Without exception, my conversations with executives all begin or end with, “What strange times we are living in at the moment,” or something similar. No one seems to be able to make sense of the big picture right now. From what I have read, it is because we are not conditioned to understand events that have no clear timeline to conclusion. Almost all endeavors we embark on as humans have a delineated end — this pandemic does not. We are cautiously “opening” up while new cases of the virus continue to accelerate in many states, including California. With all of this as a backdrop, it is on the surface hard to think about hiring a new CFO or VP Finance for your company. But this is the exact time you need to think contrary to the pack. Here is why.
Shelter in place creates a unique recruiting opportunity
Since early March we have seen a marked increase in the number of “confidential” searches coming into Arnold Partners. Smart companies are taking advantage of the ability to meet candidates virtually and in complete confidence during this unique moment in time. It works well for the confidential passive candidates most companies want to hire as well. They are in a great position to take meetings without the necessary excuses of where they are going or why they are not in the office. The best recruiters know and target passive candidates, and in this work from home environment, the ability to grab the attention of this passive population is uniquely available right now. The last VP Finance search we completed in 30 days because we know who to tap.
But with a recession going on and companies laying off 1000s?
The focus at Arnold Partners is technology companies of all stripes. This sector has certainly seen a number of verticals hit in the downturn — travel and some med tech companies come to mind. Early stage tech companies without ample funding may not be in the market to add executive talent either. But if you are the CEO or Board Member of a well-funded tech company, now is the time to take inventory of your C-suite and VP-level talent and decide if it is time for an upgrade. How has your CFO done throughout this pandemic? Was the company well-prepared from a cash standpoint? Was the CFO able to tap banking relationships to shore up the balance sheet?
The best time to upgrade is at the start of a recession when executives from other companies may be concerned about the future of their career in-place. Now is the time to pluck from your competitors or near competitors to strengthen your team. But you need the right help.
Partnering with the right search firm and consultant
The best search consultants will truly consult with you and your team to determine how to improve the mix of both talent and diversity in your executive ranks. Search consultants do not just “take job orders.” They help craft the specification by carefully listening to you and by gaining an in-depth understanding of the business you are in and what the road map to success looks like. But then, only the best of the best consultants can reach into the vast pool of talent to pluck out a select list of passive candidates, who will not only take the call from the consultant, but also take the meeting with the prospective new employer. This process is part science, part art, and usually a culmination of many years of hard work, and it is certainly the way Arnold Partners continues to deliver. View my video for a list of questions you may want to use when interviewing an executive search firm:
Setting the right tone for a confidential search
This all may sound a bit cloak and dagger and nefarious — sneaking around your competitors’ home offices to steal their talent away! (Although that is the nature of recruiting.) But this is the key reason why it is so important to partner with the right search firm. The connected firm can quietly target the right people without resorting to any publication of your needs. Because of long-standing, curated relationships Arnold Partners maintains with the top finance professionals, the risk of word getting out that we are working on a confidential search is almost nil. When we make those calls into our network, we set the right tone during the very first call with each prospective candidate. The efforts to upgrade your team can be achieved quickly, quietly, and effectively. It is really important in a confidential search that your company and motivations will be represented in the most ethical and accurate manner by a trusted professional like Arnold Partners.
I invite you to contact me at email@example.com if you would like to talk about your needs and explore upgrading your team. Stay safe and healthy, David Arnold President, Arnold Partners, LLC Strategic CFO and Board Recruitment
With your newly crafted executive resume in hand, it’s time to get to work on getting the right people to see it and invite you for an interview. Again, the goal of the resume is just that: to open doors to a conversation about new opportunities for you as a professional. But as we climb the latter into executive roles (VP and above), fewer and fewer positions avail themselves (as math dictates). In addition, many of these roles are not advertised in public forums.
Here is my advice on how to network yourself into a new role.
For the sake of this article, let’s just assume that you have made up your mind to seek a new professional home. Maybe your commute stinks, your company has flatlined in growth, you have a new boss, or that side project you just completed really got you excited about using a different skill set. Whatever the reason, it is time for a change. Most professionals at this juncture reach out to the three or four executive recruiters they know to see what is happening. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but there are better ways to take charge of your search.
The first step in this process is getting out a pen and paper (or a spreadsheet) and writing down a list of the most influential people you know. These are people who would return a call or email and who would be willing to make some time for you. But they are also people who are in a position to make introductions that matter. This list should include investors, board members, CEOs, professors, MBA classmates, peers in other companies you work or compete with, etc. These are folks who are in a position to introduce you to other people in charge of executive hiring.
