The Secret to Recruiting AI Leadership

The Secret to Recruiting AI Leadership

The Secret to Recruiting AI Leadership

Executive search is hard. An executive search for AI leadership talent is even harder. That’s because there is a growing shortage of the best-of-the-best AI minds. That shortage, through the simple law of supply and demand, has turned AI leadership compensation packages into wealth creation opportunities. The New York Times recently reported A.I. Researchers Are Making More Than $1 Million, Even at a Nonprofit.

“Now, a little-noticed tax filing by a research lab called OpenAI has made some of those eye-popping figures public. OpenAI paid its top researcher, Ilya Sutskever, more than $1.9 million in 2016. It paid another leading researcher, Ian Goodfellow, more than $800,000 — even though he was not hired until March of that year. Both were recruited from Google.”

AI leadership ML image of floating brain

The 3-comma ROI of AI Leadership

With compensation well into the 2-comma range, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) executive searches are not for the faint of heart. There is so much at stake. AI technologists generate intellectual property in the form of patents. Intellectual property (IP) assets are used not just to protect technology rights, but also to gain competitive advantage and drive new revenue opportunities.

So while AI leaders can cost well in excess of $1 million a year in compensation, they hold the promise of a return on that investment in the 3-comma billion dollar range.Click To Tweet

That’s what’s at stake when clients come to The Good Search for help. We specialize in Data Science, Data Analytics, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence. That’s because we are staffed, not by typical recruiters, but by investigative researchers who offer deep data analytics and computer science expertise. Some even program bots for kicks. We understand just enough about what AI technologists do to share their passion — and yes, some of their concerns — as we witness what was once the stuff of sci-fi become reality. Artificial Intelligence is a collection of leading-edge technologies that allow machines to sense, comprehend, act, and learn. It enables systems to learn without being programmed. Yes, computer scientists have actually taught machines how to think. While we’re not quite yet at the robots-mocking-humans stage, we’re getting awfully close.


The Secret to Recruiting AI Leaders

If you are building out your AI capability and don’t know where to begin, we offer you 6 easy steps below — the secret to recruiting AI leaders.

1. Determine what kind of AI talent you require.

The AI discipline comes in many flavors: knowledge representation and logical reasoning, robotics, machine learning, probabilistic modeling and inference, natural language processing, cognition, and applications in domains such as biology and text processing. What flavor do you need? Do you need a leader heading up an AI team or lab? If so, what kind of team? Data scientists, AI developers, computational biologists, or bioinformatics professionals? Do you require your team leader to be an artificial intelligence expert or someone who is technical enough to manage AI subject-matter experts?

2. Check your network for AI talent.

Top AI leaders know other AI technologists and researchers. It is a tight-knit community, particularly at the highest level. Venture capital-backed startups make it a practice to leverage employee referrals from AI technologists and from entrepreneurs-in-residence at the VC firms that invest in AI such as 500, Accel, Data Collective, Intel Capital, Khosla Ventures, Lux, NEA (New Enterprise Associates), and Y Combinator. Companies who come to us usually have tapped out their networks.

3. Grow your own AI talent.

In Winning the war for AI talentCIO Magazine contributing writer Esther Shein reports, “Desperate times, it is said, call for desperate measures. Many organizations are dealing with the AI talent shortage by forming partnerships with universities and by training and building from within.” Gifted AI professionals come out of the top engineering schools. In fact, there is a lineage. Renowned professors cultivate gifted students who go out into the world and do great things. It makes sense to build relationships with the schools generating the talent.

4. Proactively map AI and machine learning talent.*

*A significant percentage of AI engineers are elusive creatures. You won’t find them on LinkedIn. They don’t have to hang out there. The people who matter know who they are. However, that doesn’t help a company trying to build a team of gifted AI engineers.  That’s where a recruiting research firm comes in. Mapping the talent takes painstaking research, going into patents, research papers, assorted working groups, and other places where AI engineers gather. Most recruiting sourcing teams lack the expertise to do the kind of investigative work required to uncover the best-of-the-best and they lack highly-placed sources who are, themselves, AI experts. That’s where our recruiting research firm Intellerati comes in. It pays to invest in expert talent mapping to build out a list of prospective candidates and to keep that list refreshed.

5. Invest in AI leadership to attract talent.

While there is a shortage of AI leadership talent, AI executives with requisite leadership and communications skills are so rare they’re frequently referred to as unicorns. They demand the highest compensation and can tailor a job to their own liking. Many are genius academics taking a break from leading AI labs at top universities to go play for a while in an AI sandbox at, say, Amazon. The compensation packages for rare AI leaders are so high they may knock the wind out of you at first glance. But in addition to generating IP, these highly sought-after leaders also serve as talent magnets, rapidly attracting AI professionals to scale their teams.

6. Acquire an AI startup, or better yet, lift out a team.

Acquiring a company for the talent is tricky business. Harvard Business Review cautions it is very hard to do well. Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and HBS Research Associate Robin Abrahams write, “Companies looking to expand quickly into a new geographic or functional area often choose to merge with or acquire other companies. But the risks of such moves are well-known, and the success rates are dismal.” In their article, Lift Outs: How to Acquire a High-Functioning Team, they advise lift outs may be a better strategy.

“There is an alternative, one that’s gained attention in recent years: a lift out, which entails hiring a high-functioning group of people from the same company who have worked well together and can quickly come up to speed in a new environment . . .They enable a quick ramp-up in talent without the logistical and psychological stresses of an acquisition or the socio-dynamic challenges of creating teams from scratch. The advantages of long-standing relationships and trust help an experienced team make an impact much faster than could a group of people brought together for the first time. There’s no need for team members to get acquainted with one another or establish shared values, mutual accountability, or group norms. Instead, the team can hit the ground running and help the company as business opportunities arise.”

