The Ideal Retained Search Relationship

11/21/2011 12.27 EST

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While conducting the search for a Vice President of Human Resources for an international consumer goods company last year, I had the hardest time convincing the hiring manager to interview one of the candidates we surfaced for the position.  She had fewer years of experience than he was seeking, her industry exposure was related but not a one-to-one match and she had several moves early in her career – something he reacted negatively to.  He just did not want to interview her.  After going back and forth with him as the search progressed, I finally said “Brian, trust me. She’s the right person for the job.”   He begrudgingly acquiesced and, after three rounds of interviews, enthusiastically offered her the role.  He promoted her within six months of her start date.  While speaking with him recently about his reluctance to grant that first interview, he said “I would never have interviewed her based on her resume.”  At that point, I knew I had earned my fee for the assignment.   Retained search did itself a disservice during the pre-information age when it held up the mysteries of candidate development as one of the key differentiators for the industry.  The message was “we can find people that you can’t.”  The industry made it seem like there was some black box—locked away in the safe at corporate headquarters—that held the names of executives who somehow couldn’t be accessed by those not initiated into the executive search club.  As candidate...

Notes from the World of Talent Acquisition

11/02/2011 12.21 EST

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I had the opportunity to attend “The New Talent Management: Strategies for the Future,” this year’s theme for the annual Global Conference hosted by the International Association of Corporate and Professional Recruiters (IACPR) in New York City last week.  IACPR connects professionals in executive search with talent acquisition leaders at several Fortune 500 companies.  The mood at the conference was clear – recruitment volume is way up for both internal and external professionals in 2011, and the expectation is that this activity will increase even more in 2012.  If only companies were hiring rank-and-file employees at the same rate they are hiring executives, we could make a significant dent in unemployment!   Some takeaways from the conference that I’d like to share with you:   Social Recruiting Hype is Still Outstripping its Utility Social media still hasn’t gained significant traction as an effective recruiting resource.  While 70% of corporate recruiters are using social media to source candidates, only 3% of executive hires come from this source, according to Donna Weiss from the Corporate Leadership Council (CLC).  I wonder if we might be quibbling a bit on the definition of “source” in these data, but if accurate, the message to corporate recruitment leaders is clear: if your recruiters are spending a good amount of their days trolling on sites like LinkedIn, you’re probably not making the best use of their time.  Candidates, too, need to get out of their home offices, breathe some fresh air and schedule a...

What’s Keeping Me Up at Night

10/03/2011 02.32 EST

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I feel the need to temper the optimism of my mid-year report on executive employment, with a post more fraught with the anxiety that any professional in the talent acquisition industry might be feeling in a global economy that appears to be teetering on the brink of, if not collapse, then a prolonged period of stagnation.  As all prognosticators do, let me get the defense of my earlier predictions out of the way.   First, I hedged on Greece and Greece came through in a big way in terms of throwing Europe into economic consternation.  Second, the debt ceiling debacle accomplished something that I really did not think possible in my lifetime; it shook global confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States of America.  I’d like to thank our elected leaders on both sides of the aisle for that little present.  Which leads me to this question: If two U.S. political parties can’t agree on fiscal policy, how can 17 sovereign states begrudgingly connected by a common currency do it?   So, given the uncertainty produced by the events of the last quarter, what keeps this talent acquisition professional up at night?   Executive hiring will slow to a crawl.  While we are finishing up a very strong third quarter, our industry is a lagging indicator and it’s completely plausible to think that hiring among the senior management ranks might fall off a cliff à la Q4 2008. The Phillies will somehow find...

Will your Search Process Pass the Fitness Test?

