Kellie McSorley is my ‘Woman of Substance’ for May. She founded SILK Search, the London-based boutique headhunting firm specialising in senior executive appointments in the luxury and fashion industry, in 2008. The culmination of a successful career that led her from her native Perth, Australia to Dubai where she worked in a start-up Search & Selection firm and then to London where she worked for an international Executive Search Firm, SILK Search has placed senior executives at brands including De Beers, NetJets, Berry Bros & Rudd, Victoria Beckham, The YOOX Net-a-Porter Group and Lane Crawford. Kellie lives in Queens Park with her husband and two young daughters. We met for a drink at The Connaught hotel in London’s Mayfair.

Kellie, you have had such an interesting career as a head hunter. How did you get into it and why did you decide to set up your own business?

Like many people I know in the headhunting business, I fell into it by chance. Growing up in Australia, the bigger career opportunities were in primary industries like mining, and I knew that wasn’t for me. My interests lay in fashion and food, and I chose to study Dietetics at university in Perth. The dietetics market there was competitive, and I just couldn’t get passionate enough about spending my working week in a hospital to reach the top of my game. My father had always been entrepreneurial, so the desire to build a business was always in me. I worked in retail whilst at university and discovered a talent for sales. I worked my way up quickly at Esprit to take charge of state-wide recruitment, new employee inductions, and training. This was my introduction to recruitment and my first step towards being offered a role with Slade Group, a prestigious executive search firm in Australia. And so, my career in headhunting began.
In my early career in executive search I worked across a number of different industries, then started specialising in fashion and luxury around twelve years ago. The last firm I worked for had very traditional views, which gave me the motivation to set up my own business. I wanted to break away from that old-fashioned mindset and create a more modern version of a search firm – without disregarding the rigorous assessment and techniques necessary to attract best-in-class talent. Nine years down the line, I’m very happy to be working with great clients across the UK, Europe and Asia.

You are clearly very passionate about what you do. Why do you love it?

I love what I do because people interest me. I’m more of a listener than a talker, and I genuinely care about the interests of the people I work with.
For me it’s key to really understand your product, which is a person! A mother, a father, a wife, a husband, a daughter, a son – and at different points in a person’s life their career motivations change, so the skill lies in understanding that, to bring the right individual together with the right company at the right time.

You have been quoted as saying that traditional methods of search have become somewhat outdated. What is it that has changed and why?

My job has changed substantially over the years. Globalisation, tech platforms like LinkedIn, and the increasing pressure for our clients to transform to survive have meant that a once straightforward search is now far more complex. It’s a Rubik’s Cube challenge – matching people, motivations, transferrable skills, and most importantly the need to surprise and delight our clients with fresh ideas to challenge their thinking. To do this well, you need the freedom and inspiration to be creative. Highly-pressurised working environments stifle creativity, as do extended teams that are too far removed from the client relationship to really understand how to match the right person to the job. On the other side of the equation, it’s becoming more challenging to extract the best talent from their current workplace due to sophisticated long term tie-in plans and the desire for security. In uncertain times, many people look for safety, thinking ‘better the devil you know’!

What are the most common things businesses are looking for today?

We are often asked to for an entrepreneurial mindset, which I always think is an interesting request from a company that already has a £1 billion + turnover. What they are really asking for is someone who has ideas and is agile. In essence, they’re looking for people who are resilient, can think creatively to help the company navigate unchartered waters and add value to business development, but everyone wants an ‘entrepreneur’. We’re experiencing a paradigm shift where the security and status of the top corporate job is becoming less attractive due to the rise of start-ups and many individuals embracing the freedom of being their own boss. At the same time, companies can be indecisive about what they need or want and are taking longer to hire. With this in mind, we have recently launched a new service offering executive freelance talent. Executive freelancers are individuals with deep subject-matter expertise and operational experience in fashion or luxury brands who can work on a flexible project-by-project basis. This service has become popular with our clients who want to build muscle and capability without committing to a permanent hire – particularly when in six months their business needs may well change again.

How do you balance your lifestyle between a clearly busy working life and your home life with your family – particularly as you have close relatives on the other side of the world?

With a very supportive, patient and flexible husband. My husband is in property development so his work is project-based. As it tends to peak and trough, we can tag-team when we need to. Plus there’s our amazing nanny who we are very lucky to have, and frankly couldn’t do without!
The upside of being a business owner is that I can – to a certain extent – dictate my own schedule. I am lucky enough to be able to be there when my girls need to go to the doctor, or to support them at their special events. Although the military precision required for keeping all the aspects of my home and work life in order is rather intense, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

You are a fan of Winser London and joined us at our recent Trunk Show at our Mayfair Townhouse in February. Which pieces from our current collection do you wear – and how do you style them for work and weekend?

I love my navy wide-leg flat front-trousers. On weekends I wear them with trainers, a striped tee and a leather jacket, and for work I pair them with heels and my navy Winser Audrey cashmere jumper. All the pieces fit so well and the quality is beautiful. For easy-to-wear, great quality staples that last, there’s no need to shop anywhere else!