AltoPartners – The Biggest Global Executive Search Partnership You’ve Never Heard Of

March 10, 2021 Share this article:

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It’s the classic outsourcing dilemma: do you go big and hope that your account is important enough to get the high-level attention it deserves, or do you choose a smaller, less-high profile outfit and risk it blowing up in your face if it all goes wrong?

In the high-stakes world of executive search, getting it wrong can have massive repercussions for organisations, employees and shareholders. Little wonder then that with so much riding on the outcome, the pressure on boards and nomination committees tasked with filling key roles can be crippling.

“We understand the pressure our clients are under,” says Sonal Agrawal, global chair of AltoPartners, a leading international partnership of retained executive search and leadership consulting firms. “If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the value of having leaders who can guide their companies and teams through uncertain and volatile times. My advice to anyone looking to retain an executive search company would be to find a partner who invests time in understanding the unique business and cultural context of a search and helps navigate the leadership landscape to find the candidate that fits it best.”

It’s a formula that AltoPartners has applied successfully over the last decade and a half to growing its own leadership footprint. From modest beginnings at the turn of the millennium, the alliance is now one of the largest executive search partnerships of its kind, with over 26 languages spoken in some 63 offices across 36 countries spanning the Americas, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific.

Collective insight, individual control

“We are not the only alliance of executive search partners out there, but we are one of the few who place more emphasis on the entrepreneurial spirit of individual members than the collective brand. For this reason, AltoPartners might be the biggest executive search partnership you’ve never heard of,” says Sonal.

She explains: “Many other alliances insist that their global brand take precedence, but we welcome partners who want to retain their strong local brand and DNA. We value the authenticity and entrepreneurial drive that is the hallmark of successful executive search outfits. I believe that it is precisely because we are co-branded that we are able to attract much stronger partners in key markets, such as the Diversified Search Group / AltoPartners USA, which is routinely named by Forbes among the top five executive search companies in the US; as well as prestigious independent or boutique firms like The Inzito Partnership / AltoPartners UK, Novare / AltoPartners Sweden, Sheffield / AltoPartners New Zealand, Seeliger y Conde / AltoPartners Spain and the Accord Group in Eastern Europe and India, to name just a few.”

In some countries, the partners have made a strategic go-to-market decision to unify under the AltoPartners banner. This works especially well in markets where the international scope and breadth of the partnership is important to the local client community and where there is a high degree of collaboration between the partners. This was, however, a strategic decision controlled by the respective firms and not imposed on them.

Ultimately, all our alliance partners are carefully selected against several criteria, including shared values and a proven track record based on the ratio of repeat business, which can be as high as 90% in some cases.

“AltoPartners provides the platform for us to leverage off each other’s shared knowledge, experience, networks and databases. This way, our clients get all the benefits of local insights and the best on-the-ground expertise with full access to global talent through local search partners without being bogged down by global off-limits.”

Off-limits is an industry term referring to search restrictions often imposed by multi-national clients to prevent international search companies from approaching their top talent in other territories. As independent companies, none of the partner firms is bound by international off-limits, which means that they can propose a broader pool of candidates to their clients.

Real people in real offices

Having independent companies in many territories also means that clients are assured of a robust local presence, says Marco Arcaini, who heads up AltoPartners Germany’s Wiesbaden office: “It is not uncommon in large executive search companies to find one consultant covering several geographical territories. By contrast, in terms of actual reach and in-country presence, AltoPartners ranks among the Top 10 globally and has the fourth-largest number of offices worldwide.”

Local knowledge, global reach

Many partner firms have operated in their respective areas for several decades and have an intimate knowledge of the political, social and economic landscape. This is especially true in multi-cultural environments. Says Joo-Lee Aw of The People At Work / AltoPartners Singapore & Shanghai, who has served Shanghai and South East Asia for the past 20 years: “Asia is such a diverse place, and many clients - especially those entering Asia for the first time - rely on us to help them make sense of the sheer diversity within the region.”


Other advantages for clients include greater flexibility in terms of search methodology and approach. Clients enjoy personalised service from highly qualified and experienced senior partners, who - in many cases - have stepped out of the large global recruitment firms, bringing with them all the process rigour and network expertise without any of the bureaucracy, sales targets, analyst scrutiny (in the case of listed companies) or overheads.

Corinne Klajda, who heads up Accord Poland / AltoPartners Poland, sums it up: “The beauty of an owner-led executive search firm is that we are personally invested in our client’s success. We have served the Polish market for over 26 years, and we pride ourselves on our high business repeat ratio. Our consultants have expertise and experience in various industries, and we know our clients, their requirements, culture and organisations. This allows us to take an individual approach to every single client and every single candidate. And to do it quickly, ethically and transparently.”

It’s this passion for finding the perfect fit every time that sets Altonians apart, says Albert Froom, the founding Chairman of AltoPartners and MD of Leaders Trust, the Netherlands, who has been serving the Benelux region for over three decades. “Our clients value our flexibility and creativity when it comes to identifying candidates and the extreme care with which we approach each assignment. It’s imperative that we get it right because ultimately, we measure our success on the re-buy factor of clients and our referrals are largely word of mouth. If a candidate proves unsuitable or leaves before their tenure is up, it impacts our bottom line.”