Gain a Competitive Advantage in AI Recruitment

Mapping AI talent, investing in AI leadership, or lifting-out a team are ways to gain a competitive advantage. But each one of those approaches takes talent acquisition capabilities that few corporations have in-house. Inevitably, many of those companies find their way to The Good Search. We’ve been recruiting technology luminaries who are creating the next great thing for going on 20 years. We specialize in artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, data analytics, computational biology, and bioinformatics because, deep down, we are data nerds. That’s our story. But we are, by no means, the only search firm in town. To help you in your quest for the right firm, we’ve assembled a list of search firms for you along with details on how to select the right search firm for your company. You also might want to check out our post How to Tell if Your Company Is Ready for AI. We’re here to help.

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When Should I Use an Executive Search Firm?

When Should I Use an Executive Search Firm?

When to Use an Executive Search Firm

Employers use an executive search firm when a search is important enough to warrant the investment. That is the right time to use an executive search firm. I use the word “investment” for a reason.  A retained executive search will likely cost you a minimum of $50,000 and averages $100,000 or more — typically one-third of a candidate’s first-year total cash compensation. Typically, these are senior-executive roles with salaries averaging $300-thousand or more.

First, it needs to be worth the investment

If an executive search has to be worth the investment, how do you do the math? The importance of a senior executive role can be measured financially. How much money might this executive make for your company? If you don’t find the right person, how much money might this person lose? If the cost of not filling the role with the right candidate is significantly higher than the cost of the search, then you may be ready to consider investing in the services of a retained executive search firm.

If it is Not Important, You Don’t Need a Search Firm.

Retained search is not right for every search every time. There are some roles that are simply not important enough for that kind of investment. In those cases, you don’t use an executive search firm. I often brainstorm with senior executives about ways they can build their teams without incurring the expense of an executive search firm. You can get a lot of lift with employee referrals, job postings, and LinkedIn. If you need support, a recruiting research practice like our firm Intellerati could help you develop a list of potential candidates with biographies and contact information.  They can even qualify the candidates for you. But ultimately you have to have the time and bandwidth to do the recruiting yourself. Recruiting top performing executives is labor-intensive, complex, and requires a rare set of skills and expertise. That is why retained search firms exist. In fact,  they are in such demand that, despite the economic downturn, their average fee for an engagement has increased.

When Should I Use a Search Firm

Reasons to Retain a Search Firm

What follows are the common reasons companies decide to use a search firm.

1. Good just is not good enough. You require a senior executive candidate who is truly great.
If hiring top performing talent available is important to your company, a search firm can help you do the rigorous work required for game-changing hires.

2. The search is incredibly important at the senior executive level.  
Searches for C-level positions that report to the Chief Executive Officer usually are too important not to go out to a retained search firm. Executives at that level can make or break a company. A retained search firm can mitigate the risk.

3. You are seeking a candidate with a rare mix of skills. 
If you have an important search in which you are seeking the proverbial needle in the haystack, a search firm can help you get it done.  Better executive search firms will deliver a slate of candidates with the right mix of knowledge, skills, and abilities along with the requisite cultural fit.

4. You have a search for a senior executive position that you just created.
When an executive search falls outside your area of expertise, an executive search firm can plug the knowledge gap with their domain know-how.

5. You have to replace an underperforming executive while he is still in the role. 
For companies that need to line up a replacement while the senior executive is still in the role, search firms offer a much-needed veil of secrecy.

6. You have to recruit for target company with which your company has good relationships.
If you need to recruit top executive talent from partner firms with which your company does business, the confidentiality that search firms offer helps avoid ruffling feathers.

7. Your senior leadership team lacks diversity.
Because women, Black and Latino candidates are not well-represented at the senior executive levels, search firms can help level the playing field by conducting original research to ensure equal opportunity for all candidates.

8. Your lack internal bench strength and have few successors to your senior executives.
If you sense a key executive might be on the verge of leaving or that you could benefit from top-grading, a succession bench help you tee up executive hires in advance of need.

9. You do not have the time or resources to take on an executive search.
If you already have too much to do and too little time, taking on an important executive search can quickly become its own full-time job. That is what search firms do.

10. You have tapped out your personal and company networks for candidate referrals.
If you have exhausted your network of connections for possible referrals, it is time to access another network. Executive search consultants are among the most well-networked people in the business.

11. You have an important executive search that is taking too long.
Whenever a search takes to long, it is time to call in reinforcements to speed time-to-hire for challenging searches and those with compressed timelines.

12. You want to give your company a strategic advantage through better hires.
Retained search firms are in the business of delivering top performers — the 20% that are so effective they are responsible 80% of the results. Anytime you have a senior executive search, it is an opportunity to trade up to a top performer and to drive results.

The Good Search is a retained executive search firm in the Greater New York City area that specializes in media and technology. We are here to answer any questions you may have when you are ready to move forward with a search engagement.

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Top Executive Search Firms List: How to Build Your Own

Top Executive Search Firms List: How to Build Your Own

Top Executive Search Firms List: How to Build Your Own

A short list of the top executive search firms is readily available in the minds of most CEOs, Chief People Officers, Heads of Talent Acquisition. But what’s a company to do if that short list comes up short? What is a C-Level executive with an important opening to do if her current retained search firms are not delivering the value she needs? What if the search firms a board member knows are great at some searches, but not all?

Well, you used to be able to pull up The Directory of Executive of Professional and Executive recruiters published by Kennedy Information. That directory detailed the kind of search firm (retained or contingency) and the firms’ specialties, Yet it is no longer being published.

