Learning how to be your own headhunter can help your company in ways that go beyond filling a specific job.
Learning how to be your own headhunter can help your company in ways that go beyond filling a specific job.
George Clement was stymied. Developing imaginative new publications was critical to the continued success of Clement Communications Inc., a Concordville, Pa., publishing company that markets motivational posters and training programs through direct mail. But Clement, president of the company, which has annual sales around $10 million, and Brian Kirby, his vice-president of sales and marketing, no longer could handle the job. "We'd make a crash effort, then turn our attention back to other areas of the business we'd ignored," Clement explains.
"The obvious solution," he says, "was to find someone who could develop new publications on an ongoing basis." But Clement was uncertain how he and his top managers, especially Kirby and senior vice-president and general manager Ed Dwyer, would deal with a powerful newcomer. Even more worrisome, Clement didn't have any inkling where to look for the new person, aside from a handful of competitors.
"If you're looking at direct competitors as a source for candidates," remarks Clement, "especially if these companies look very much like your business, you'll end up bringing in someone who doesn't have a fresh perspective." Clement wanted to develop publications that would lead the field, not follow it.
"To tell you the truth," adds Clement, "not only didn't I have a clear picture of where to find -- or even who would be -- a qualified candidate, I wasn't sure I'd know how to handle that person once he or she was sitting across from me. Conducting the search was only the first hurdle."
Until recently, Clement Communications had solved its hiring problems at the top management level by promoting from within. At one time, the company did hire an executive recruiting firm to search for a direct-mail manager, but, after spending thousands of dollars, the search came up with "zero," says Clement.
Then, through a twist of fate, Clement discovered the catalyst for the search. At a dinner party in mid-August, he struck up a conversation with an ordained Episcopalian clergyman-turned-businessman named Calhoun Wick.
Cal Wick had attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management in 1974-75 with the intention of bringing some management skills to the Episcopalian Church. "After MIT, I went out to be the rector of a parish church outside Toledo," says Wick. "Then I began to realize that the church had muddled through for 2,000 years, would probably muddle through for another 2,000, and I'd rather work in the business world."
Wick joined MBA Resources, an executive recruiting firm in New York City, which fills senior management posts that pay anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 a year. MBA uses its own resources to find job candidates and charges a client 30% of the first year's compensation.
After a while, however, Wick had an idea: Why not take the skills he'd learned in the search business and teach them to other businesses so that they could do their own searches? Wick would help companies capitalize on their knowledge of their own industries, instead of having to rely on a search firm to find contacts.
"I wanted to teach businesses to become virtually self-sufficient in hiring top managers," explains Wick. He left MBA to start his own company to do just that in 1980. For a fee of $2,500 a month for the first search, Wick claims he'll teach a company a system for hiring key people. The system includes building an internal hiring team, defining the new job, developing a source network to find candidates, learning an effective interviewing style, and creating ways to bring the new person on board. "Each step must be done thoroughly and professionally," explains Wick. "If you short-circuit any step, you greatly reduce your chances of finding the right person."
Wick meets regularly with a client, generally once a week for one to three hours a session, until the hiring process is completed, usually a period of about three months. If the client wants to work on a second or third search with Wick, the rates drop to $2,000 and $1,500 a month respectively, since each time the client conducts another search, he needs less assistance.
A month after George Clement's and Cal Wick's serendipitous encounter, Clement hired Wick and Company, which is based in Wilmington, Del., to lead him step by step through the hiring process. "I thought to myself," recalls Clement, "I'll be satisfied if we do it in eight months. I was just hoping that Cal would be patient enough to work with us for that long."
The first order of business was to create an internal hiring team. Under Cal Wick's supervision, the team would conduct every aspect of the search, from defining the job to bringing a new director of publications development smoothly on board.
According to Wick, a hiring team should consist of three or four people, usually managers with line responsibility who have the confidence of the person at the top. George Clement appointed Brian Kirby and Ed Dwyer, both men he'd worked with for more than 10 years. Kirby had excellent contacts within the industry; Ed had fewer contacts but a better sense of internal operations. Both had the full confidence of George Clement.
"When we formed the hiring team," says Clement, "we decided that no offer would be made until all of us agreed." Wick grants that this decision was made more out of prudence than our of gentlemanly spirit: "If a person gets ticked off because he doesn't get his say," he explains, "he's more likely to sabotage the new person's success. That's why a lot of hiring doesn't work."
Sitting around the table in the conference room next to Clement's office during the first meetings with Wick, Ed Dwyer, Brian Kirby, and George Clement discussed very specifically what they thought an "ideal" director of new publications would do. They not only decided what skills and experience the person should bring to the company, but also pinpointed what they expected him or her to accomplish over the next three years. The exercise forced the members of the hiring team to organize their thoughts about the company's business plan and future growth and made them think about their own responsibilities and how they were interrelated.
Creating the job of director of publication development meant separating Kirby's job as vice-president of sales and marketing from his other role as director of new product development. "Somebody could get put in that position and just get angry, saying 'Why is this job being taken away from me?" says Wick. "But Kirby, the person who was most affected by the decision, was involved in figuring out just how to separate the two jobs."
Defining the position took several meetings, which Wick generally sat in on. Personal disagreements, remembers Ed Dwyer, were partly tempered by a remark from Wick. "One of the things that hit home," says Dwyer, "was when Cal described this person as someone who could carry us in the future. I think that was important. At least it crystallized in my mind the importance of this new employee."
Once the group had agreed that the ideal candidate would have a background in direct mail and publication development, the next step was to figure out what he or she might be doing currently, then to think of whom they knew in the business who might come in contact with such a person. The exhaustive list of attributes the hiring team had drawn up made the group realize it wasn't limited to a handful of candidates.