Johan Stierncreutz of Fairchild Executive Search / AltoPartners Finland agrees. He ascribes his almost 100% success rate to “deep local market insight and easy access to international alliance partners. That and the fact that we never, ever give up,” he laughs.

High-touch, high-impact

It’s an approach that requires commitment and energy to both the client and the candidate – ensuring that the process runs smoothly and that the candidate experience reflects well on the client’s brand. Says Mpho Nkeli of Johannesburg-based Search Partners International (SPi) / AltoPartners South Africa: “Our customer-centricity and the way we keep the client connected to each step of the search process is a source of pride. If clients or candidates have to ask me for an update, I consider it a fail. My goal is to wow the client and the candidate at every touchpoint. We know it works because of the high level of repeat business. I especially love it when candidates go on to became clients.”

Cynthia Heckscher, Managing Director, Healthcare Services Practice for the Diversified Search Group / AltoPartners USA, says the secret to repeat business is ‘an embarrassingly simple’ proposition: honesty, integrity, and candour: “The verb ‘sell’ isn’t in my vocabulary, and the verb ‘deliver’ is how I evaluate performance. With awesome, long-term clients — some going back 20-plus years — I view clients as partners throughout the search process, from the beginning to the conclusion and beyond.”

The ability to turn candidates into clients is another clear sign that you’re doing it right. Katie Brunt of Hong Kong-based Fowler Fox & Co / AltoPartners Hong Kong, who has spent 13 years building up a network in the private banking sector, concurs: “We’ve developed a reputation for being the go-to team for difficult-to-fill roles. We also have a strong background of working with niche clients with smaller market visibility and successfully attracting big market names to join them.”

Industry agnostic, subject-matter experts

While the partnership is non-industry specific, it houses an extraordinary range of experience and expertise across multiple sectors, industries and fields, that all clients can tap into to find their next great leader.

Gerard Cattie, Leader, Development & Philanthropy Practice at Diversified Search Group’s New York office, says it is this philosophy of accommodating specialised practices within a generalist firm that sets the partnership apart: “Clients value our highly specialised expertise and impact on their organisations in ways that extend well beyond recruitment of a senior fundraising leader. Although we are not fundraising consultants, our collaboration with - and intimate knowledge of - hundreds of fundraising enterprises enables us to add value for clients in areas from organisational design to optimising the deployment of frontline fundraisers and back-office/operational support staff. Our broad networks with direct or indirect connectivity to virtually all leaders in the field is a powerful recipe for success.”

Walking the talk on diversity and inclusion

AltoPartners’ reputation as strategic advisors in the search for diverse and inclusive talent is a point of enormous pride for the partnership.

Says Sonal, “We actively live it, embrace it and drive it forward in each and every search. As a truly global alliance, we understand that diversity means focusing not only on gender and race but all underrepresented constituents. We try to ensure that all our candidate sales represent a diverse list of candidates to meet each country’s governance and compliance requirements as well as the organisation’s particular needs.”

As proud signatories of the AESC Diversity Pledge, the focus on diversity and inclusion has always been a key priority area for AltoPartners. Women head up almost 40% of partner firms, and of the 589 people working across the alliance, more than 380 are women.

Says Sonal: “We are fortunate enough to be able to take our lead from experienced partners in this field, such as Diversified Search, which is the world’s largest woman-founded executive search firm.”

Judith von Seldeneck established the Diversified Search Group in 1974 for the very purpose of opening up opportunities in leadership for underrepresented communities, and it remains the gold standard in the executive search field when it comes to identifying, recruiting, and placing diverse talent in the USA. The group’s dominance in this area has recently been boosted by the acquisition of two specialist search companies in the mission-led leadership space, namely Koya Partners and Storbeck Search. Both work with non-profits, NGOs, institutions of higher education, responsible businesses and social enterprises in local communities and around the world.

Beyond the USA, the partnership boasts several specialised business units committed to making the world a more equitable place. Leader’s Trust the Netherlands is an enabler of an innovative Dutch labour market initiative to transition newly arrived immigrants into local companies, while Novare in Sweden has dedicated business units to help migrants and people with disabilities find employment. In Spain, Seeliger y Conde created a specialist consultancy unit in 2011 to advise companies on diversity issues, including diversity management programmes and good practices. In Mexico, where women make up less than 37% of the total labour force, Ezentia Group / AltoPartners Mexico co-chairs the region’s 50/50 Women on Boards. At the same time, Accord India / AltoPartners India was instrumental in conceptualising the annual ET Prime Women Leadership Awards, which it continues to run.

Adds Sonal: “As search consultants, we have an important role to play. We find the people who make organisations effective. We champion leaders and help create successful companies. And we change people’s professional lives. We truly make a difference, and what we do matters. This is ultimately what drives us all to do what we do.”