Directory of Executive & Professional Recruiters

The reason we thought we’d put together a list of the top executive search firms because the lists on the Internet are pretty haphazard. In fact, at least one of the sites appeared to be bogus. was created by a search firm that then inserted itself into the fake list of Top Executive Search Firms that the website made up. We’d been tracking this website for some time until ultimately we decided to contact the firm’s CEO and ask for a quote for a blog post on the phony site. Shortly thereafter, the site was taken down. (You can still find it in the Internet Archive.) This is just one pretty stark reminder that you cannot trust everything you read, especially stuff you come across on the Internet these days, alt-facts and one. One must always consider the source, and if that source is murky, be especially cautious.

In other words, as a best practice, it is always good to assemble your own list of Top Executive Search firms. To assist in that effort, we have a few suggestions.


To Recruit Rock Stars, It Helps to Know Them

To Recruit Rock Stars, It Helps to Know Them

To Recruit Rock Stars, It Helps to Know Them

Headhunters regularly say they recruit rock star executives, but few know what that really means. The vast majority of executive recruiters have never known a single rock star. They haven’t a clue what it takes to perform at that level — at the very top — whether in front of a stadium of fans or in the boardroom.

In fact, few executive recruiters have actually recruited executives and technologists who would qualify as an icon. Rock stars are unicorns. They are rare, if not magical, beings. Headhunters who’ve met the real thing get that. And I’m not saying that musical rock stars and corporate rock stars are equivalent. That is so not what I am saying. I’m not being literal. I’m saying to recruit at that level, a recruiter needs to operate at that level. The more time you spend with champions in any profession, the more capable you become at recognizing that talent in candidates on the verge of reaching the top.

That is why I hear a little voice inside my head that sounds remarkably like Kristen Wiig whenever a headhunter breezily insists “I recruit rock stars”,

Why Knowing Actual Rock Stars is Relevant

For the few of us who have gotten to know actual rock stars, the experience informs our understanding of the championship mindset, the qualities that compel executives and technologists to outperform everyone else on the planet. Real rock stars have taught me how to recognize the special mix of skills and abilities that it takes to rise to the very top in business. In fact, I have witnessed rock musicians so iconic they have shaped the very definition of “rock star”.

Why Recruit Rock Star Executives and Technologists?

Executive recruiters seek star quality in the candidates that we recruit so our clients can be more successful. Startups backed by top-tier venture capital firms require that level of performance to scale a company. They also need marquis-names to attract investors so they don’t run out of runway (money). Steve Jobs is a classic example of how rock star leaders attract followers.  He inspired the cult of Mac. When companies hire a famed technologist, other engineers flock to work there. Talent acquisition becomes so much easier. But that’s not all.

Headhunters recruit rocks stars because the top performers have a way of getting even better. Click To Tweet

Headhunters focus on gifted executives because, as the Harvard Business Review reports, the best-of-the-best leaders have a way of getting even better. They use competition to hone their skills, and they constantly reinvent themselves to stay ahead of the pack.

“Star players focus on what they can control and forget the rest. They’re masters of compartmentalization.”

I’ve witnessed that relentless focus first hand. Though he is a humble guy, my husband Crispin Cioe is counted among the top saxophonists in the world. To get to that level, one has to woodshed (practice) an insane amount of hours. With few exceptions, Crispin has practiced every day that I’ve known him. He shows up no matter what. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him complain. (How is that possible?) I honestly don’t know how he does it. His work ethic is intrinsic: he simply wakes up that way. Every day he doggedly shows up to discover ways to do what he does better. And it gives him joy. Crispin’s daily routine leverages our minds ability to run programs (habits) without really having to think about it. (On that latter point, I highly recommend the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.)

I started dating Crispin after bumping into him at the home of Keith Richards in Weston, Connecticut. (I know, right? That actually happened.) Before that, when I lived in Boston, I became friends with members of the J. Geils Band. In fact, it turns out my husband toured with J. Geils as part of the Uptown Horns. Crispin also played with members of Aerosmith. So when the J. Geils Band and Aerosmith, Boston’s top rock ‘n’ roll bands, played Fenway Park for the first time — front page news in Boston — I was there. I hung out backstage and in a guest section up front taking photos while Crispin did his sax thing:

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Fenway Park, August 14, 2010. Photo by Krista Bradford

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith at Fenway Park August 14, 2010. Photo by Krista Bradford.

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith at Fenway Park 2010

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Fenway Park, August 14, 2010. Photo by Krista Bradford.

Before that, I lived across the street from Jimmy Seals of Seals & Crofts who would come over and play the piano in my living room. Next door to him was legendary sessions musician and guitarist Louie Shelton. (Check out his solos in Last Train to Clarksville and Hello.)

It’s crazy. Here I was this investigative reporter and TV journalist at the time — so not a musician — yet music kept popping into my life. It gave me glimpses of real genius.

My husband Crispin Cioe (the guy in the middle in the photo below) has not only toured with rock stars that include the Rolling Stones, he’s played on more than 600 albums and is part of the famed horn section called The Uptown Horns. He’s scored motion pictures. (See Burnzy’s Last Call.) He’s composed and recorded his own music with his band Cracked Ice. (See Cracked Ice’s Soul Noir.) He has served as music director for the Mark Twain Prize for Comedy on PBS. (See Jimmy Fallon’s U2 sendup Beautiful Fey and Jack Black’s School of Rock rendition of Queen’s We Will Rock You.) He’s played with Aretha Franklin, and James Brown, and Cold Play, The list goes on.

Between the two of us, we have spent a lifetime studying what it takes to be iconic.


