, so good, transparent communication and focus on people and relationships as has been the norm. IESF will continue to build trust with colleagues across the world.”

About the author

Victor Carulla


Victor has a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) from the European University of Barcelona (Spain), a Master of Business Administration from the European University of Montreux (Switzerland). He completed the Advanced Management Program (AMP) from ESADE and Wharton University and is fluent in Spanish, Catalan and English, with basic French.

Victor launched his career as a Financial Corporate Controller at one of Spain’s biggest insurance companies. He transitioned to the recruitment industry, a few years later, actively participating in the launch of leading Barcelona business. He soon became Sales Director of a company, establishing all new parameters in the commercial and operational area and meeting established objectives.

Over the past 10 years, Victor has been involved in the Executive Search business while based in Barcelona and working throughout Spain & Portugal, specializing in Senior Management. His outstanding track record speaks for itself.

Victor Carulla is the Managing Partner (founding partner) of Headway Executive Search.

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