The global chemical industry job market continues to feel the ripple effects from the pandemic and work-life balance values have shifted. Sharing his insights on the state of the chemical industry, Stephen Mothersole, CEO of Chemical Search International, joins host Victoria Meyer on The Chemical Show to discuss the challenges in diversity and inclusion, the impact of remote work on talent acquisition, and the changing hiring criteria post-COVID.

Learn more about the following topics this week:

  • Trends in chemical industry talent search: DE&I, AI, shift to remote work
  • How global events are affecting executive search
  • Tools for finding talent in today’s job market
  • War on chemical industry talent in Europe and Asia
  • Hiring outlook for 2023 and 2024

Victoria and Stephen acknowledge that the talent pool in the chemical industry, especially in petrochemicals, is not as diverse and that diversity and inclusion within the industry has a long way to go. Victoria and Stephen discuss the importance of human interaction, AI’s impact on executive search, and the age of remote work.

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Unveiling the Chemistry Behind Executive Search with Stephen Mothersole

Hi. I’m Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. This week, I am speaking with Stephen Mothersole, who is the CEO of Chemical Search International.

Stephen is a global guy who got his bachelor’s in chemistry at Hull University in the UK before heading west to the glorious town of Cincinnati, Ohio where he studied at the University of Cincinnati and had a great experience there before moving back across the pond over to the UK. Working in investment banking as a Chemicals Equity Analyst and then ultimately joining Air Products And Chemicals who are based in the UK as well as Pennsylvania, Hamburg and other places. In 2000, Stephen founded Chemical Search International and grew it to become a well respected executive search firm for chemical sectors worldwide. So we’re going to be talking recruiting, executive search, and other great things today. Stephen, welcome to The Chemical Show.

Victoria, thanks a lot. Nice to be here.

Absolutely. What is your origin story? We’ve covered a little bit in that bio, but what got you interested in the chemical industry and ultimately executive search.

I think at school chemistry is something I enjoyed doing. I enjoyed test tubes and doing things in the kitchen, my parents didn’t, but I did. As you said, I went to Hull University, did a BS in chemistry, had no idea what to do at that point and decided to head west. I applied to a number of American universities but in the end, I went to Cincinnati University and spent 2 years there, did a masters, started a PhD, but decided to head back home before finishing that one. I came back to the UK with the intention of getting into a chemical company. Bizarrely though, I found it very hard to get a job at that point. So in the end I went into the city because a friend of mine who worked banking said, “You can be an equity analyst.” I remember my first interview, and they said, “What do you know about stocks and shares?” And I said, “Not very much. to be frank, but I’m happy to learn,” and that’s really where things started. So I did that for about 3 years. Then I left to do an MBA in Barcelona and decided to then try even harder to join a chemical company, so I did.

As you said, I joined Air Products And Chemicals first working in Allentown, Pennsylvania and then for 5 years in Germany. What got me into the executive search game was actually necessity. I found myself needing a job after Air Products tried to purchase BOC who was their nearest rival. The European Commission of course said, no, that’s not going to happen. So, I knew the end of that company was on the cards and I interviewed with lots of different search firms. After a while I realized that not many of them, at the time in Europe, seemed to understand the chemical industry very well. So I thought to myself, how hard can this be? I’ll set a search firm up and see whether I can either A, find myself a job or B, I might enjoy it so much I keep doing it. Of course the answer was B because 23 years later we’re still doing it and I’m enjoying immensely.

So tell us a little bit about Chemical Search International.

We started really with just myself way back in 2000. Slowly grew over the years, and our recipe was always the same. We decided to effectively maximize on the understanding we had of industry knowledge because that was the bit that was missing. So everyone who works for us now, which is about 15 people who do the actual search work, are all from the industry. We’ve all worked for large chemical companies somewhere. Today we’re about equally split. Some folks in the States, others in Europe and some guys in Asia. We do middle to C-suite roles.

So I think we have a few USPs, one of them is the global nature of what we do. Another one is that we have experience from working in these industries, so we know what we’re talking about. The other thing I really maximize upon is the consultative nature of what we do. We plan to act as a partner, we don’t just see resumes, we interview in-depth. We do it in a very consultative and super selective kind of way. Clients seem to like that, so that’s us.

