Hiring the Right Executive Search Firm for Your Company
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Episode 148 Transcript:
Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, Episode 148: Hiring the Right Executive Search Firm for Your Company. This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement, Inc., enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of success, on the web at businessadvance.com. And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement, Inc., and sitting right across from me, as always, is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi, Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi, Pam. It’s always a pleasure to join you for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio. As always, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves − and their companies − to their next level of game-changing innovation, growth, and success.
Scott Harper: Now, Pam, we’re here at the beginning of the fourth quarter in 2018, and finding top executive talent is a top priority for many companies. But you know, this is challenging, especially in this volatile, complex, and ambiguous business environment.
Pam Harper: That’s right, and the type of top executives that are necessary to lead transformational growth is changing as well. For example, in a previous episode, we discussed how new positions are being created in the C-Suite.
Scott Harper: That’s right.
Pam Harper: And there continues to be mounting pressure on boards to focus on their composition and their diversity, and it’s never been harder to find someone with the right leadership experience, knowledge, skills, and abilities. And it’s also critical to find that right cultural fit. That’s where retained executive search comes in. Now many of us have experience as the client of executive search firms, and yet there’s a lot that goes on behind the curtain to get that right fit. That’s why we’re glad to bring back Jane S. Howze, Managing Director of The Alexander Group, which is a leader in top-level executive search.
Pam Harper: For those of you who are listening for the first time, here’s a bit about Jane. She has more than 30 years experience in executive search and has recruited top executives worldwide in a variety of industries. This includes banking, energy, not-for-profit, technology, manufacturing, legal, and professional services. That’s quite a scope. She also directs board searches for the firm and is actively involved in the firm’s diversity practice.
Pam Harper: She’s quoted frequently in major business publications and serves as a columnist for CultureMap. She’s also the author of Best Practices for Executive Search Firms for the Inside the Minds book series. Jane’s earned her undergraduate degree from Rhodes College and her law degree from the University of Houston. She’s a member of the state bars of California and Texas, and you can see her complete bio by going to growthignitersradio.com, selecting episode 148 and scrolling down to Resources.
Pam Harper: Jane, welcome back to growth igniters radio.
Jane Howze: Well, thanks, Pam. Thanks, Scott. It’s wonderful to be back with you all.
Pam Harper: It is great to have you back, and, of course, congratulations are in order. We understand that The Alexander Group has been named by Forbes Magazine as one of America’s best recruiting firms.
Jane Howze: Yes. We are very thrilled and, actually, I think we are on the Top 30 list and we are the smallest firm to be listed on the Top 30 list, so we are clicking our heels and celebrating.
Pam Harper: What do you attribute this to?
Jane Howze: Well, Pam, The Alexander Group was founded by three people from professional service firms. One of my partners was a banker, one was a consultant at Ernst & Young, and then I have a law degree and was a banker. I think we started the firm with the idea that we didn’t want to necessarily be the biggest, but we did want to be the best and we wanted to have clients that we would grow old with, and 30 years later that has certainly been the case.
Pam Harper: I think it says a lot about the whole idea of developing a relationship.
Jane Howze: Exactly. We still have our first client that we started the business with in 1983. Now fair disclosure, he is 80 years old, and I tell him he cannot retire.
Jane Howze: Yeah. We’re very committed to having relationships where we do more than one search for a firm, an organization, and get to be an extension of them. I think it’s a lot harder work than a lot of search firms want to put in, but that’s why we’re in business and it’s nice to see us be recognized for that.
Scott Harper: That’s great. You’ve been around for 30 years. There’s obviously some myths that are around other search firms or search firms in general that don’t apply to you. What are some of those myths?
Jane Howze: Yes. There’s one myth that has to do with all of us and then there’s another myth. The first myth is the average client doesn’t know what goes on behind the scenes of trying to recruit C-Suite leaders, and I think it’s important for clients to ask the search firm, “How many phone calls are you going to make? Are you just going to use a database? What does it look like behind the scenes?”