09/09/2011 02.28 EST

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When we begin a new search on a client’s behalf, we meet with the hiring manager and leadership team to fully understand the position, its scope and responsibilities, and its place in the organization. Clients speak at length about the requirements of the role and the consequent qualifications they are looking for in candidates. They outline desired work experience, educational credentials, industry sector experience, etc. They often have a very specific set of requirements related to candidate qualifications – most of which can be ascertained by reviewing candidate resumes and interviewing them.   In a prior life, I worked with clients who were dismissing executives, sometimes because they were not successful in their roles. When I would ask clients why the executive failed, they seldom said things like “Well, she only had seven years of management experience instead of ten years” or “He went to a state school and not an Ivy League university.”   Instead, I heard things like “He always had to be the smartest person in the room” or “She couldn’t work collaboratively across departments” or “He just wasn’t seen as a credible, genuine leader.”   So, the “derailers,” if you will, had little to do with concrete work experience and credentials. Instead, they were tied to style, emotional intelligence and those most elusive of concepts – cultural fit and chemistry.   When recruiting a new executive to a company, the assessment of their cultural fit is arguably the most difficult part of the...

Why Technology Will Never Replace Executive Search

07/27/2011 10.43 EST

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The business of finding and securing talent has been transformed by technology over the past 15 years. The biggest changes have taken place in the processes used to hire and develop entry and mid-level people in organizations. That world is full of Applicant Tracking Systems, Recruitment Process Outsourcers, on-line job posting and candidate databases. If you engage an executive who runs an internal recruitment function for a large company in a 30-minute conversation, I can pretty much guarantee that they will spend 25 of those minutes speaking about systems and technology. Our business is focused entirely on senior executive positions – so-called “C-level” executives – who run companies or divisions, or report to the people who run them. In our part of the talent-finding world, technology has also had a significant impact. We use sophisticated databases to identify executives and many forms of technology to communicate with them. If it is too expensive or time-consuming to interview them in person, we use Skype. Since everyone in the world has at least one cell phone, we can usually reach out directly to people we want to speak with, instead of trying to leapfrog over executive assistants. So, it’s true that technology has changed how we do our work. In many ways, it has made us more efficient. For years I have been hearing about how firms like ours will be put out of business by technology – why would you need a search firm if you have LinkedIn?...

Interviewing Star Candidates

07/06/2011 02.40 EST

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Given the number of interviews I do on a weekly basis, it’s easy for them to blend together.  Not that I get candidates mixed up with one another; I take good notes and do my best to be focused in every interaction.  But it’s hard for a candidate to stand out in a calendar that may contain 15 to 20 interviews, but the “stars” do.   In my opinion, what differentiates stars in an interview setting is their ability to engage their interviewer.  Typically, they are focused and succinctly describe their strengths. Accomplishments are linked to results.  They have an engaging style and as a result, I rarely look at my watch or even wonder what time it is – the conversation flows naturally.   This notion of brevity is worthwhile for every executive-level candidate to consider.  The human attention span is short, even under the best of circumstances.  The more concise you can be in an interview while still driving your point home, the more likely you will be to engage the person on the other side of the table.  I find that star candidates have the ability to provide specific examples that sound more like short stories than novels.  The novelists, on the other hand, often lose track of the questions they’re in the middle of answering, as do those asking the questions.   Other distinguishing traits include bringing a focused energy to the conversation and an observable passion for one’s work.  These qualities shine...

A Mid-Year Report on Executive Employment: What We Are Seeing

06/29/2011 03.11 EST

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According to most of the national press, the Great Recession of 2008 has been followed by the Great Jobless Recovery of 2011. No one seems to know when we can expect job growth significant enough to make a major dent in the current unemployment numbers, but most all agree that it will be a while before we see the unemployment rate dip to pre-recession levels. If you’re up for a particularly sobering read, check out McKinsey’s thoughts on the topic. However, based on our experience through 2011, all the news isn’t necessarily gloomy. We’ve seen an uptick in search activity from the beginning of 2010 through to the midpoint of this year and our numbers are by no means unique. The Association for Executive Search Consultants (AESC) saw a dramatic increase in search activity in 2010, reporting a 28.5 percent increase from 2009. Obviously, that’s coming off one of the worst years in this industry’s history but still ranks 2010 as executive search’s third best year… ever. AESC’s reports from the First Quarter of this year were equally promising. As to our particular experience, SSG’s search activity is up over 50 percent in the first six months of 2011 vs. the same period last year. Here are some encouraging signs we have observed over the past six months: An increased level of competition for talent – The candidates we are pursuing for our clients are telling us that calls from executive recruiters and potential employers are up...