What are the trends that you see going on in the industry? You’re sitting in Europe, so you’ve got a different point of view than a lot of my guests and I have sitting in the US. What are the trends that you see going on and how does that translate to your business and what you do from a search perspective?

There’s a few obvious trends going on right now across the industry. Diversity and inclusion is now a very large, very big, and very current topical issue. All search firms, including ourselves, are always asked to try and find diverse slate candidates which is unfortunately easier said than done sometimes. The chemical industry is not unique in this perspective, but you tend to find within the industry that the further away from the crack you get the more diverse it gets. We do research in petrochemicals and shall we say it’s a fairly homogeneous talent pool despite our best efforts and that is true globally. Spec chem is a little bit in between in that you get a bit more diverse talent there. I think that it’s best in the fine chemical end of things. Anything close to consumer, fine chemicals, cosmetic ingredients, paints and coatings, things like that tend to have a better balance. So diversity and inclusion is definitely one of the driving trends. We’re doing a search right now for a biopolymers company for a CEO. It’s a relatively small company over here in Europe and amazingly they have a 43% female workforce, which is unusual.

That’s impressive.

Yeah, it is very high. But I think the rest of the industry has a long way to go catch up to that. That is caused by a number of issues. One of those being that less younger people are moving into the industry doing degrees in the stem sciences. That’s been declining for a number of years and that makes it hard to find anyone quite frankly, let alone diverse talent. So that’s definitely one trend.

I think another one is artificial intelligence with it being heavily in the news. For good or ill it will have an effect on executive search and the candidates receiving the briefs and things. Whether that is useful or not, who knows. We haven’t come across it yet in our search, but I think it’s coming. To me, anything that can make things easier and more effective or more efficient for clients is always welcomed. So I think artificial intelligence will affect us, but ultimately hiring people is a person to person interaction. AI may make the back office more efficient but ultimately there is that need for the human interaction and the ability to look at the nuance behind people. So I think there’ll be an increased focus on a quality search firm sort of partner who can dig beneath the surface and really work at figuring out what makes people tick, alongside simply finding people faster. That’s definitely a second trend. Another fit trend is, of course, everyone wants to work from home nowadays. I’m at home as we speak.

Me too.

You too, there you go. I think this has an effect on people’s mentality too. On one hand, it makes our job slightly easier because finding people and talking to them when they’re working at home is easier than when they’re not. Ultimately the talent pool should be easier because there isn’t this need to relocate people. But certain functions will always struggle with remote work and it won’t help them. For R&D and technical roles where you need to be on a plant, yes that won’t help them. But sales roles and a lot of roles now which are broader are able to be done remotely. That makes it easy to find people, that’s the plus argument.

The counterargument to that is that people value different things. So if I’m happy in my job, and I’m allowed to work from home 5 days a week. And I’m trying to sell a job to somebody where they have to go into the office 2 or 3 days a week. suddenly that’s unappealing. So I think even though the talent may be easier to find, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easier to move.

Yeah that’s interesting, and one of the things with that is it’s sometimes hard to know what it’s really going to feel like when you make that shift and what that looks like. So, I reflect back to when I went from Shell to Clariant. At Shell we had the 9/80 system. So every other Friday off, and it was a very global company so you could work from home if you needed to, you just kinda set your schedule like that. Then I went up to Clariant, which number 1, did not have 9/80s. So you’re in the office Monday through Friday, and my business was more relaxed about whether or not you were in the office, but the business I sat with was not.

You almost don’t even realize the stress that puts onto you until you’re living in it. It’s easy for us to recognize the situation that we’re in and the pros and cons and what we like about it. And we think we can envision what the other scenario will be, but until you’re actually in it, you don’t know it.

You don’t. I’ve got another good example of this one, we recently did a search in Europe for an MD of a company. One of the first candidates I called indicated to me that they lived only thirty miles away, very close. I said, “Perfect, easy, you’ve given me no problem at all.” A month later, when it finally came down to an offer, they said, “You know what? I can’t do it. I’m so used to working from home. I cannot envisage going in 5 days a week to this location even though there’s only half an hour drive.” People have gotten institutionalized, and it’s it’s difficult.

Tricky. Tricky times.

Yeah, tricky. The other trend that goes along with all this in some ways is what companies are looking for. This whole thing around soft skills has become far more important than it was before. In a workplace where you’ve got to get that person to fit right, the soft skills side of things has become increasingly more important. We see it becoming even more important with more senior roles.

