David Sebastian Stein: Demand in high quality Executive Search and Leadership Consulting will increase significantly

Interview with David Sebastian Stein, Global Board Director at Signium // Managing Partner at Signium CEE - Stein & Partner.

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Amid the recovery efforts after the Covid-19 pandemic and the prospects of the war in Ukraine, we reviewed the Executive Search and Leadership Consulting market in Romania with David Sebastian Stein, Global Board Director at Signium and Managing Partner at Signium CEE – Stein & Partner.



Tell us, please, a little bit of the Signium Stein&Partner company, how long has it been operating in Romania, what services do you provide, etc

Signium – Stein & Partner is looking back to almost 30 years of experience in Romania and Central Eastern Europe, being established in 1994. We are a family company in its second generation, part of a global network of Executive Search and Leadership Advisory. Throughout the years, the firm has been one of the leading providers in Executive Search, Board Advisory and Leadership Consulting, as we help clients across industries form and develop leadership teams, according to their unique contexts and plans. Our ambition has always been for both our clients and candidates to have a positive experience in working with us.


How has the HR, Executive Search and Leadership Services market evolved in Romania since the beginnings till nowadays?

Historically, the Executive Search industry has been focused prominently on identifying and reaching the special talent, while today, also given the technology development, the industry has shifted towards a more complex contribution, namely an advisory role. This implies that our jobs do not limit to recruiting, searching for candidates, and placing them. Other more strategic components have an increased importance: the market research, the information made available, and the analysis of which competencies the leadership teams should comprise and what the development gaps are.


What impact has the position in the Signium board at global level for the local market and how has it changed your activity of the Signium Stein & Partner?

Our responsibility in the global Board is significant to us and probably also to Romania. As more and more regional and global positions are being steered from Romania, it also means that the quality of the professional services industry is significantly increasing and that the competition is at a very healthy level. Our activity in the Board also gives us additional insights on how colleagues around the globe are conducting their business, what the latest trends are, and ultimately on how we can improve our services. Furthermore, Signium being a founding member of the AESC as well, we are also able to have a look at the entire sector and contribute to improving internationally developed standards. We treat this responsibility with utmost respect and are excited about the possibility to share new ideas and perspectives.


You have a unique background, coming from Germany and knowing the Central & East European market very well, after leading for many years the offices in Romania. What is your input in the Signium board, how do you feel you bring added value to the board’s activity?

Having had the opportunity to take over the business from my father, I naturally came into business with the ambition to make things different and hopefully better. As we have been a standalone organization in the last 10 years, it was difficult to validate our ideas and initiatives. Since we are now again part of a global partnership, it is very rewarding to see that our direction has been right and that our ideas are being appreciated at global level.

Personally, as a board member, I hope that my experience in the Eastern and Central European market is a strength, knowing its specificities and its opportunities.


You are the youngest member of the Signium board and, as all of them, you have a 3-year term. What do you plan to accomplish in this term, as a team and personally?

We have to admit that we were able to implement already a lot of initiatives and we hope to achieve at least 75% of our plan, that’s because we have a set of milestones harder to achieve in 3 years. But we are doing all that depends on us to have it more completed and implemented.

Signium has been historically a conservative business environment with a high focus on quality and service delivery, and our aim is to preserve the focus on quality, yet to modernize the way of supporting and engaging with each other.


How has the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the HR and financial services local market and the activity of your company?

In what concerns us, the effects of Covid have hit us in 2021 and not in 2020 as expected. There were hard times, as for many other companies.

This year, the outlook is again very positive, however, we need to see the impact of the Ukraine crisis on Eastern Europe. Besides this, the way of conducting our business has shifted to almost a virtual environment, which comes with plusses and minuses.


In regards to the HR market, the effects of the pandemic are very visible across industries and definitely long-term. We have seen a renewed focus on employees, an increased awareness of their mental health, an acceleration of digital HR, a change in processes, even reimagining the structure and impact of this role. Things are not still settled, some are still looking for the best options to perform in the “new normal”, but we believe that, overall, this pandemic period has brough on important lessons for everyone.


How does the recruitment sector look like now and how do you think it will look like on medium and long term, considering all the Covid impact on the labour/workforce market and other factors?

We believe that the demand in high quality Executive Search and in particularly Leadership Consulting will increase significantly, mainly also because the talent acquisition is progressively more difficult, and the corporate culture often steps in as the main differentiator. The Covid crisis has accelerated these trends, especially due to the difficulties/ discrepancies of living values in a hybrid or completely remote set up, these circumstances requiring different skills and competencies, and not all organizations are still open to embrace the new context.


What is your clients’ feedback regarding the Romanian employees? What is the local job seekers’ profile nowadays? What challenges do employers have ahead from this perspective?

Firs of all, being active in the Executive Search industry, we mostly contact C- level/ top management profiles and usually they are not job seeking. However, most of the placements we conducted were highly appreciated and most of them remain for at least 5 years in the respective companies. Challenges are mostly surfacing in more entrepreneurial environments, where processes are not yet too well defined. Traditionally, the educational system is rather focused on a “learn by heart and repeat” mentality than on a new creation/ solution-oriented approach. Sometimes, this comes with challenges as entrepreneurial environments are less structured and the organization is in permanent change.


What is the most challenging for you, the basic positions or the top executive ones? What does the Romanian workforce look like? Romania has been struggling with the labour shortage and mostly with the lack of skilled workers/professionals…

As we predominantly focus on executive functions, the challenges are arising mostly from the research efforts. Looking for example at a functional role such as CFO or HR, where the business model is more relevant than the industry related experience, you have to screen multiple markets and companies in order to be certain that you have the best available talent. Moreover, the transition from C-1 to C level can be tricky as certain competencies need to be developed or complemented in order to successfully fill the new set of responsibilities.


I know your practice groups have a large expertise on a wide range of industries, from HR, Finance, Sales, Marketing to Industrial, Digital or Life Sciences. Which of these fields are mostly sought after by the job seekers?

As industry knowledge is very important and the ability to understand the connecting sectors as well, our practice groups are still industry focused. Indeed, in order to have a project team established that is likely to succeed, you need to pair industry knowledge with functional knowledge and also add the regional expertise to it. In Romania, the fastest developing sectors are certainly IT&C, Agribusiness, Industrial (especially after Covid and Ukraine crisis) and recently both the professional and financial services sectors.


From what you see, is Romania a destination for foreign investors more or less as before? Are further investments in the pipeline for settling in Romania, despite such factors as the proximity to the conflict in Ukraine, the rising production costs due to energy/gas challenges, or even the labour shortages?

During Covid, a lot of multinational companies realized how damaging it might be to depend so much on Asian collaborators, from production, to supply chain. At the same time, through the various crisis episodes, from lack of raw materials to transportation, the corporations have started to look for other options in Europe. Thus, even with the Ukraine crisis, as devastating as it is, we still see a large interest in Eastern Europe, especially countries which are already in European Union and NATO.


If you can provide us some pros and cons of being a HR/services consultant market in Romania? And what pros and cons do you see by being an expat living in Romania?

The service sector in Romania is not yet appreciated to the same level you see in Western markets. On the one hand, this is due to the cheaper labor market which increases the competition on services and secondly, the lack of professionalism companies have experienced in many service sectors. Educating the market and providing excellency in service is therefore our key to success and we will build on this.

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