Note: That list does not include executive recruiters. Think broadly while scribbling your list, and include some stretch goal people. Get at least 50 names down, and shoot for 100. Take a few days and retrace your career. Find lost contacts. LinkedIn is a great resource.
Once you have your long list, study it, and rank the top 10 people on the list. Your goal now is to arrange one-on-one meetings with those 10 people. Your ranking should be a weighted combination of how influential the contact is and your ability to get a meeting with the person. Be realistic and just a bit idealistic. You want wins (getting a meeting), but you do not want to set yourself up for disappointment by aiming too high. This is a game and a sport, and if you approach it as such, it can be fun, stimulating and ultimately rewarding.
Getting the meeting
Narrowing your list to the top 10 makes the networking game more realistic for a working professional. These meetings are hard to get and hard to schedule since everyone is busy. You are asking for time on an executive calendar, so be realistic and persistent and respectful. If you can get two meetings a month, that would be a win. Three would be fantastic. In my experience, if you get 10 meetings in a few months, new opportunities will present themselves, either directly through these contacts or through their network. In a world full of noise, interruption and email bombardment, you need to be top of mind.
Being crystal clear
So what to do when you get the meeting? This is where the elevator pitch is key. You may only get a few minutes with these influential people, so it is really important to be clear about why you are there and what you have to offer. You should have your personal elevator pitch down to three or four sentences with an easily understood takeaway (e.g., how your skills and experience can help transform an organization). This elevator pitch should be repeated in the summary of your resume to reinforce your message. You should also be in a position to offer help to the executive you are meeting with, so be sure the conversation is a give and take.
Be respectful of this person’s time, and don’t go over the allotted schedule. Follow up with a thank-you email and an offer to be a resource for this person in their line of work. Reiterate your goals and skills. Be brief and to the point. Set a reminder to follow up with this person in 30 days via email.
In my experience, establishing a plan like this makes the likelihood of introductions to new opportunities very high. It takes work and dedication, thoughtfulness and persistence. But it works. As for the recruiters I left out of your “influential” people list, I mean no disrespect. But we are tasked with finding very specific people for our clients, and while we play an important role in building a career, don’t stop there.
The work I do finding exceptional CFO and Board Members for my tech and life sciences clients is not exactly steeped in numbers. It is more about communication and networking. Sure, there are metrics that I use to measure my business, but they are not nearly as important as the metrics that CFOs live by as they contribute to the companies where they work, e.g. increase in company value through driving innovation and efficiencies in all aspects of the business. But as we come to the close of 2019, it struck me that there are many important numbers that reflect the work of Arnold Partners and I’d like to share them here.
10 solid years Arnold Partners has been in business! Pretty cool. In that time, we have placed 70 CFOs for technology companies who have helped their companies increase in value by over $15B. I am probably undercounting that contribution because it only is a calculation of IPOs (Market Cap) and the M&A exits that have taken place with my placed CFOs. Of the 70 CFOs I have placed 11 lead IPOs and another 18 lead M&A exits. Pretty sure the other 41 have increased the value of their companies through further fund raising or just top line growth but it is more difficult to measure. What does all of this mean? For one, the focus of placing CFOs for me is on creating value—for the enterprise that hires me, for the CEO I so closely work with, for the investors behind the enterprise, and for the CFOs themselves. 10 years also means that we have made a name for ourselves in the technology marketplace as a leading resource for top CFO talent. I am confident we will be repeating this blog on our 15th and 20th anniversaries.
That is our completion rate for the searches we have taken on in the last ten years. Why is that important? The retained search industry reports from publicly traded firms indicate their completion rate ranges from 70 to 80%. No one is in the 90% range, let alone almost 97%. This means that we complete our commitments to our clients. The large search firms charge 100% of their fees but only fill 75% of their engagements. Not here. We are in it to win it AND finish it for our clients. A related number is the “stick-rate” of our placements. Just finishing is not enough, we want to make sure the CFO we place is still on the job 1, 2, 3 years after accepting the role. And they are. Of our 70 placements, only in one case did the CFO not last. So that is a 99% stick rate.
