Comeback hiring: Getting the best talent in the worst of times

By KEN PLASZ and STEVEN LaKIND, Taylor/Haley Search Partners LLC--Despite today's continuing uncertainty, there is light at the end of the tunnel; the economy will eventually get better, albeit with more unpleasant surprises along the way. When the transition has occurred, executive leadership will have a new face.

Jan 9th, 2003

Taylor/Haley Search Partners LLC

Major change has once again reared its head. The unprecedented growth and innovation of the 1990s has given way to the demise of the dot-coms and downturn in telecommunications sectors, last year's Sept. 11 attacks, widespread layoffs, dramatically falling stock prices, and ongoing corporate scandals of mega-proportions.

Despite today's continuing uncertainty, there is light at the end of the tunnel--and the economy will eventually get better, albeit with more unpleasant surprises along the way. When the transition has occurred, executive leadership will have a new face. No longer synonymous with individual self-interest, greed, and lack of conscience, tomorrow's leaders will have the experience, ethics, integrity, and intestinal fortitude required to tackle the challenges and scrutiny of a bottom-line economy, focusing on the company and its shareholders instead of themselves.

Unfortunately, many organizations lack the executive leadership capable of bridging the gap between today's transition and tomorrow's comeback. Hiring in times of economic uncertainty is often reactive and focused primarily on filling in the immediate gaps. That takes the form of quick-fix hires from limited networks of contacts in the false belief that it is more cost-effective--ignoring the larger issue of the individual's ability to add shareholder value. Moreover, core competencies are often based on yesterday's standards of measurement.

New breed of leader

Executive leaders we prize are not threatened by economic uncertainty nor do they use economic conditions as a crutch. They have learned from and have managed through the rigors of change. Committed to long-term success and growth of the companies they represent, this breed of leader possesses an unfailing drive to maintain growth and profitability and holds everyone, including themselves, accountable for the numbers.

Some qualities and skills of outstanding executive leaders include:

• Ethical and transparent conduct at all times
• Entrepreneurial and self-made
• Accountable and customer-centric--accustomed to being measured by bottom-line performance and focuses energies on the organization's core business (sales versus business development)
• Strategic--sets and evaluates realistic and reasonable, yet challenging, metrics necessary for growth and success
• Proven superior operating skills, particularly in a challenging internal/external environment; leads by example; and sets vision/strategy, then visibly leads its execution
• Brilliant communicator and motivator--clearly and consistently communicates key organizational goals, objectives, and direction up and down the organization and to the external shareholders
• Infectiously energetic and passionate--predicts and conveys the light at the end of a dark economic tunnel and focuses strategy and objectives to that end
• Adaptive and innovative--a team player who thrives on organizational change
• Savvy board manager (in the case of a chief executive)--integrates a board of directors and an executive team focused on the ethical long-term development of the company and its bottom line

Without question, this pool of sought-after leaders has become more cautious, selective, and savvy in deciding to make a job change. These corporate heroes do not post resumes on the Internet or respond to in-house or contingency recruiters--they don't have to. They are highly networked and keep a relatively low profile.

Searching for search firms

All of which makes a strong case for closely evaluating and measuring the performance of your corporate hiring process and the search firms that support it. Search firms must be scrutinized and evaluated as stringently as the executives they are hired to recruit. There are a few things to be on the lookout for among recruiting firms, including:

• Firm's interest in recruiting for "you." Each search should be tailor-made every time. Principals or managers that claim to know "everyone" largely recycle the same pool of candidates. Stones are left unturned and exceptional people the firm has not taken the time to uncover are never introduced.
• Nonrestrictive hands-off limitations that do not limit access into the competition or other fertile companies
• Flat-fee arrangement versus a straight percentage of the selected candidate's actual cash compensation--no question or conflict of interest and no surprises. The entire fee should not be paid before the completion of the search. Administrative expenses (postage, express mail, research fees) are part and parcel of the fee and should not be billed as separate "fluff."
• Highly focused and responsive principal/manager and search team. Individual workload is limited to ensure delivery.
• Thorough and unambiguous reference-checking procedure conducted early in the search process.
• Stated, aggressive accountability measurements and benchmarks surrounding the process, execution, and results. Search assignments over 90 days are generally unacceptable.

Ken Plasz and Steven LaKind are principals with Taylor/Haley Search Partners LLC (Swampscott, MA). They can be reached via the company's Website,

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