When you talk about soft skills that covers a broad range, so what are you really referring to?

It does. It really refers to personality, motivation, and what makes people tick. As opposed to simply, can they do the job? The whole area of psychometrics is designed to try and address this whole issue. Yes, we use them, but one of the things we pride ourselves on is we’re quite obsessive with not only interviewing the candidates, but also in some ways interviewing or looking at who they’re working for. What is their personality like? Just to make sure you get that fit. People leave jobs for all kinds of reasons, and one of the biggest reasons is they just don’t get on with their boss or their peers. I think that’s now been recognized. You’ve got to have a meeting of minds, and people recognize this. It’s not enough now just to be able to do the job. You’ve got to make sure you fit the personality.

I’m gonna challenge you on this a little bit, Steven. We started out talking about DEI and how important that is. Yet when you’re judging people on fit, it can be anti-diversity of all varieties. How do you get around that? DEI is often just seen as a metric and a target, and making sure you have a representation of different races and genders. While fit is very important, fit is also a really hard standard to meet. And a lot of people would argue that fit keeps the status quo.

That’s a very good point, Victoria. It is and you’re absolutely right. Historically, people hire people who look like them. That’s what they’ve always said.

We have similar values, you look like me, you talk like me.

Similar body language, all this kind of thing. You’re absolutely correct. That has always been an issue. Certain companies in the creative sectors do very well in recognizing that one size cannot fit all. But that’s definitely a hurdle to overcome. Things like psychometrics and things which are quasi scientific try to homogenize these things. So you’re seeing the same set of skills with everybody irrespective of diversity or background. That’s important. We run a particular one which is done in different languages, but that can’t actually level out different attitudes to certain questions. That’s always a hard thing.

For example, people in Asia generally do not like talking about themselves or promoting themselves. While people in the US enjoy it very much, and in Europe we’re kind of in between. So you can never really iron out all those things, but if you’re looking for a diverse slate you have to recognize that. Providing certain personality traits you’re looking for are there you almost have to ignore the rest. But I obviously hear your point, people have always hired in their own image, and I think that’s a very hard thing to prevent. But having some kind of semi independent method of judging people and measuring them against each other, which is irrespective of where they’re from or what background they have is useful.

I could totally see that. It absolutely needs to be a data point that gets factored in along with everything else that goes into the equation.

We’re at a place in time where the pandemic, and all of the events of the 2020s have dramatically changed our world and our ways of working. What I also see right now is a certain amount of deglobalization. The regions, whether it be Asia, the Americas, Europe, have different priorities, drivers, and stressors. The economic conditions in each of these regions is varying tremendously. How does this play out, in your world, when you’re thinking about executive search? Are your levels of activity different in different regions? Are the different regions looking for different things, whether it be certain skill sets or other things?

I think ultimately everyone wants the same thing. Everyone wants a candidate who is the best at the job, who will stay forever, and will never want a pay rise. So that’s what everyone wants. Obviously, that doesn’t happen. There’s no question, different regions do look for different things. Culturally, people look for slightly different things. We find in places like the US, India, China, and Japan it is very, very much governed by your experience and your education, where you went to school, how good is that qualification, is that experience relevant. That is front and center in what people look for.

The other side of things, the soft side of things I mentioned earlier, is probably less critical or they’re often not looked at a great deal certainly for US hires. I mean for US hires, it’s very hard to ask certain questions, you can’t ask anything personal. That makes it quite hard to get beneath the surface of what makes people tick.

After COVID, I think things have changed. Culturally what people look for, that is still the same, but there have been some changes in terms of how people behave. In other places like Europe, Nordic countries, places like that technical experience prowess in the area you’re in is the preeminent thing. It almost eclipses overall experience and it certainly eclipses personality. Then the interesting one, the slightly harder one to do would be places like Southern Europe and the Middle East. It’s very relationship driven, the networking ability, the soft side, the likability of people, if they fit the team. Those things are really important. That’s more a cultural stereotype in some ways, but it does seem to feed its way through into executive search too. So what we look for is all the same on the surface, but once you get into the detail, what you’re focusing on is slightly different depending upon where in the world you’re hiring.