Is it simply the economy or are we getting better? Or word of success getting around? We completed 9 CFO searches this year up from an average of 7 in years past. Our time from inception of search to completion is also improving, from 115 days in 2018 to 103 days in 2019. I suppose if the economy tanks the demand may not be as robust for search services, but we lived through big downturns before. We are going into the new year with an active search and one more agreed to kick off in January, so maybe 2010 will bring us to 10 completed searches!
On a personal note, I celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary with my wife this year. If you want to put a strain on your marriage, triple your mortgage and then tell your spouse you want to start your own business! The truth is I could not have done this without her. She is the silent partner in Arnold Partners. Well, not silent with me. She kicks my butt and keeps me going and keeps me measuring the business. If we are not getting better and faster and keeping clients happy she will let me know about it. I am blessed to have her unyielding support. She is my CFO!
That is how many people this blog is being sent to via LinkedIn. Thank you all for your support over these last few years. I could not make my world turn without all of you! I wish you all a very happy Holiday season and an exceptional 2020!
If you are looking for exception CFO or Board Members in 2020, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had the good fortune of being raised in a family that put a high value on educating the whole person. What I mean by that is that academics were really important, but more important was instilling a sense of curiosity about all things surrounding us: culture, spirituality, community, art, knowledge, and athletics—not as a viewer but as a participant. My parents were not focused on getting their nine children (of which I was number nine) into the most prestigious colleges, they were focused on educating the whole person and getting us ready for the excitement and vagaries of the world. To this end, my dad pulled off a great barter trade with the Woodside Priory School; he taught first period algebra in turn for our attendance at the Benedictine College Prep School. The school’s philosophy dove-tailed perfectly with that of my parents. We received an exceptional gift of a great education and a true head start in life.
Lessons learned from the Benedictine Monks
The school was founded by Benedictine monks who had emigrated from Hungry to escape the communist takeover of that country following WWII. We learned a great deal about all world religions at the Priory. Included in our education was some exposure to The Rule of St. Benedict, which in fact is sort of a playbook on how 8th century monks should go about their lives. St. Benedict was the founding father of the Benedictine order and had numerous rules for his followers, many of which still have practical applications today. One has stuck with me in business and life: To always “listen with the ear of the heart.” There are complete books written about what this means, but in my world, I apply it to serving my clients and candidates in the best possible way.
Non-listening Consultant Gets Shown the Door
I met with a new CEO client a couple of months ago who had recently engaged a retained search for a CIO. I asked him what he liked and disliked about that process. I was somewhat shocked by what he said. He told me the search consultant asked a lot of good questions of him, but the search consultant seemingly did not listen to any of the answers and direction given. For example, the CEO wanted the consultant to find a fresh slate of candidates for his company needs, not just re-use his existing candidates who were not hired in his last search. But this was exactly what the consultant did. Huh? The CEO decided to part ways with the consultant.
Listening with the Ear of the Heart
As a CFO and Audit Committee Member search consultant, I would argue that listening effectively to our clients and candidates is the most important thing a search consultant does. Second only to asking incisive questions so we can gather the truth and make excellent lasting matches. This all starts in my mind with “listening with the ear of the Heart.” I do not mean this in a religious way, rather just opening yourself up to the person speaking, having both empathy and sometimes sympathy for their words and experiences. It is not just taking notes and deciding what they really mean based on assumption. It is not just hearing and writing, it is looking for the meaning behind the words they choose. It is feeding back their words to make sure you really understand what they said.
During our discovery interviews with clients when kicking off a Board recruitment process or CFO search process we receive a lot of information. We circle back with the CEO after meeting her team or get back with the Chairman after meeting board members to make sure we listened deeply and understand clearly what the client needs and wants. Of course, we also chime in and offer guidance where there may be confusion or differences of opinion.
The CEO client I referred to earlier has an affinity for vocabulary and etymology, which I share. We got into some pretty funny discussions about words, where they come from, and the importance of choosing words thoughtfully when explaining ourselves and our companies. In writing the CFO specification for this client I was very careful to use many of the exact words he used in describing what he wanted in a CFO and how he characterized his company culture. This is listening with the ear of the Heart—listening and understanding the words and applying them to make a match between the management’s intentions and the intentions of prospective executive hire.