The Uptown Horns with Keith Richards

Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards with the Uptown Horns. (From left: Bob Funk, Paul Litteral, Crispin Cioe, Keith Richards, Arno Hecht)

What It Takes to Be a Rock Star

Research indicates it is virtually impossible to predict how successful a candidate will be once they’re hired. But might there be a way to determine a rock star in the making? There are obvious qualities and not so obvious characteristics that, when combined, produce a rock star. What makes it tricky is that rock stars are outliers. To quote Apple, they think different. They are often unconventional. (Real rock stars are an extreme example. Corporate rock stars rein it in a bit.)

Sometimes, they think so far outside the box they can be hard to follow. Their minds take quantum leaps. In tech, frequently their brain’s processing speed is off-the-chart. If they’re a creative, their thought process may be more circular than linear. With that caveat, here are the skills and abilities I’ve witnessed in the rock stars I have known in the C-suite as well as with the band(s).

Talent that Seems to Come from the Heavens

You need other-worldly talent. There is a savant quality that rock stars have. I’ve seen the same thing in gifted technologists and executives. One iconic musician I know dreamed he could play the guitar and woke up to discover that he actually could. He’d never touched a guitar in his life or had a lesson. How is that even possible? Genius software rock stars have the same ability.

Vision They Summon Into Being

Rock stars in any field have a vision of what they are creating for themselves and they go create it. That is their reality. They manifest their destiny. They call it into being.  It sounds like an exaggeration but ask them.  Rock stars really do this. The vast majority knew they would become a star at the outset or the best at what they do. Or they already thought of themselves as a star and stuck with it long enough until everyone else thought the same thing.

Discipline Required for Mastery

Michael Jordan was known for practicing ridiculous hours every day.  Before regular practice started, Jordan would even practice at his house. Eventually, his work ethic rubbed off on his teammates, making the Chicago Bulls one of the best NBA teams in history. Rock stars put in the time to perfect their craft that so that when it comes time to walk on stage, they don’t have to be up in their head and think when they perform. The music flows. Clocking Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour-rule makes a difference.

Peak-Performance Ability

Have you ever been so engrossed in work that you lost track of time? That is what is called a state of flow, a type of concentration that enables peak performance. Rock stars are masters of flow, which is considered the most productive and creative state of mind in which to work. Often flow produces a sense ecstasy where work seems effortless. Performers and athletes enter that state when on stage or competing for the championship.

Quantum Simplification

Rock stars have the ability to simplify the incredibly complex. A rock star technologist can distill thousands of lines of code into a single expression. Steve Jobs simplified Apple’s product line and the design of its products. Miles Davis could fill a room with a single note.The best are inherently minimalistic. Their leaps of creativity shed what is unnecessary so that what remains is inspired work.

Unstoppable Work Ethic

Rock stars are like the Energizer Bunny. They keep going and going. They don’t call in sick. On a tour, your show up unless you require hospitalization. The best-of-the-best regularly clock long hours without complaint. The long hours are offset by the satisfaction they get knowing it makes them better at what they do. They get satisfaction by what they create. Because they work in a state of flow, hard work isn’t as hard as it is for those who can’t lock into that level of concentration.

Limitless Persistence (Heart)

Rock stars persist when they are in pain, They get up when they are knocked down. They rise when they fall. And when people tell them that they don’t have what it takes, they keep going. They use failure to improve what they do. They transform irritants into pearls.They never, ever give up. (See How to Recognize Great Talent in Executive Search.)

The video below gives amazing examples of VIPs who persisted.

So Ask, “What Rock Stars Do You Know?”

So the next time a headhunter tells you he recruits rock stars, ask what time he’s spent with the best-of-the-best, whether real rock stars, champion athletes, or corporate wunderkinds. If they return a blank stare, find a recruiter who has the experience to recognize the nuanced mix of skills that makes someone a top-performer. Also, to avoid wasting your time with candidates who are not contenders, check out our post 6 Signs an Executive Candidate is a Waste of Time.

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Recruit A Players | Steve Jobs Quote

Recruit A Players | Steve Jobs Quote

Recruit A-Players | Steve Jobs Quote

When you recruit A-Players and you are channelling a key talent acquisition strategy of Apple founder Steve Jobs. There’s a vast difference between talent that is simply qualified and exceptional. Jobs understood that, which is why he focused on the best-of-the-best senior executives and engineers.

The Apple founder pursued the best executives and engineers because they could accomplish more.

Recruit A-Players Steve Jobs Quote

Recuit A-Players to Retain A-Players

In addition, he noted that A-Players find it frustrating to work with people who churn out average or sub-standard work. They simply don’t have the chance to develop if they are surrounded by people who are not as accomplished. If you recruit the best, you attract and retain more of the best.

Author Walter Isaacson of the book Steve Jobs quotes Jobs as saying,

“I’ve learned over the years that, when you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. The original Mac team taught me that A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B-grade work.”

At our retained executive search firm The Good Search, we also make it a practice to recruit technology rock stars and digital luminaries. I look for leaders who are intrinsically driven to outperform — it is just how they wake up in the morning.

A-Players Cannot Do it Alone

Those who recruit A-Players must realize their success doesn’t exist in a vacuum, as Harvard Business Review reminds us in The Risky Business of Hiring Stars.  The article by Boris Groysberg, Ashish Nanda, and Nitin Nohria explains:

An executive’s performance depends on both her personal competencies and the capabilities, such as systems and processes, of the organization she works for. When she leaves, she cannot take the firm-specific resources that contributed to her achievements. As a result, she is unable to repeat her performance in another company; at least, not until she learns to work the new system, which could take years.