You allude to Southern Europe and the Middle East being very relationship driven. There’s this whole aspect of how you do find candidates? LinkedIn and other social media platforms would like to be the place where you find candidates. It seems on the surface, like it’s very easy to find people on those platforms, yet is it? How do you guys tackle this? How do you find the right people, at the right time, in the right place?

So we don’t just rely upon LinkedIn. That’s number 1. Let’s face it, no disrespect to LinkedIn it is a wonderful tool and very useful. But it’s a little bit like wandering into a library and thinking I want to buy a book on a certain something, where do I start? Without having a clear idea of what you’re looking for, it can be really overwhelming. You can waste an awful lot of time looking at things. without necessarily finding what you’re looking for. Another thing about LinkedIn, and it’s true of all social media where individuals put their own profiles online, is how believable are they? People tend to exaggerate unfortunately, and they’re not always current. We always have a fairly healthy dose of cynicism, when we look at people’s profiles on LinkedIn. First of all, are they still doing that? Often everything looks rosy, but people have other drivers they can’t publicize.

So platforms like LinkedIn can be useful, we use them to identify certain individuals and figure out who does what at certain companies. But certainly do not rely upon it exclusively, we can’t. Unfortunately what’s happened in the world of executive search is there’s been a plethora of new startups and companies doing what we do, who almost exclusively use LinkedIn because it’s an open book of names, and makes it easy.

How we find people though, we have five ways we find them. Good old fashioned executive search, that’s calling companies, researching companies, figuring out who does what. We do a lot of that. Obviously some of that can be cross referenced on LinkedIn, but a lot of that cardholder research is important. We do that. We also have one slight differentiator which is our advisory board that we’ve set up over the years. Very early on doing this job I realized that we can’t possibly have knowledge of every aspect of the chemical industry it is such a multifaceted fragmented industry. So we developed this advisory board where we have about 72 advisors, which is quite good. They cover a whole range of different parts of the industry. So we go to them, and say, “Who do you know in this network is good?” They of course know where to go, so that’s useful.

Our website is not bad, if you put into Google, Chemical Executive Search. I think we’re number one and two to pop up. We did something right years ago when we first set the site up. Not sure how, but there you go, I’m not going to mess with it. We also have our own little mini network as well, a little sort of stem Linkedin that we’ve set up. It’s got about 30,000 people or so on it. So we use that along with LinkedIn and other networking media to find people. Last but not least, our database has been around for 23 years. It’s constantly replenished. There’s a lot of people on there that we are still in touch with many, many years later. So those are the five pillars we use to find people.

Are there particular industries or areas within the chemical industry that are most active right now when you look at talent development and talent movement?

Yes, there are. Overall within the world of chemicals and talent, last year, the “post COVID year” was a big year. It was a big bounce. Pretty much across the board, lots of companies were hiring, including strategically. So there was lots and lots of activity which lasted late 2021 up until the end of 2022. This year is definitely quieter, that is due to the macro picture of potential recession, the war in Ukraine, all those things. So that’s definitely slowed things down.

But in terms of, are there bright spots? The answer is yes, there are. Anything connected with circularity, sustainability, e-mobility, the environment, anything like that is definitely bright. So for example, in the distant past hydrogen was just an element, so was lithium, and so were rare earth metals. All those things now are very much front and center of the world economy. So yes anything connected with e-mobility, environmental, circularity, they are very, very hot. What’s good for us, is that a lot of the companies involved with these areas are often startups or early stage inventions, technology driven ventures in carbon capture or lithium extraction. The reason we like this type of company is, they don’t tend to have enormous tenant acquisition teams. It means we get to do the whole thing and act as a true partner. Anything in those areas across the board are definitely in vogue. We’ve worked for a number of them in those various technologies over the last couple of years.

That makes sense. Getting back to a regional perspective, I know certainly from a North American perspective, there’s this whole conversation of the war on talent and just the availability of talent. How does that play out in Europe and Asia?

I know China’s been in the news a lot recently just with their economy not recovering very well post COVID, and new graduates lying down on the street because they are not able to find jobs. I know that’s not the candidate pool you’re targeting, but how does this play out geographically in terms of talent, demand, and availability?