Developing a network of sources to find these candidates depends, says Wick, on being "almost playful in thinking about who you know." Besides reviewing research files and trade directories, and going though company Rolodex files, they telephoned and wrote to various members of the Direct Mail Marketing Association in New York City and Philadelphia, asking for their help in finding candidates. They ran a classified ad in Advertising Age, the trade magazine probably most read by the kind of candidates they sought.
Throughout the search, Wick urged Clement Communications to publicly identify the name of the company, although George Clement was nervous about what effect the recruiting effort would have on his firm's reputation. "If anything," says Wick, "if a search is conducted in a professional way, corporate image is enhanced." Furthermore, candidates prefer to know from the start whom they're dealing with.
Developing sources and prospects is a learned skill, Wick reassured the Clement hiring team: "When you contact someone by telephone and he says, 'I'm not interested,' you have to keep the conversation alive and try to find out if he knows someone who might be." At weekly meetings the hiring team updated the list of candidates. "If you don't keep reviewing the status," says Wick, "time goes so quickly, you'll never find the person."
When the hiring team found a good prospect, Clement, Kirby, and Dwyer each interviewed the person separately. Before the interviews, Wick reviewed with them the questions they wanted to ask. "Too often," says Wick, "people are so busy doing other things, they're totally unprepared for the interview. When it's over, they don't have any idea how suited a candidate is for the job and, chances are, the candidate leaves unimpressed."
To prevent overlapping of questions and to speed up the process, each member of the hiring team pursued a different line of questioning. Clement asked questions related to management strength, Dwyer focused on technical competence, and Kirby on creative ability.
Asking open-ended questions, in tandem with very specific ones, also helped reveal more about a candidate's competence. For example, the question "What creative process in new product development have you seen work effectively?" forced the candidate to reflect upon and organize an answer. A narrow question -- "What was your role in the development of a product?" -- was useful in evaluating the person's individual contribution and skill.
After the interview, each member of the hiring team filled in a review sheet, noting how well the job candidate's experience met up with the job description. Each scored the candidate on technical competence and personal contribution. "Be tough," advised Wick. "Pressure to hire often tends to make you give marks that are too high."
By the end of October -- two months into the search -- a dozen candidates had been interviewed, seven of them at least three times. Sometimes people threw their hats in the ring, but no one wanted to catch them."Because of the clear job description," notes Clement, "we could say, you have strengths and you're obviously a capable person but, as we've pointed out, we need someone with a track record in direct mail."
Among the top contenders were a couple of circulation directors for national publications, the founder of a well-known consumer magazine, and several directors of company publications, all with strong direct-mail backgrounds. As choice candidates surfaced, the selection process grew somewhat easier. "It's like the salesman showing you ties," explains Kirby. "When you have the choice of a dozen, it's tough to make up your mind, but when it comes down to only several, you begin to see more clearly which you like best."
However, agreeing on a single candidate became more difficult. By the time the choice was narrowed down to two candidates, the team was philosophically divided.One of the prospects was in his 40s, an old pro long on experience. The other was Mary Sue Hansell, director of publications for Colonial Penn, a large Pennsylvania-based insurance company. Hansell, 33, had fewer years' experience in direct mail and product development, but a lot of personal style and potential. "An awful lot was staked on this decision," explains Clement, "the validity of the project and all the other emotional things that go into it. And who wants to be wrong?"
Ed Dwyer, who had originally contacted Hansell, recognized his own prejudice and stepped back from the debate: "There's a tendency after you've found somebody you perceive as good to run in and tell everyone you've found the person to fill the job. You can do too much of a job selling a candidate."
The question for Clement and Kirby become, "Do you choose someone who has his dream before him or behind him?" Together with Wick, they discussed the tradeoffs between taking someone with a proven track record of success and experience and taking someone who is a rising star and who may need more time to learn. One morning in mid-November, they agreed that a rising star could ultimately contribute the most to the company, and decided to make an offer to Hansell.
Although Wick had given Clement's hiring team many of the tools for carrying out the search, he didn't participate in the final hiring decision. "I remember calling Cal to tell him our choice," says Clement. "He replied, 'Good, because that was the right decision.' He insists on teaching you to fish, instead of giving you fish."
During Thanksgiving week, Clement offered the job to Hansell, who informed him she was leaving on a trip to Jamaica and would need a couple of days to think it over and talk with her husband. "I thought, 'Oh my God.' It was like she was disappearing into a vacuum," remembers Clement.
But Hansell had needed convincing that this job was the right move for her from the moment she heard of the position from Dwyer in mid-October. "After 12 years at a billion-dollar company," says Hansell, "I didn't know what to expect." She concedes it was largely the careful, almost grueling, hiring process that gave her confidence in the smaller company.
"Some places you'll go for an interview and they won't know what they're looking for," she says. "It's not a matter of having good communication skills. They just don't appear to have really thought out what the job is -- even if the position already exists."
Hansell had also expected to get a "job offer, like that," she says, snapping her fingers. Instead, Clement's hiring team invited her for four interviews. "When I found out there were other heavyweight candidates, that got my competitive spirit up."
She called Clement from Jamaica to accept the offer and, on December 21, started work at Clement Communications. By January, she'd assumed the title of vice-president of publications and director of publication development. "We've never had things go this fast and this well before," says Clement. Both he and Hansell agree that the time they spent together before she was hired has minimized the number of surprises since she joined the firm.
George Clement grants that the search process the company learned from Cal Wick did lead to Hansell, but he also admits that the best search techniques in the world don't insure that the person will work out. "Although we figured we had a pretty good chance of success, it's Mary Sue's personality that made this thing work."
As for Cal Wick, he did his job too well. "I don't want to knock Cal," says Clement, "but I don't think we'll need him again."