When you recruit A-Players, it can be challenging to ensure their success in a new corporate environment. Yet, champions make such a big difference to a company’s P&L that it is a challenge top companies willingly accept.  Like Steve Jobs, the HBR article ultimately concludes:

 In business, the only viable strategy is to recruit good people, develop them, and retain as many of the stars as possible.

For more insight into Steve Jobs, check our blog post, What Adoption Did to Steve Jobs. As an adult adopted person, I believe his adoption experience is central to his success.

Selecting the Right Search Firm Type

Selecting the Right Search Firm Type

Selecting the Right Search Firm Type

The first step to selecting a search firm is deciding what search firm type you need.  If you are a CEO who is new to the world of executive search, there are critical differences between search firm business models of which you should be aware.  If you have used search firms in the past and have been frustrated with the outcome, understanding the key differences can help you choose a better search firm partner.

Contingency and Retained Search Differences

There are two traditional search firm types in the world of executive search — contingency and retained.  Contingency search firms are not paid to do the work of recruiting. They are only paid if and when they make a placement. Retained search firms charge a retainer to do the work of recruiting. While it is the goal of the firm to fill the opening, the firm’s fee is not contingent upon making an actual placement. Next-generation search firms are hybrid models that address the weaknesses of traditional search firm types, while they enhance the benefits.

Contingency Search Firms

Contingency firms primarily focus on individual contributor and mid-level roles.  Most of the contingency agreements are non-exclusive, meaning that multiple firms often work on the same search — may the best recruiter win. Contingency is a business of volume and speed. As a result, contingency firms submit as many candidates as possible to the client.  If they happen to have a great candidate in their hip pocket, they can deliver just the candidate you need. Yet clients complain this often results in a contingency firm throwing weak or unqualified candidates against the wall just to see what sticks. To expedite, contingency firms focus on active candidates — often the unemployed and the disgruntled — skipping harder-to-recruit passive candidates who are not actively looking, a higher quality candidate pool.

Contingency firms charge less than retained executive search firms. In fact, some hiring executives may be under the impression that contingency firms work “for free”. That’s how contingency firms market their services. But alas, my friends, that is an illusion. While a contingency firm is not paid to do the actual recruiting, if the contingency firm delivers the perfect candidate — which, of course, is the point — you will pay a placement fee. Every single time. And you will pay the full 20-25% of first year salary regardless as to whether it took just 2 days or more than 2 months to deliver the winning hire. The contingency fee is totally detached from time or effort.

The piece that I find most disturbing about contingency search is the risk. Contingency firms make it a practice to abandon searches that are too hard or that take too long to fill — they have to in order to survive because, hey, you’re not paying them to do the work of recruiting.  And because you’re not paying them, they don’t owe you any explanation when they walk away.  In fact, you will likely be under the impression that they are still working on your search when, in fact, they have moved on to easier searches more likely to yield a placement. As a result, critical openings languish unfilled, exacting a tremendous cost in lost revenues, lost time-to-market, and in lost morale. So, when you do the math, you need to factor in the opportunity cost.  Making matters worse, if you decide to engage another search firm after a contingency firm has hit the wall, you have no idea what ground the contingency firm covered. Remember?  They don’t owe you an explanation. You are back to square one — only now you’re 3 or 6 months or a year behind the eight ball.

Retained Search Firms

Traditional retained executive search firms work exclusively to fill board and senior-level executive roles, job openings that are rarely, if ever, advertised or posted online. Done well, the process is consultative because retained search is a form of management consulting. On average, retained search firms charge 33% of first year total cash compensation.  Often, they charge another 5% for expenses. Like contingency, the vast majority of retained firms insist on charging a percentage even though it creates that conflict-of-interest.

Retained firms focus on delivering top performing candidates. When the typical fee for a retained executive search is in excess of $100-thousand dollars, most clients expect a rock star. And when you examine the research, that strategy makes sense.  As HR thought-leader Dr. John Sullivan Pareto Principle, the law of the vital few, holds true. But will the retained search firm ultimately deliver the winning candidate? Sadly, for a host of reasons that I’ll get into in other posts, 40% of retained searches fail to complete. As for that retainer you paid? You’re out the $100-thousand and have nothing to show for it.  Ouch.

Now, many hiring executives take the failure rate as being par for the game.  It happens.  Move on.  The next great hire will more than make up for it. And the traditional retained search firm business is, by no means, hurting as a result of what some consider to be a pretty dismal track record. According to the AESC (Association of Executive Search Consultants), retained search fees are higher than they have ever been. Apparently, the 80/20 benefit delivered by retained searches does, indeed, offset for the down-side.

Photo Top Search Firms List

What to Avoid

Percentage Fee Conflicts-of-Interest

Traditionally, retained search firms and contingency search firms charge a percentage based on the compensation of the candidate who is hired. That’s something you should avoid. The percentage fee sets up a conflict-of-interest because it rewards search firms that inflate the salaries of the candidates that they place. The more the candidate gets paid the more the search firm makes. So, one might wonder, whose side are they really on? I ask not to disparage contingency recruiters or retained search partners, many of whom I count among my friends.  The traditional search firm business model is the issue. From where I sit, you shouldn’t have to wonder where a search firm’s loyalties lie. That is why I recommend doing business with firms that charge a simple flat fee. They’re out there. In addition to  The Good Search,  Egon Zehnder, one of the leading retained search firms in the world, charges a fixed-fee for the same reasons,

Unlike the traditional model of search consulting, we charge a fixed fee for our assignments. That means our only incentive is to deliver what’s best for you. Our fixed-fee policy frees us to be diligent, thorough, and completely unbiased, able to assess internal and external candidates on an equal basis and facilitate hiring negotiations with no conflict of interest.”