Jane Howze: One myth is just lack of familiarity, but another myth that a lot of companies, especially small businesses, hold onto is, we can do this search ourself. We don’t need any help, and we can do it as well as a search firm. I think maybe that would be true if all of their people had unlimited time to do research and to make maybe 200, maybe 300 phone calls to find the right person, but generally speaking, outsourcing it is going to get you a better result for most type of searches.
Pam Harper: I would agree with that, Jane. Many, many years ago when I was leading staffing functions, internal search for companies, we were constantly at places where we had to decide who we were going to work with. I think there is such a big difference between doing it yourself or contingency firms, search firms, which also go by the name of executive search firms sometimes, and the quality of the retained search firm such as yours.
Jane Howze: Well, it’s interesting and occasionally retained search is not necessary for every single search. For example, if you needed six engineers, highly specialized, you might call an engineering search firm and they could send you engineers by tomorrow. But if you need someone who’s going to impact the organization at a very high level, two things you want to do. You want to have a search firm who is a thought partner, who talks about, “Have you thought about looking in this industry? Have you thought about looking at these types of people, and how do we find those types of people? Who are the passive candidates?” Because almost always, the passive candidates are the better candidates. When I say passive, I mean the people who are not looking, who are doing quite well and are not in a database. I think that’s where retained search firms come in.
Pam Harper: Exactly. In fact, that was one of the biggest reasons that we did engage retained search was because we were looking for people who weren’t looking for new jobs.. We knew they weren’t looking, and having that partnership was so important − and making it very strategic, of course. Now, we’re talking about how a company might decide it’s time to hire a retained search firm, but let’s turn the tables. How do you decide whether you and your team should accept a search project?
Jane Howze: 85% of our business every year comes from referrals and repeat clients. Once you’re kind of in with us and part of our family, we will try and help you even if the search is particularly hard or difficult, but mostly we look at is this a search that in a geographic area of the world we feel comfortable with? We’ve just finished searches in Singapore, in Germany. We’ve done work in Africa. So, because of our research function, we feel pretty comfortable throughout the world.
Jane Howze: If it is a highly technical position, if it’s on a very tight timeframe, a two-week, three-week timeframe in a far part of the world, we might not take it on. I think the bottom line is if we think we can do it and do it well, we will take it on. If we don’t think we can do it, we will not take it on. It’s that simple, because it only takes one bad search to spoil your reputation, and we’re not willing to do that. If a company is in huge throes, is noted as a not a great place to work, yeah, that might be something we would consider not taking on unless we thought they had a plan in place or were asking us to recruit a leader to change the culture. So, that would be another thing we would look at.
Pam Harper: Okay. Having the relationship in place and having a clear awareness of whether there’s a fit is important here. We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back we’ll talk more with Jane Howze of The Alexander Group about what goes on behind the curtain of her award-winning executive search firm to find the best and brightest top executive talent. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re brought to you by Business Advancement, Inc., and we focus on enabling visionary leaders to dramatically increase momentum for game-changing results. We’re on the web at businessadvance.com.
Pam Harper: We’d like to welcome our listeners, especially our many new listeners. If you’re not already subscribed to our Growth Igniters community, you could get even more value by signing up. You’ll receive reminders of our new biweekly podcast along with a link to a page filled with all kinds of resources. On off weeks, you’ll receive a Growth Igniters post, which is about a two-minute read.
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper, that’s me, and Scott Harper. Today, Scott and I are speaking with Jane Howze, managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, about hiring an executive search firm that’s the right fit for your company. Jane, how can people find out more about you and The Alexander Group?
Jane Howze: Well, Pam, our website is www.thealexandergroup.com, and our headquarters office is in Houston at 713-993-7900. Of course, we’re on social media as well.
Pam Harper: You also have an excellent blog. I’ve been there. People should be sure and go over and visit. You can access information by visiting growthignitersradio.com, episode 148 and scroll down to Resources.