Questions I Have Stopped Asking

06/22/2011 11.31 EST

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This is a second installment in which I am reflecting on what I have learned and observed while interviewing more than 1,000 executives as candidates for senior-level positions in our client companies. Conducting interviews with potential candidates over the past 15 years has allowed me to develop a standard list of questions to ask and avoid. I have stopped using a few questions, because they either elicit “canned” answers or just don’t get at the information I am looking for. Here are two examples. “How would the people who work for you describe your management/leadership style”? This sounds like an obvious question that should elicit useful information, right? Think again. Nearly 90 percent of the people asked this question give some version of this answer: “I work with people to set clear goals and then get out of the way and let them do their jobs. I am available to them when they need me but I don’t micromanage them”. How do I know this isn’t really true for 90% of today’s leaders? All I have to do is talk to people about their bosses and their corporate cultures. I seldom hear that management style description. When I get the predictable, vanilla answer described above, I ask a second question: “What is it about your leadership style that drives people nuts on your team? What would they change about you?” Believe me when I tell you that, again, 90 percent of the people I interview are completely...

Shorthand Notes: What Your Job Interview Says About You

05/31/2011 02.42 EST

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As a retained search consultant, I spend a lot of my time interviewing executives. Sometimes I am speaking with general managers; other times it’s with HR executives, sales leaders or financial executives. They may be in my office, sitting with me in an airport, in a restaurant or on my computer screen. I haven’t done the math, but I’m sure I have interviewed well over a thousand people in the past 15 years.Interviews are funny things. I believe that putting people at ease allows me to have the best chance of seeing someone’s true personality – but I also have to ask challenging and, at times, sensitive questions. Sometimes I am very direct in my questioning and other times I ask much more open ended, almost vague questions. It all depends on the search, the candidate, the company culture and the situation. People being people, executives bring their own agendas, expectations and hopes to the interview. Sometimes they are anxious, sometimes too relaxed. Some are over-the-top enthusiastic and others are sleepy. I’ve come to learn that I should expect pretty much anything to come out in an interview.But despite the wide variations I find in interviews, there are a few things I see so often that I have developed shorthand notes for myself to document them. Unfortunately, they describe interview styles or executive characteristics that are not very positive. In the spirit of sharing my observations for the benefit of all, here are my top three: TTM:...

The Candidate Experience

05/25/2011 08.58 EST

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I am often asked to speak at events where my audience is comprised mainly of executives in transition. Sometimes these are employed professionals seeking better opportunities, but the majority of these individuals are, for one reason or another, unemployed. Invariably, at some point in the conversation, I feel the need to apologize for the way they are often treated by people in my profession. From the candidate perspective, working with retained executive search firms can be a frustrating process. I hear stories of candidates never getting feedback on interviews, communication that is intermittent at best, and a general sense that the individual is a commodity – and these stories are from the candidates who are actively working with a search firm on a real opportunity. For those who are trying to build a relationship within executive search, the stories are even bleaker. I haven’t done any grand research on the topic, but the general consensus I have gathered is that the executive search profession on the whole just doesn’t treat people very well; and in my mind, beyond the fact that its bad behavior, it’s also just plain bad for business. We are extensions of our clients. How I treat a potential candidate will have a direct impact on that person’s perception of the company I represent. And, whether that executive ends up being a bona fide candidate for the position I am seeking to fill, they will remain a potential customer or business partner for my...