When Stephen McAlinden stepped up in January to become regional leader for executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, he was adamant about one thing.
Besides assuming overall responsibility for 14 offices and around 330 staff, he was keen to carry on with his search practice, with a focus on clients in the corporate and investment banking sectors.
Doing so made obvious sense from two perspectives. It was a way of staying in touch with the market, and it would allow him to continue something he had consistently enjoyed over the past 25 years.
“You have to organise your day very carefully to fit it all in,” says McAlinden, who was previously partner in charge of the Hong Kong office and admits that executive search is a career he stumbled into. “I start early and finish late, but I’m not managing colleagues in the old-fashioned sense. I help them with resourcing and global connectivity, so we can grow our revenue base and offer CEOs and boards other capabilities like leadership consulting and team assessment.”
Technology, he notes, is having an impact on the business, making it easier to locate individuals, but also introducing new tools and requirements which add complexity to the cross-border recruitment process.
“We use analytics, psychometric tests – and experience – to assess people’s adaptability, their ‘runway’ into the business, and how much further they can go,” he says. “The best placements go on to make a big difference to their new organisation. For us, that leads to repeat business from a global client which, as an adviser, is the perfect place to be.”
McAlinden started out in the Kilburn district of London, where his father worked in the construction business and his mother as a shop assistant, after moving from County Down in Northern Ireland in the mid-1960s.
With an interest in the history of the Greek and Roman world, he opted for a three-year BA in classical studies at Newcastle University, graduating in 1986 with one main ambition – to go backpacking around Europe and experience the sights and sounds he’d been reading about.
“I was a very average student and had no real career plans,” he says, recalling how he scraped together the necessary funds by cleaning tables in McDonald’s, doing shifts at the public library, and digging trenches for cable TV installation. “The whole point was to go travelling and find out what I wanted to do. I did that for three months until the money ran out.”
On returning, he saw a newspaper ad for a research role with Stephens & Associates, one of the first executive search firms in London to concentrate on financial services, and never looked back.
“It was luck and serendipity, and things pretty much fell into place from the first day,” he says. “In a very junior capacity, I was asked to work on aspects of an investment banking brief and to sit in on meetings with candidates. It was obvious which people they were going to choose, but I was excited to see how hiring the right executive could have an impact on the business and that it was crucial to success.”
The firm offered good training and opportunities, including in 1993 the chance to transfer to the small four-person office in Hong Kong and learn the ropes in Asia. McAlinden soon mastered the basics – making the tea and running off photocopies – and was ready to pitch in wherever necessary.
“That now makes me a better leader because I’ve done every aspect of the job and have an appreciation of what research and support staff do,” he says. “I was relearning from scratch in a new market and with a new set of clients. We were placing people in Hong Kong who were China specialists, and it was all very exciting.”
The first essential, he notes, was to find out “what success looks like” for companies in different sectors. And, in doing that, it was useful to be humble and a very good listener. At times, it also made sense to follow your instincts, and with new entrants set to shake up the financial services industry, McAlinden did just that. In the mid-90s, he linked up with one colleague to set up Eban International with the aim of building a truly regional business, and the gamble paid off.
“It was the perfect time to make that leap,” he says. “Hong Kong was going from UK-centric to being much more international, so there was growing demand for senior executives from Europe and the US.
A similar logic inspired the subsequent move to Heidrick & Struggles in 2009. By then, markets in Asia had further evolved and investment was flowing in from around the world. Seeing that, McAlinden wanted to work for a company with access to senior-level contacts in corporate head offices, which has proved to be the case.
“I like being in a large, global organisation,” he says. “The footprint we have is pretty mature, but we are always looking at new market opportunities and adjusting to client needs.”
For instance, one current priority is to develop more synergy between offices in Latin America and Asia. Another is to offer clients ongoing assessment and training for the first 100 days or six months after a placement. A third is to stage special events for invited audiences around Asia, such as scenes from Shakespeare performed by professional actors.
“CEOs love it and gain a lot,” McAlinden says. “They learn that Shakespeare is timeless and realise certain management types are timeless too.”
Away from work, McAlinden keeps in shape by training for occasional 10K events at venues like Angkor Wat. He also has an almost obsessive interest in Byzantine history, collecting books and visiting sites in Istanbul and Italy.
“It’s an endlessly involved subject,” he says. “I’m not an expert, just a student.”
(Photo: Chung Wong)