Pam Harper: So, going back to our conversation, we were starting out talking about the importance of relationship between client and executive search firm. What would you say is most important in terms of developing a productive relationship between a client and an executive recruiter?
Jane Howze: Pam, what a great question. I always ask that of new clients as well, and the answer for both sides is you want to hire a recruiter who wants to get to know your business. From a recruiter standpoint, I want to know the client. I want to know who are the executives making the decisions. I want to know what the culture is. I want to know what it’s like to work there, and what are the challenges, what are the opportunities. I think most clients realize you need to spend time with the recruiter. Some don’t, and I think it’s like any relationship, the more you put in, the more you get out.
Pam Harper: I would imagine that you or one of the members of your team go out to the office, right?
Jane Howze: We do. For example, we’re conducting a search now for a CEO of a very prestigious not-for-profit, and we have spent time talking to every board member, all of the senior management team, the search committee, and it’s such great time invested. We won’t have to come back to them with 50 questions during the search because we’ve spent so much time with them, we know the organization. I think that’s a really important thing and any recruiter who doesn’t want to get really deep in the weeds to know the client, I think they’re missing an opportunity to avoid some problems that could come up later in the search.
Pam Harper: That is so important, Jane, the whole idea of getting to know a client. I imagine every once in a while, you find out some interesting things about a client, too.
Jane Howze: You can. I can remember several years ago going to meet a client and finding out, well, that there had been three people in the position in the last five years. Then you can have a face-to-face talk with the client, “Okay, there’s some challenges to recruiting for this position. Why did you lose three people previously and how can we turn that misfortune to our advantage in the recruiting process?” I think there’s a lot of strategy to the way you spend time with your clients, and when we’re going to the market, recruiting passive candidates, you can’t have surprises like, “Well, I hear they have high turnover.” You’ve got to say, “Well, they have, but they’re doing this, this, and this. And when you do all of these changes, yes, there’s turnover.” You’ve got to be able to speak as the voice of the client, and if you don’t spend time with the client, you can’t do that and you won’t attract as outstanding candidates as you could.
Pam Harper: I agree.
Scott Harper: And you have to make sure that everybody at your client is on the same page, right? You can’t have the board thinking one thing, the CEO thinking another thing, and the executive team thinking another thing.
Jane Howze: Scott, that’s such a great point. Many years ago, I had a search for a president of a winery, and there were two co-chairmen. I went out and met with them and one said, “I want a change agent. I want somebody who’s going to come in and get rid of everybody, new management team.” The other co-president said, “This is a great company. I don’t want someone to make one change. I want the trains to run just like they did.”
Jane Howze: Well, that was a great opportunity to talk with them and say, “Guys, we need to come to common ground or no candidate is going to please you both.” So, that’s a great point that you make, Scott. It’s important to flush out all the conflicts and all of the things that need to be cleared up before you start the search.
Pam Harper: It really is. This is, I would say, a foundational piece, of course, for a search. Now, how has The Alexander Group risen to the challenge of recruiting the best and the brightest talent in today’s tight job market?
Jane Howze: This is, Pam, a very tight market. However, there is someone for everyone. It’s a question of how much you’re willing to look, how patient you’re willing to be. One of the advantages we have is a lot of search firms now, with technology being so good, they rely 100% on databases. Good people don’t stay in a database long, to follow your point of a tight market, and bad candidates stay there forever, I like to joke.
Jane Howze: We have a five-person knowledge management team that uses directories. They use a lot of calling effort in addition to a database, so we find people who really have never done a resume before, who haven’t ever put their resume in any search firm’s database. I think that’s the key to why our firm, as small as we are, we’re only 25 employees, has done so well, because we have an ability to identify passive candidates better than most search firms. But make no mistake about it, it is, indeed, a tight market.
Pam Harper: I imagine technology also plays a role in helping you beyond what we are talking about.
