Finding Executive talent in an age of digital transformation

by Tom Royal – Dagorà magazine for Fashion Innovation Week

Jacob Hoekstra, Global CEO at Kilpatrick, is interviewed by Tom Royal for the community of the Fashion Innovation Week


First of all, would you mind giving a very brief introduction to Kilpatrick, and the kind of services you provide?

We’re global executive search firm, and our core business is supporting our clients in crossing borders. Most of our clients have needs outside of the countries or regions where they feel confident, so we help most of our clients in locating top talent far away from home.

Most of the time what we’re dealing with is managing cultural differences; for example if a German client wants to hire a executives in India might want to do it the German way, and that doesn’t work in India, or a Chinese firm trying to hire in Italy might do it the Chinese way, and again it doesn’t work like that. But everyone’s looking for talent, and we help to make sure that our clients get access to the best talent that they can get.



When seeking out potential candidates for a top-level position, how much importance do you place on their readiness for innovation and digital transformation?

I think it’s of the utmost importance. It’s interesting to see what people have done in the past, but it’s all about adaptability, about their readiness to face change – and one of the reasons we are investing in what we call a “digital certification” is to really start to approach companies and candidates to understand how much digital disruption they are facing.

For example, imagine someone who has a job managing 200 people on-site – it’s very differ- ent from managing 200 people remotely. And that person might be a success in a company where they have one-to-one contact with those people, but if they had to manage remotely it would be totally different.

We try to understand that readiness to adapt to new situations, and that’s why we’ve invested in a system of digital certification to measure the chance that a given person will succeed in a new company, given the digital transformation that is required. We’ve been working on this for about a year and a half now, and we’re working with a University to produce something that will really stand out.


Kilpatrick will be hosting a round-table at Fashion Innovation Week to discuss the importance of Human Resources when it comes to ensuring that businesses a ready to adapt in a changing world. Do you think that HR  is sometimes unfortunately overlooked as a key factor in an organisation’s ability to adapt in a changing digital climate?

Absolutely. It’s normally the number 5 on the list – but businesses need people. Many companies see the importance of investing in technology – in fancy computers, in systems – but at the end of the day it’s still people who push the buttons. I think there’s a direct relationship between the performance of a company and its people.


In the world  of fashion in particular, do you see start-up businesses as key players when it comes to nurturing the top executive talent of the future? Are start-up companies somewhere you might recruit from?

Absolutely yes, although what we see lately is – especially in start-ups – that people have an idea, their first priority is get- ting it financed  and then – straight after – they’re looking for an exit strategy. And that’s something that is really awkward – especially for my generation, because we started to think about exits only when you start to get a little bit more senior, not when you’re starting a business.

Now, in the real world, if you want to be an executive, it’s not about having an exit strategy, it’s about keeping things up and running. You have to commit yourself to get things do- ne. So although people in start-up businesses are often very smart and quick and intelligent, the  role of an executive is mid- to long-term, taking responsibility for results.


Can it be beneficial for more established businesses to engage with start-ups and their way of doing business, particularly when it comes to digital? Can nurturing external teams, in the form of a start-up company, complement driving innovation within the main company itself?

Innovation goes from the top down, not bottom up. Companies that need innovation, until six or seven years ago, would just hire an  innovation  manager – just try to buy it off the shelf. Today the strategy has changed, and people are trying to partner with start-ups, to actually be involved in that innovation, to work together with them, and that gives them a lot of energy – but innovation still starts with the top; you do have to build it yourself. So you can have some outside help, you can work with start-ups, but if you don’t start at the top of your company, you won’t get the results that you really want.


Speaking of engaging with start-ups, you are also sponsoring the fifth Fashion Innovation Award, where numerous start-ups and young companies will pitch to a jury of international experts for a chance to secure a development package from Loomish. Is there anything in particular you look for when evaluating start-up companies yourself – any one thing that takes a pitch from interesting to outstanding?

There are many, many great ideas, but few people who actually make it to become a success. The key difference is people. There are many good ideas, many of them fail – because they have the wrong people. The key for me is to look at the team – are the people dedicated, are they committed, are they adaptable – and are they able to get feedback from their current customers and adapt to criticism. It’s all about people.


The Fashion Innovation Week event is of course taking place in Lugano – also the home of your business. Do you see Lugano, and Ticino in general, as having particular benefits for businesses wishing to operate through Europe and worldwide? There seems to be a significant cluster of fashion-tech businesses, in particular do you see the region as offering any particular advantages?

I think that the number one thing is the ease of doing business, which is extremely good in Ticino. I also really admire the involvement of the authorities – they are really dedicated to get change, their industry is rapidly changing and they are looking for the next generation, they are really involved. My only concern is that they should maybe look a little bit more globally – it’s natural to look towards Italy, and look for a competitive advantage there,  but  I  think  they should look for a competitive advantage globally.