Opaque Black Box Process

The traditional executive search process is often an opaque black box.  That is also something to avoid. While you know what goes into it (your search fee) and what comes out of it (candidates), you don’t get to see what’s going on inside. Traditional retained search firms don’t hand over the candidate research.  That means there’s no way to audit the search firm’s work.  You have no idea where the firm has been or whom the firm has talked to on your behalf.  Traditional retained search firms like it that way.  They fear that by sharing the research that you won’t be as inclined to use them the next time you have a similar opening. You’ll just use the research instead.  However, that’s pretty short-sighted. Sharing the research throughout the search engagement lays down a foundation of real trust, ensures everyone is on the same page and facilitates more effective collaboration. Seriously, why wouldn’t a firm want to show its work, unless it has something to hide?

Lack of Data Research Expertise

With the amount of data in the world doubling every two years, traditional retained search research methods and research associates no longer cut it. You need to a firm that invests in research and that hires researchers with deep investigative and data analytics skills out of other research-intensive fields. People who want to do intensive business research for a living do not go into executive search as an occupation. They go into investigative journalism, competitive intelligence, marketing research, investment banking — or they go work for the NSA. Retained search firms that lack the necessary research skills miss top candidates. All too frequently those rock stars are standing in plain sight.  It is just that too many lesser candidates got in the way. You need a firm with the know-how to wrangle TMI. Without research expertise, traditikonal retained search firms are, in effect, searching with their eyes closed.

How to Decide

So what’s a hiring executive to do? If your current search firm is working for you — if it really has your back — develop that partnership. Forging a strong relationship with the right executive search partner pays real dividends. The best headhunters are among the most connected people you’ll ever meet. Not only can they help recruit members to your team, they can help refer business and funding your way.  And if that hot startup of yours runs out of runway, they can help you find a soft place to land.

If your current search firm is not working for you or if this is the first time you’ve considered using an executive search firm, you need to figure out what search firm type best suits your needs.  So, do the math. Weigh the drawbacks and benefits. Factor in the opportunity cost of failed search. Then pick the model and the firm that you trust.

For some, trust comes in the form of one of the major retained search firms — Spencer Stuart, Russell Reynolds Associates, Heidrick & Struggles, and Korn Ferry. There’s no way a boutique search firm can best the collective track record or geographic footprint of a major retained search firm.  Yet boutique retained search firms have their advantages which include offering concierge-quality client care. So check out the boutique firms that specialize in your industry. Our boutique retained search practice The Good Search specializes in technology as does BSG Team VenturesCT PartnersDaversa Partners, and Vell Executive Search. We’re all established players in this space, but we come in different flavors. You decide what’s right for you. If diversity is a priority, you might want to winnow your list down to firms led by diverse CEOs. On multiple occasions, The Good Search has been named one of the Top 50 Woman-owned companies in Connecticut by

If you’d rather manage the search yourself, a research firm can give you the opportunity to save on search fees. Our recruiting research practice Intellerati regularly partners with in-house executive recruiters. Often, we focus on the front end of the recruiting process, handing off interested, qualified candidates to our clients who manage the candidates through to hire. But Intellerati is by no means the only executive search research practice out there. Iris Libby, ExecuquestQualigence, Reveal Global, RW StearnsSheila Greco Associates (SGA Talent), and TechTrak have also been in this space a long time. 

So consider the firm, but as important, consider the executive search partner with whom you are working. In the end, you must recruit the executive recruiter who is right for you.

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Executive Search and the Art of Finding Your Person

Executive Search and the Art of Finding Your Person

Finding Your Person

In executive search, candidate finalists start to resemble one another.  They all are incredibly accomplished. They all have stellar reputations. All should have a track record of outperforming their peers. Everything else being equal, candidate fit ends up being the determining factor — how well the candidate fits in and how well the candidate clicks with the senior leadership. At the end of the day, if you are a CEO, you must “find your person”.

More Than Cultural Fit

Finding your person is not about cultural fit.  From where I sit as head of the retained search firm The Good Search, cultural fit sets the bar too low.  As CEO, you deserve more than someone who forges a connection with your company. You deserve someone who forges a real connection with you.

Steve Wozniak was Steve Jobs’ person.

Steve Ballmer was Bill Gates’ person.

Your Person Has Your Back

Finding your person is about finding an executive who shares your vision and always has your back. It’s about unshakable trust. It is also about finding someone who is smart and capable enough to challenge you to make you better than we would have been had you not found your person.

Where “You are My Person” Became a Thing

Finding Your Person

Grey’s Anatomy Make It a Thing

The television series (and my guilty pleasure) Grey’s Anatomy made “You are my person” a refrain. It is used repeatedly throughout the series to describe the deep professional and personal friendship of two women surgeons Meredith Grey and Christina Yang. It starts when Christina lists Meredith as the person to call in case of an emergency. It evolves to mean so much more.

Your Person is a Friend and Colleague

Your person is a trusted partner, a wing-man, and yin to your yang. Your person is someone who gets you. You deserve more than cultural fit or chemistry. Your person is the alchemy that enables us to get out of our own way and to transcend. As Christina Yang points out in the final scene before exiting the series, your person makes us brave.

Finding Your Person is Easier in Startups

Finding your person is easier to do in a startup than in a large corporation where challenging the CEO is usually a shortcut to being shown the door.  For Fortune 100 CEOs, their person may come in the form of a consultant who is hired to say what the troops cannot. Bob Benson, the Chairman of RLBenson & Associates and Founder of Canaan Ridge put it this way,

When you start thinking about this, the person could be a lawyer or outside counsel or it could be strategy consultant from BCG — someone with prior relationship with a CEO in the advisory sense where there has been a process of challenging the CEO. It makes it safer. The consultant can tell the boss things no one can tell them from the inside.