Globally, it’s a similar kind of a picture, certainly in terms of availability. Clients often have this perception that the world is awash with candidates just dying to get a job with their company. That isn’t the case. The US has very high employment rates, so does the UK, and most of Europe too. I think China is probably a slightly different situation due to its own issues right now. But there’s two things. Number 1, there isn’t that much flex in the system. Many people are employed. The other thing being that a lot of people don’t want to move. I think what’s happened here post COVID is people’s values have changed. It used to be that you join a chemical company, you stay there to get progression, and you move up through the ranks. It doesn’t seem that way as much anymore. People value the work life balance much more now than they did before COVID. That’s definitely one thing.

Whether it be work life balance or whether it be location, and people wanting to work remotely. Those things play in a lot more than they did before. What that means is finding people who are out there looking for jobs has gotten harder and actually moving people from one company to another who are happily employed has also gotten harder unless you are prepared to offer a big incentive financially or in another way. Globally this is what’s happened as a repercussion of COVID.

I’ll give you an example. In the US, we did a search during COVID for a super duper sales person in the States and the average salary then in the chemical sector for a good sales person was around 100, 120, maybe 130 as a base salary. The same people with the same jobs are now costing 140, 160, 175 for the same thing. So there’s definitely inflation of expectation of salaries which is partly due to inflation and is also just due to scarcity of supply of candidates, and that’s feeding its way through. So that’s the case in the States, and in Europe it’s a very, very similar story.

I can’t really give you an idea with a lot of Asia, it’s sort of similar to a point. China is different because China definitely has a problem with the actual companies themselves and not supplying it. There’s a glut of candidates so that’s different. But after COVID these macro trends are affecting everybody in a similar way across the industry.

What strikes me about it is, from a work life balance and location value perspective, it’s almost back to the 1950s. Where home based values were much stronger, and that drove people’s decisions about where to live and where to work. So it’s obviously a vastly different time that we’re in now and yet maybe in certain aspects of our lives, our values have reverted a bit. We’re just in continual evolution.

Yeah, and it may not be a bad thing. Providing the profitability is there and the productivity is there. Is it a bad thing? Most people don’t think so.

So what’s your number one piece of advice to candidates that are looking and hoping to get hired, making a move, hopefully for more money, because we all like more money when we make a move. What falls into your top pieces of advice for people?

Don’t do it for the money. I think that’s the number one piece of advice I would give. Do it for the fact that you like the company and you like the role. The money I think will catch up with you, you’ll get what you need. The best way to get progression in a job, is having outside interests. Do not focus your whole life on that job. Some of the most successful people we know, they’re captain of the local rugby club or they are football scholars or they’re involved with their school’s governorship program.

Whatever it may be, having very strong external values and external activity seems to feed through and make you more valuable. It shows that you’re not dwelling only on the money.

That’s great advice. Final question, what’s your outlook on hiring for the rest of 2023 and then heading into 2024?

2023 has been quite flat. Until things saw themselves out with the war in Ukraine, that’s definite suppressor of economic activity. Do we know where we are with that and the threat of the looming recession dwindles? It was was fairly flat, but now that we know where we are with that, it will pick up again. As I said to you, some of these areas are still fairly robust. But the heavy end of the chemical industry is still so dependent on energy prices, which is the problem. The middle bit, is based upon the consumer demand. Pool chemicals and cars and polyurethanes and things like that. All the time that there’s flattened consumer demand, they’ll be flattened. So I think the bright spark is probably in a refined chemicals, agrochemicals and things like that. They’re feeding the things that people still need. So they are still fine. But the other part of the industry that’s at the heavy end and the specialty end won’t pick up this year. Probably at some point in 2024, it’ll pick up back up again once we’re hopefully passed the threat of recession.

Alright. Well we’ll stay tuned, and we’ll see how that plays out. Stephen, thank you so much for joining us today on The Chemical Show. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Great pleasure, Victoria. Thank you.

And thanks everyone for joining us today. Keep reading, keep following, sharing, and we will talk to you again soon.


About Stephen Mothersole:

Stephen graduated with a B.Sc. in chemistry from Hull university in the UK, before looking west and winning a place at the University of Cincinnati to do his M.S. This was a great experience and he loved teaching chemistry as a TA! Returning home, he joined investment bank UBS, as a chemicals equity analyst, before leaving to do an MBA. He then joined Air Products & Chemicals, based in UK, Allentown PA and Hamburg Germany. In 2000 he founded Chemical Search International and grew it to become one of the most respected executive search firms for the chemicals sector, worldwide.