Publisher’s Corner

Well, I survived another year in the trenches under the auspices of my sponsor firm, a two-man generalist operation working almost exclusively in Missouri and the Midwestern states which surround our state. For twenty years, they have worked the small to mid-sized company market at the VP levels. They normally deal with the CEO/President/Owner of these firms and asked me to try to pick up a couple of retained or partially retained searches. I was to contact only those firms they had contacted but had not done business with for the past several years.

They supplied me with a very good list of over 200 prospects along with notes about each of the firms and the key contacts. They had, at one time or another in the past few years, talked with most of these people but had not been successful in getting an assignment. They also generate a periodic newsletter and other promotional materials which are designed to keep their name and capabilities in front of these people so, technically, these were not ‘cold’ calls. My researcher updated information on most of these firms, gathering more recent data about them so I could direct the conversation towards more timely events within those firms.

Last year, as long time readers may remember, I attempted to place a Business Development Manager (a/k/a great salesman) with extensive experience in the printing and graphic arts industry. I was finally successful, although it took a few months for the deal to come together. But this year, with no MPA, I decided to revert back to the approach I used in 2002; namely, to connect with as many CEOs and Presidents as possible with a more generic sales presentation. By the way, Bob is the main marketing guy with my sponsor firm and the person who had made the most recent contact with the target firms.

“I know you and Bob have talked before and he told me to tell you hello. I guess I don’t need to tell you what Bob does since you’ve spoken before and known him for quite a while. I’ve been in the management search and consulting business myself for almost as long as Bob so I also understand that almost any business, including yours, may have an underperforming area or two some function within the management structure that could be improved whether it’s in operations/administration, manufacturing, sales/marketing, engineering or information technology. Now that the economy is again on the uptick, almost everyone in your position has thought about their problem areas and how to address them, but it’s human nature to want to put these decisions off, hoping they’ll self-correct. Unfortunately, we both know that usually doesn’t happen. I also know that timing is everything in these determinations but the purpose of my call is to stimulate your strategic thinking about which area or areas might be significantly improved by reshuffling the talent deck in your firm or to suggest organizational adjustments that might resolve the problems you might be experiencing. Have you thought about this lately?

The purpose of my calls was to initiate a dialogue about their current and/or future senior talent needs. The balance of the call conversation depended upon the response from them.

As I mentioned last month, several of these CEOs mentioned the cost of an executive search with a number of them wondering why it was so expensive. I took these queries to mean that if the service were free or totally contingent upon a hire, they’d have no hesitation to give me an assignment since a lot of them implied that they could use a little help in one or more areas of their operation.

Nevertheless, my sponsor is not in the social service business so my approach when the fee objection arose was to sidestep it until finding out whether such a conversation was even germane.“You know, most people have no idea of the actual cost of an unfilled or underfilled opening. I’ve found that the key decision most CEOs are making during this economic recovery is how to optimize profits by making sure that the people holding key jobs in their organizations are the very best people available. That’s a decision only you can make, but I can tell you that almost every CEO I talk with is seriously considering this matter and evaluating accordingly. Most have come to the conclusion that new blood is probably the answer, especially since every survey I’ve seen says that 40-50% of executives are either looking at other opportunities or are committed to changing jobs as soon as they can. Many of the survival traits of your key executives that may have served you so well during a recession are probably far different than those qualities and expertise needed to take full advantage of this recovery. Perhaps it might be a good idea to discuss this in more depth.”

My sponsor provided me with approximately 250 firms to contact. I actually connected with about 75 of them. I unearthed 4 possible assignments but since my time in the trenches was over, these were turned over to my sponsor firm for follow up. I’m told that one deal has been signed for a partially retained CFO search.

One CEO of a 600-person firm told me that he needed a new V. P. of IT Operations and told me I’d have to deal with his HR Manager. I told him that this was probably counterproductive for an opening at this level and gave him all the reasons for not wanting to deal through HR, but he was adamant. Turned out the HR Manager was his son. After a three-minute conversation with him, I decided to terminate the conversation. He was dumber than a sack of dirt.

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Another started negotiating the fee before he even got to the stage of telling me what he wanted, if anything. I decided not to play that game with him since he indicated that any upfront money was out of the question.

While CEOs are generally easier to talk to than lower level executives, once you wander into the smaller firms, you’re likely to run into more egomaniacs (or just plain maniacs) than with the larger firms. They are also less likely to understand the search process than their larger firm brethren. They are more likely to dicker from the get go, asking for fee options, which is why we included an article on these alternate forms of charging.

A few were total jerks but, on the whole, most were genial and willing to talk.

Two wanted to know whether I was able to engineer a possible merger or acquisition. Both were looking for an ‘out’ since they were approaching 70 years of age with no succession plan in place.

I detected a bit of caution in many of these people. Several told me the first two quarters were OK but that they thought we might be experiencing a soft patch in the economy until after the election.

Two already had a search in process; one fully retained and one partially retained. Both expressed some disappointment in the results of their searches so far.

More soon.

Paul Hawkinson is the editor of The Fordyce Letter, a publication for third-party recruiters that's part of ERE Media. He entered the personnel consulting industry in the late 1950's and began publishing for the industry in the 1970's. During his tenure as a practitioner, he personally billed over $5 million in both contingency and retainer assignments. He formed the Kimberly Organization and purchased The Fordyce Letter in 1980.