Jane Howze: It does play a role. If a client came to us and said, “I want somebody from Duke University who has worked in North Dakota and who has done this, this, and this,” Linkedin in a lot of ways can help you. There are other even more advanced databases, although they’re very expensive, that can help you. So, we’re in kind of a mode while the market’s tight, clients have the ability to be pretty specific and pretty picky about what they want. I think the main thing anybody hiring a search firm should ask, “How do you find passive candidates?” And if somebody says, “We have a great database,” that is not a good enough answer. There has to be other resources, given this tight market.
Scott Harper: In addition to that, Jane, what are other metrics that you would recommend for clients to think about in evaluating the return on the investment of retaining an executive search firm like yours?
Jane Howze: Well, Scott, most clients, when they hire an executive search firm, the question they ask is, “How many of these searches have you done?” That is not the right question to ask, but that’s what … If I’m building a house, I’m going to ask the builder, “How many houses have you built?” That’s quantity. The question that potential clients should be asking the search firm is, “How many of these searches have you done and when did you do them, and is the CEO, is the chief human resources officer, are they still there?”
Jane Howze: For example, our firm’s done probably 10 CEO searches of not-for-profits in the last 10 years, and every single one of them is still there. I would hire us over somebody who’s done 25 and half of them are gone now. I think the metrics that need to be asked is, “Walk me through a successful search. Tell me what’s happened to the CEOs that you have recruited? How many are still there after two years, after three years, after five years?” That’s the metrics that I use when I talk about specific industries. I think that’s what clients should use, but many of them don’t. They just want to know how many, how many.
Scott Harper: Quality over quantity is what I’m hearing.
Pam Harper: And retention is really where it’s at.
Jane Howze: Exactly. And very few potential clients talk to references and ask, “What can I expect from this firm? Do they just do database searches? Are they making a lot of phone calls? Are they engaged?” Those types of things. I think people feel like if somebody gives them a big enough number and a big name, they should hire them, and I think that’s why you find so … Well, I know that’s why we come in behind other search firms from time to time because the client didn’t make a good choice of fit for them.
Pam Harper: Okay. Well, quality is key. And on that note we’re going to do take another quick break. When we come back, Scott and I will talk more with Jane Howze, managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, about immediately useful ideas for finding, hiring, and managing an executive search firm, especially when it’s right for your company. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: You’re listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement, Inc. We’re on the web at businessadvance.com.
Pam Harper: As we’re discussing the essentials of hiring an executive search firm that’s the best fit for your company, as we were saying, it’s critical to be alert for what we’re calling the elephants in the room. These are the issues that we’ve seen that everyone knows are there, but no one wants to talk about. In the case of executive search, it could be opinions about the position itself or search criteria or it could be feelings about the candidates or something else. The fact is to get the best results from any hiring process, you need to be willing to free the elephant, and the first step is to recognize what’s feeding it.
Scott Harper: That’s why we’ve written a Harper Report called “Taking Control of the Elephants in the Room.”. This is one of our more popular reports because it’s practical and addresses an issue that every leader or team faces at one point or another, especially when they’re hiring top leadership. So, go to growthignitersradio.com, select episode 148, and request your complimentary copy of the report, “How to Take Control of the Elephants in the Room.”.
New SpeakerPam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been talking with Jane Howze, Managing Director and Founder of The Alexander Group, about what goes into hiring and managing a retained executive search firm, especially one that meets your company’s needs.
Pam Harper: Jane, remind us again how people can find out more about you and the Alexander Group.
Jane Howze: Thanks, Pam. Our website is www.thealexandergroup.com. We’re also very active on social media. We write a weekly blog that can be found on our website, our Facebook page and LinkedIn page with advice for people in leadership roles and people seeking leadership roles.
Pam Harper: We also have some of Jane’s previous episodes on Growth Igniters Radio, and you can find links to those by going to growthignitersradio.com, episode 148, and scrolling down under Resources.