With Your Person, The Sum is Always Greater

Ultimately, your person is a brilliant truth-teller whose insights help you and your organization achieve greatness.  But it is the partnership between the two that is what really matters.  Apple lost its way shortly after the Woz left.  Ballmer did not accomplish all that he sought to do after Gates exited. On those rare occasions that you do find your person, the sum is always greater than the parts.

Genius Candidates

Genius Candidates

Genius Candidates

As an executive search consultant that specializes in technology, I frequently encounter genius candidates. It is my job to determine which ones are top performers. While it is easy to be blinded by brilliance, successful candidates much do more than think,

The Autism-Genius Connection

Geniuses frequently hyper-focus on their area of interest. It enables them to draw brilliant insights others miss. One condition that enables people to filter out life’s distractions is autism. Though they are diagnosed as suffering from a developmental disability, autistic savants demonstrate cognitive abilities that exceed what most people can do. They often demonstrate breathtaking genius in art, music, arithmetic, spatial relationships, or and calculating dates. A savant can determine what day of the week some date is with speed and accuracy.

Interestingly, those in the autism spectrum seem especially drawn to technology, which is where I come in. I recruit some of technology’s most brilliant minds. According to evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber Psychology Today, ten percent of autistic people have savant abilities. About half of savants are autistic, the rest suffer from some form of brain injury or disease. A growing number of software employers are discovering that autistic people make ideal software engineers because coding requires an extraordinary amount of attention to detail.

If you ask, some people with autistic spectrum disorder including autism and Asperger’s Syndrome prefer to be referred to, collectively, as Autistics or Aspergerians or Aspies. Others prefer to use the person-first as in ‘person with autism’ or ‘person who experiences autism.’ Many in the autism community are of the belief that the condition should not be considered something in need of a cure, especially given the connection between genius and autism. (See What Genius and Autism Have in Common, Time Magazine). They make a good case. Imagine a world without Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Andy Warhol, or Dan Aykroyd. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been described as “a robot,” and having “a touch of the Asperger’s.

Still, genius is as magnificent to behold as it is awkward, as this scene from HBO’s Silicon Valley captures so well.  Here, the genius of venture capitalist character Peter Gregory is revealed through his process.

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Genius — or insanity — is the ability to see what others do not.  With genius, what you see is real.  It just hasn’t been made manifest yet. In addition, geniuses make connections that elude everyone else, as was the case with math prodigy and schizophrenic John Nash Jr., on whose life the movie A Beautiful Mind is based. Remarkably, Dr. Nash is able to discern which imaginings are delusions and which are intellectually transcendent. While in a bar, Russell Crowe’s Nash discovers what later became known as Nash Equilibrium in game theory.

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In Rainman, Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt is an autistic savant with the ability to memorize part of the phone book. That was when there were such things as phone books.

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Yet Babbitt’s stunning ability to memorize has little practical application in the real world.  We have computers with the ability to store vast amounts of data. Employers don’t need a human to do that, particularly if that human lacks social skills. Far more important is our ability to reason, to extrapolate, and to play nicely with others — unless the others aren’t so nice in return, as is the case in this scene from Good Will Hunting.

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As is also the case in the movie Social Network. Here the Mark Zuckerberg-like character portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg verbally shreds his opponents in a lawsuit.

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Albert Einstein

Photograph by Orren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J. Modified with Photoshop by PM_Poon and later by Dantadd. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You Don’t Have to Be a Genius Like Albert Einstein

Of course, if you weren’t born a genius, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. You may simply be a late bloomer, as Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker details.

Yes, there was Orson Welles, peaking as a director at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho”—one of the greatest runs by a director in history—between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays. Mark Twain published “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at forty-nine. Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe” at fifty-eight.

While IQ can play an important role in determining one’s success, research has found one cannot succeed on genius alone. Wisdom is required.

Why Do Executive Recruiters Fail?

Why Do Executive Recruiters Fail?

Why Do Executive Recruiters Fail?

There is, in executive search, such as thing as too much candidate data.  Few recruiters understand how to wrangle it. They lack the necessary deep data expertise to gather, parse, and analyze data to make executive search smarter.  In fact, many executive recruiters still turn to “name generation” — research aimed generating more candidate names. Information overload is the problem and not the solution.

Recruiters didn’t need much research expertise a decade ago.  But these days, they need to up their data science skill-set. The amount of information has multiplied exponentially. Executive recruiters are overwhelmed by resumes, social media profiles, email, tweets and texts. They lack the ability to match force with a tsunami of career data. They cannot separate the signal from the noise. They miss perfect candidates because too many lesser executives get in the way. As a result, executive recruiters fail.

Googling a prospective candidate’s name, rank, and serial number is easy.

You know what’s harder? Deep web data.

The amount of digital data is increasing at a stunning rate.  IDC, a global market intelligence firm, estimates a 40 percent to 50 percent growth rate in digital data. In only five years, the firm anticipates there will be 40 zettabytes of data out there. Does your search firm even know what a zettabyte is? It should.

A zettabyte is a measure of storage capacity and is 2 to the 70th power bytes, also expressed as 10 to the 21st power or 1 sextillion bytes. One zettabyte is approximately equal to a thousand exabytes or a billion terabytes.

Michael Walker, the Managing Partner of Rose Business Technologies, describes what we’re witnessing as the Rise of Data Anarchy.

Why Do Executive Recruiters Fail Data Too Much Information

Data Expertise Makes Executive Recruiters Smarter

Imagine making hires harnessing the prediction power of a Nate Silver. Imagine actually knowing who top candidates are and how they have outperformed all the others. It’s the executive version of Moneyball that discovered competitive advantage hidden deep inside baseball statistics — beyond the obvious batting averages, home runs, runs batted in (RBIs), and wins. Only these players are in suits. (For more, see our post about AgendaWeek interview with us about moneyball in recruiting.)

