Publisher’s Corner

One of the things I’ve always advocated for practitioners is to become a joiner. Being an insider in an organization of influential people within your particular specialty’s sphere of influence puts you in touch with the people you depend upon to become future clients (or candidates). Membership in these types of groups often gives you a distinct advantage over your non-joining competitors.

Just joining, however, is only the first step. Participation magnifies your position. If you join just to get a copy of the membership list that’s the wrong reason. Volunteer to work on committees. Ingratiate yourself by accepting tasks other shun. I won’t belabor this point as I have written about it many times before, but the subject came to mind when the latest Heidrick & Struggles lawsuit was discussed. I was interviewed about it by Modern Healthcare magazine.

Believing that membership in general is a good thing and being one of the founding members is even better, Heidrick & Struggles helped to put together a group of top hospital executives called The National Center for Healthcare Leadership. It’s such a high-minded sounding mission that points a spotlight on H&S as the place to go when searching for top healthcare executives. After all, would you want to be the person or search committee member that chose someone else for a top search assignment when you sit next to an H&S practice manager at regularly held meetings?

Miami Beach-based Mount Sinai Medical Center evidently thought that H&S was the firm to use to find their new president. Their search produced Bruce Perry and H&S is alleged to have told Mount Sinai that, based upon Perry’s track record, he was the right guy to turn red ink into black and he predicted that Mount Sinai’s profit would be $3.5 million for 2001. Instead, the complaint alleged that the hospital lost $64.8 million which was caused by “the incompetence of Mr. Perry and his staff.”It seems that his less than sterling results mirrored similar unpleasant results at two previous hospital stints as president/CEO/consultant. A look in the rear view mirror showed a relatively abysmal track record something that should have been known to H&S.Mount Sinai paid H&S a fee in the neighborhood of $170,000 for Perry. Other fees were allegedly paid to H&S for some of Perry’s staff searches.This is not an isolated incident of reference ineptitude. We need only look back at Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap who passed muster with Korn/Ferry and SpencerStuart’s final reference assessments to recommend him for the top jobs that earned him the name “Chainsaw.” Back in 9/01, I opined that once the fee for a search breaks the six-figure barrier, the search firm should know how many cavities the finalists had in their adolescent mouths. With the Internet capabilities alone, almost everything can be found about candidates if you wish to look hard enough. So there should be no excuse for reference omissions or misrepresentations.

No one knows how often this happens, but I suspect that a good many are swept under the “settlement” rug before they see the media light of day as a lawsuit.Search firms, especially the upper tier of retained practitioners, have encouraged clients to believe that there is a certain infallibility in their selection criteria. But even though the silk stocking folks occasionally trip over themselves, so also do the contingency folks. There is a long trail of lawsuits against contingency practitioners for identical reasons bogus degrees, fictitious experience, unearthed criminal backgrounds and a whole list of prevarications which should have been exposed during the reference check phase.I wrote an issue or so ago about the practice of the hoity-toity retained folks accepting assignments for pure assessment and evaluation of executives both within their organizations and for outside firms who may be acquiring a firm and wanting an outside appraisal of their executive talent for whatever reason.I have always looked a bit askance at this practice. If a search firm is asked to evaluate a current executive for a promotional opportunity, it has always seemed to me that their natural inclination would be to assess them unenthusiastically so that they could then acquire the search assignment for the position in question. Not a bad deal. Getting paid for your opinion, then profiting once again for the replacement search assignment.I spoke with a long-time friend who is a top executive of a St. Louis firm that is possibly being acquired by a much larger company. He has been with this company for 20 years and has been instrumental (along with 2 other long-term executives) for building the firm into a real powerhouse. He has, because of his expertise in successfully growing the company, received significant financial advantages and could retire very comfortably tomorrow. Since the potential acquisition has caused a considerable stir among long-time employees, he was surprised to hear that he (along with the two other top execs) would have to undergo an evaluation by three members of a retained search firm’s “Evaluation Unit.”He was “summoned” to the presidential suite of a large hotel for his meeting and told that it would be an all day meeting. What struck him as ironic was the fact that several years earlier he had been wooed by the same search firm for a position with one of their clients and was the successful finalist for the NYC-based job.

He had turned them down for family reasons, despite a very attractive financial package.When he entered the suite, he was offered a cup of coffee and led to a chair which faced a sort of semi-circle with the others. His upholstered chair was about 6 inches lower to the floor than the straight back chairs of the interrogators.

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This is a rather tawdry old trick rarely used any more. It is designed to create stress in the interviewee.Most of the initial questions were personal in nature and a recap of his background and business experience followed. Most of the questions were the hypothetical “what if” type queries and it was obvious to my friend that none of the three had nearly as much knowledge of the business being acquired than the business doing the acquiring.Although this was supposed to be a full day meeting, after lunch, my friend excused himself to take care of some pressing business back at the office.”Many of the questions centered around things that I considered political or culture-driven, “he told me. “We seemed to hit it off OK but they had what I considered to be a haughty demeanor. It was as though they were talking to some hayseed from the Midwest and I resented it. They seemed to preen and posture in such a way that it appeared that were trying to impress each other as to who could ask the most intrusive questions.”

“I’m certainly not a Tom Selleck-type and I didn’t wear a 3-piece suit to the evaluation but it seemed to me that if they wanted to evaluate me, they needed to also evaluate the plant operation and the venue where I work. Ours is a rather grubby manufacturing operation, not the ivory tower setting of their client’s corporate headquarters. We are being acquired because we’re highly profitable. Much of that profitable growth is due to my contributions for 20 years and the team I put together. Based upon the questions asked by the “evaluators” and their condescending approach, I’m quite sure that I don’t fit their ‘corporate image.’

I also know that someone from their corporate office wouldn’t stand a chance in my work environment.””It’s been a month since my “evaluation” and I haven’t heard the results but I’m financially secure so if the acquisition takes place, I’m retiring. If the acquiring company is the type that would pay attention to the bleat and bluster of these guys with what I consider to be synthetic appraisal skills, I want no part of it.”A similar situation has caused a lawsuit by an executive who was earlier evaluated by (you guessed it), Heidrick & Struggles. He felt that he was unfairly labeled by the evaluators. Since that encounter we hear that H&S now farms this evaluation task out to a neutral firm.The biggest difference between our business and other businesses that “sell a product” is that our “product” the candidate talks and acts in ways that are often counterproductive to the final successful outcome. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a consultant send a candidate to a job interview with nothing but a few words about where the company is located, a job title and salary range and a hearty “Good luck!” “Sendouts” are the foundational bedrock of success, yet far too few consultants take the time to prepare the candidates for what to expect or how to handle their initial interviews. Because of the importance of this step in the process, both Terry Petra and Jeff Skrentny address it in different ways. Preparation always paves the way to success and these articles should help you overcome any crucial shortcomings in this area.I want to thank everyone who responded to the survey.

There is no doubt that the ability to Email the results back to our Emailed request greatly increased the response.Once again, if you would like to join the growing number of subscribers who receive their copies of The Fordyce Letter by Email rather than through the increasing inefficient Postal Service, just make the request through SearchLetter@aol.com. Be sure to let us know the information from the label on your most recent issue of TFL.

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

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