While the executive search market opened back up in Q3, the lion’s share of that growth was swallowed up by a small subset of executive recruiting teams.

Take opened roles as an example: Overall, opened searches grew 30% quarter-over-quarter (QoQ). A great sign, for sure. But dig in, and the picture isn’t as rosy—unless you’re a top-performer. 

In Thrive’s Executive Search Quarterly Report for Q3, we found that the top 13% of executive search teams in our dataset saw opened searches increase 78% QoQ, while the rest were flat (they grew just 3% over the same timeframe).

But it wasn’t just opened roles. 

We saw this bifurcation within the market play out in completed searches, too, suggesting that the recovery from COVID-19 is an opportunity for some teams to gain market share.

So, what makes these top performers special? 

It wasn’t size, industry or functional role focus. While some firms in our dataset were heavily indexed in industries that either rode a wave of growth (like technology) or continued to fall off a cliff (travel/hospitality), our top-performing executive recruiting teams consisted of both small and large companies, and had industry and role prioritizations that mirrored those of others in the dataset.

In other words, these firms were well diversified, and mirrored the dynamics of the whole industry. They also were active participants in the market: Our analysis excluded firms who handled less than 10 searches within the quarter.

The difference, though, was their use of technology to collaborate and track activities.

Q3 Market Data

Before diving into top performers, though, it’s worth grounding the discussion in what happened during Q3. (For a full breakdown of the executive search market’s rebound, check out Thrive’s latest Executive Search Quarterly Report.)

Aided by a leveling off on opened search volume and a beginning of quarter bump to completed searches, the executive search market performed much in the way it did before the COVID-19 crisis. 

In fact, this trend seemed to apply to functions, as well: In Q2 2020, only two of the 13 functions we track in our executive search dashboard saw YoY growth in opened and completed searches.

In Q3, however, that figure grew significantly: six functions saw YoY growth in opened searches in Q3 and five saw YoY growth in completed searches.

In Q2, it was clear how broad the impact of COVID-19 was by looking at a table that showed how each industry was impacted by opened and completed searches. Of the nine industries we track in our benchmarks, six saw YoY declines in both opened and completed searches

In Q3, however, that number declined by 30%, with four industries still experiencing declines in both opened and completed searches. The silver lining, though? Two of the hardest-hit industries—telecommunications and travel/hospitality—did see QoQ improvements in opens, compared to Q2.

For executive search teams with an already diverse industry/function practice, understanding this data and using it to accelerate out of an uncertain present turned out to be a highly valuable advantage.

The Data Literacy Advantage

In a Thrive survey of executive search leaders conducted in October 2020, more than 40% said they analyze search data less than once a quarter.

While frequent in some sense, that type of data analysis leaves little ability to pivot when the market is changing quickly. And that’s exactly what we saw during the second half of Q2 and the first half of Q3.

For top-performing executive search teams, the story was far different. We analyzed their use of Thrive, compared to low-performers, and found they’re significantly more active in tracking analytics, collaborating with clients, and reaching out to candidates.

Using data to drive real-time decision making—when used with other best practices—appear to have allowed top-performing executive search teams to win additional market share during the market’s recovery from COVID-19, putting them in a position to grow their businesses for the long run.

Top Performers: Opened Searches

On the opened search front, for instance, Q3’s top-performing teams appear to have been harder hit by the pandemic in Q2. The difference? They accelerated out of the down market faster.

In Q2, these firms saw a 31% YoY decline in opened search volume, while the majority declined 17% YoY. 

Top performers were able to put that quarter behind them quickly, however, growing their opened searches by 78% QoQ. Comparatively, the remaining teams grew their opened search counts by 3%.

Top Performers: Completed Searches

On the completed search front, meanwhile, top-performing teams didn’t perform as poorly in Q2, but they did look a lot more like the majority. Top-performing teams saw a 17% decline in completed search volume in Q2, while the majority saw a 37% decline.

Similarly, these top-performers beat their peers handily in recovering from Q2, with completed searches increasing 21% QoQ versus a more modest 4% growth rate for the majority of executive recruiting teams.

And while it’s hard to argue with the quantitative data, we also saw a similar sentiment borne out in our survey of executive search leaders: Those who analyze data less frequently have more pessimistic outlooks on their recoveries.

In fact, 50% of survey respondents who either don’t analyze data or do less than monthly said they’re planning to decrease budgets; while 60% of respondents who reported they analyze data at least monthly said they’re planning to increase budgets.

“Many executive search teams got ahead of the curve and didn’t try to deny the reality of the situation. They retained key employees, kept an eye on critical KPI’s, and stayed close to their clients and candidates,” said Ken Vancini, Thrive’s Director of Industry Solutions. “As a result, these firms are stronger and positioned well for future growth.”

While it’s clear some executive search teams are doing a better job responding to a shifting market, their adjustments aren’t novel. In fact, we hear industry leaders talk about these as foundational elements: monitor for opportunities, spend more time there, collaborate with clients, work efficiently.

According to our results, though, having a closer pulse on this data is what’s separating high-performing teams from the rest of the pack right now.

For Thrive’s full analysis, download the latest Executive Search Quarterly Report for Q3 2020.