Executive recruiter sourcing “best practices” are outdated. Search firms must invest in research data expertise. They must invest in brilliant information scientists and data investigators. Those who refuse to make that investment are, informationally, searching with their eyes closed. The key to finding a top-notch executive search firm is to look for a firm with serious data research credentials. (We’re glad you found us.) These days, more than ever before, knowledge is power.

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Why Executive Searches Fail and What to Do About It

Why Executive Searches Fail and What to Do About It

Why Executive Searches Fail

It doesn’t matter whether executive searches are conducted internally or externally. The rule holds true either way: executive searches will continue to fail at high rates because the recruiting industry has not invested in the kind of expertise required to find good candidate data. For executive search to be good — not bad — it must match force with the explosion in the amount of data available on candidates, companies, and industries.

That data are scattered like buckshot across the Internet. And if you think you can find it simply “googling it,” you’d be sorely mistaken. A great deal of valuable information is tucked away in databases not visible to search engines. It lies hidden in the Invisible Web. It takes someone who can do more than Google a candidate’s name to find it.

The Rise of Anarchy in Candidate Data

IDC estimates the amount of digital data will grow 40% to 50% per year. By 2020, IDC predicts the number will have reached  40,000 EB, or 40 zettabytes (ZB). The world’s information is doubling every two years. By 2020 the world will generate 50 times the amount of information and 75 times the number of information containers.  In fact, Michael Walker, the Managing Partner of Rose Business Technologies, describes the what we’re witnessing is the Rise of Data Anarchy.

Data Binary Code Executive Recruiters for Digital Talent

Data is the Forest: Candidates are the Trees

As data order gives rise to anarchy, increasingly, executive recruiters can’t see the forest for the trees.  The wonders of LinkedIn put aside for a moment, most senior executive searches and C-Level technology searches fail because candidate research and sourcing best practices haven’t changed in more than 50 years as roles have become more specialized. Recruiters are still searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The problem, though, is that the haystack now resembles Mt. Everest.

As a result, too many important executive searches languish unfilled because a star candidate that could have been hired was not. Our retained search firm The Good Search and our recruiting research practice Intellerati are frequently called in to rescue “hard-to-fill” searches where previous efforts have hit the wall. In every instance, we discover traditional search firms had overlooked A-players standing in plain sight. For them, too much information got in the way.

The amount of candidate data available to those of us in executive search is, undoubtedly, the mother lode. So many amazing executives are a boolean search string or a LinkedIn connection away.  But if you stop to think about it, the manual and traditional work of recruiting still remains — the heaving and lifting required to determine whether a candidate is qualified, interested, able to relocate, and (yes), sane. In addition, more channels and methods of communication — social networks, texting and tweeting, along with an ungodly amount of email —  have multiplied the amount of communicating we do. So recruiters are busier. They look productive. However, there’s an extraordinary amount of wasted effort. Some recruiters realize their workload is greater, but cannot manage the onslaught of candidate data and technology to grab it.

Moreover, the candidate tracking systems rarely keep up with the shifts. It’s hard to get information in and information out sometimes. If you really stop to think about it, there isn’t yet a way to dial up a list of the best candidates who are available . . . or is there?

Eureka, I Found It

Think Nate Silver. (You can check his RBIs (Runs Batted In) and ERAs  (Earned Run Averages) that when crunched in the right way can lead to incredible game-changing hires. That’s where the big data bus is headed. You either climb on board or risk getting left behind.

Executive Search “Best Practices” Outdated

Widely accepted executive search “best practices” have become hopelessly outdated given the data explosion. Candidate identification and development processes were established before the rise of the Internet and have changed little since then. Yes, technology has made advancements, but the workflow and the way we think about executive search have changed very little in the past fifty years. Executive search research — so-called sourcing — began as a secretarial chore. Eventually, librarians were brought in to organize the classify the data, and so what emerged was a pink collar ghetto of female researchers. They frequently identified, developed, and recruited the candidates that the search partners subsequently placed with clients. They rarely got the credit and had no path to partner.  The research consisted of checking industry information, assembling target company lists, and target candidate names. The researcher or associate would then call through the list of names, and produce a slate of candidates. It is an approach that continues to this day, but it is so very wrong.

One of the biggest problems with traditional sourcing is its obsession with assembling lists of candidates. The approach never examines other sources of data. It hyper-focuses on gathering information, but rarely pauses to determine what it all means. It doesn’t go to the trouble of connecting the dots.  That’s like buying a book, but refusing to read it, all the while insisting that simply having the book made you smarter. It simply doesn’t work that way.

Big Data Requires Big Expertise

Serious research transforms data into actionable intelligence. It speeds time to hire and increases the quality of each hire. It’s not the kind of work that can be handed off to off-shore sourcing teams at 5-dollars an hour. It’s not the kind of work you give to an intern, unless the student resembles one of these kids. It is not the kind of talent drawn to executive search and recruiting. If you have a knack for investigating and finding things out, if you have the ability to spot patterns others have missed, if you have a passion for information science, data mining, computer-assisted research, or competitive intelligence, you aren’t going to wake up one day filled with the impulse to become an executive recruiter or even a sourcer. Boolean search strings are not going to hold your interest. The best research talent goes elsewhere where they develop expertise as they grow their experience. And that’s okay.

Employers who want to take executive search to the next level simply need to dip into those talent pools or partner with the right executive search research firm with investigative expertise recognized outside the world of recruiting. For more on that, check out our blog post Is Your Executive Search Firm Ready for Big Data?

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