Pam Harper: We are now at the point in our podcast where we talk about the immediately useful ideas, and in this case it would be finding, hiring, and managing the right executive search firm. Jane, why don’t you start us off here. What would be the most important criteria to look for in an executive search firm, an immediately useful idea?
Jane Howze: An immediately useful idea for anyone is to think long term. When you’re hiring, don’t just think, “Oh, we need a head of engineering,” or, “We need a CFO.” Think, “Is there a firm that our company could have a long-term relationship with where they could serve us over the long term? They could get to know us and really be a business partner for us?” I think so many people think, “Okay, I’ve got this need. Let me find the search firm for this need. How many CFO searches have you done?” and that’s it. Look for a search firm that talks about long-term relationships, talks about their clients that come back to them year after year after year. That’s really an important thing to look for, is somebody that looks at you as a relationship, not a transaction.
Scott Harper: So you have a real continuity there and, of course, you get inside their heads. The more you do that, the better off you’re going to be able to serve them. That’s great. What’s an immediately useful idea for, say, maximizing the speed and quality of a search if someone is working with a retained firm?
Jane Howze: Well, the one hit on a lot of search firms is they’re too pokey;, they’re too slow. But when you’re recruiting passive candidates, it can sometimes take a little longer because people aren’t like, I’ve had a bad Monday, let me go tomorrow. You know?
Jane Howze: I think that the one way to have speed and quality is to have … With all of our clients, we have weekly calls or email updates. That way, if we’re going in a wrong direction, if there’s something that interests the client, you can stop us right there and say, “Oh, my goodness, I didn’t know you were looking at these types of candidates. That’s great. Keep going.” Don’t let us go down a path and a month later, return a phone call and say, “Oh, no, we don’t want people from this company. They’re a customer,” or something like that.
Jane Howze: So, communication, communication, communication is the key to both speed and quality.
Pam Harper: Okay. If we’re looking now at the immediately useful way to ensure the most successful outcome −, because you were talking before about retention −, what would be an immediately useful idea there?
Jane Howze: I think the search firms shouldn’t go away after the search is done. I think a lot of people, we’re done, you’ve started work. But I try and do 90-day check-ins with our candidates. If there’s any problems, if there’s any issues that need to be addressed, you can address them. If you wait till six months, nine months in and there’s a miscommunication or something, it’s harder to fix. I think you’re a resource for both the company and the new placement, and I think that’s a really important thing for a successful outcome. Secondly, and we could do a whole show on this and maybe we should, how do you check references? How do you check background checks?
Jane Howze: What’s new in this world of technology? There’s a lot new and a lot going on and a lot of things you can do and can’t do, but I think that’s a key into making sure that you have the right fit, is the reference checking. To sum it up, you really do good research, you find passive candidates, you find people with history of having impact, everyplace they’ve worked, they’ve made that organization better, and you recruit those people. You check them out, you see how they’re going to fit into your culture, really deep background checks.
Jane Howze: All of these things are part of, I guess, almost a recipe, if you will, for a successful long-term hire. And no search is ever perfect. If you do work for somebody for 25 years, you’re always at the end of the search debriefing. What do we do? How do we do it better? And one of the things we do with our clients is we survey our clients when we’re done, “What did we do well? What could we do better?” The clients love it. We don’t get a lot of negative comments, so that’s always a great thing for us, but it’s an important thing, too, if you have a relationship to be able to debrief after the search is over.
Pam Harper: You said the magic word, Jane, it’s a relationship −, and you are right. There is so much to talk about, but we’ve run out of time. Thank you so much for being our guest today.
Jane Howze: My pleasure. It sounds like we’ve come up with a couple of more ideas for future broadcasts.
Scott Harper: Great. Thanks, Jane. And thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To get show notes and resource links for this week’s episode, go to growthignitersradio.com, select episode 148.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to consider with your team:
Scott Harper: Should we hire an executive search firm to address our hiring needs at the top? And if we do, what are we committed to doing to make sure we’re working together in a most productive way?