Making Matches that Last
Some of my recruiting friends say what I do must get boring, just placing CFOs and Audit Committee members. Au contraire. No two CEOs are the same, no two CFOs are the same. It is all in the subtlety of language, both verbal and non-verbal. The only way to make a good match is to really, really listen. Then take those words to heart and re-use them not only in writing a specification but in interviewing and presenting. This will result in a match that will last. I would argue that the only way to do that is to listen with the ear of the heart. Thanks Dad, thanks Priory, and thanks St. Benedict; our placed CFOs have an average tenure over five years! Now that is making matches that last.
If you are seeking a financially minded Board Member or CFO who listens deeply and delivers lasting results, thanks for reaching out to me at email@example.com.
Last week I had the privilege of attending a panel discussion about Corporate Board recruitment and strategies for securing a Board seat put on by the Bay Area HR Executives Council, a SHRM affiliate. The event was well attended and the panel, comprised of two CHROs and an executive search consultant, was lively and informative. Here are some of my takeaways for those CFOs wanting to gain a Board seat and for companies thinking about recruiting Board members.
Considerations for Board Seat Seekers
First off, it was pointed out that there is a great deal of information available in the public domain about corporate governance and educating oneself on what it means to serve on a Board. I meet a lot of CFOs who want to be on Boards, but the panel wisely pointed out that careful consideration should be taken before committing oneself to a Board whether it be public or private. Basic questions to consider: Why do you want to be on a Board? What are the liabilities? What is the time commitment? What do you stand to gain? What do you have to offer? How long of a commitment are you signing up for?
A couple of resources were mentioned by the panel to help address these questions; shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will share them with you.
Trends in Board Composition
One of the interesting trends taking place within public company Board recruitment is not only gender diversification (I wrote about this topic in a previous blog, “Gender Diversity on your Board of Directors and California SB826“), but also the diversification of professional backgrounds making up public Board seats. It used to be that Boards were made up almost entirely of current and former CEOs, but this is no longer the case. According to a report issued by Spencer Stuart, former and current CFOs made up just 12% of Board composition in 2017. The need for gender diversification today is hand-in-hand with the recruitment of more CFOs, CIOs, CMOs, and CHROs on to Boards as the issues public companies face become more complex and nuanced. The need for experts in a variety of subjects is now more important than ever before. One of the most talked about issues at Board meetings was the topic of “financial talent succession planning.”
So, this sounds like good news if you are a CFO wanting to join a Board, right? Well, the truth is, it is not easy. For one, there are only about half the number of public companies in the US today as there were in 1996. (According to the WSJ, in 1996 there were 7,322 domestic public companies and in 2017 there were only 3,671). Also, as the Baby Boomers go from being active C-suite employees to wanting to sit on Boards, the sheer size of that generation has created the largest number of competitors for those fewer seats. People currently sitting on Boards are generally loath to leave them for better or worse, making turnover rare. While some strategic and legislated elements are creating more demand for diversity of Board membership, clearly the demographic winds are not in a first-time Board member’s favor.
Are Companies Seeking a Purple Squirrel?
From the viewpoint of a consultative executive recruiter and Board of Directors recruitment firm, there is also more at play. When we partner with a Board and CEO to help attract a new member, the diligence process is very deep. We really need to understand the Board dynamics and what are the missing pieces to complement existing members. From there we reconcile with the Board and strategize on industry factors, competitors, foreseeable changes in the technical landscape in terms of bringing in fresh perspectives. We collaborate and determine a list of possible target executives on whom we should concentrate our efforts. Many times, this brings into play a “Moonshot” approach to attracting / recruiting Board members. My point is when we conduct a Board search, while there may be many prospective people who “want to be on a Board,” there are typically very few candidates who will meet all the criteria the client and I have laid out for the role. We are not, in the words of one panelist, seeking a “Purple Squirrel” but rather a candidate that meets a bar that is just high, specific, and written with purpose and thought, which limits the number of appropriate candidates.
Suggestions for Board Seekers
I am not trying to douse your dreams of being on a Board. The panel had some very good advice and insights on some practical ways to make yourself more attractive. One thing you can do is to seek an unpaid ‘Board Advisory” role. An incubator would be a good place to look for these roles. If you can land some Advisory roles they may grow into a more full-time Board role if the company is able to get off the ground. Another idea is to be an Angel investor; nascent stage companies might add you as a Board member/investor. Finally, look for those companies that may be a bit damaged or lacking in some key element where your skills and knowledge could help them turn things around. Just like anything in life, one rarely starts their journey at the top. You may need to take the “B” or even “C” role to get your first seat.
Finally, the panelists pointed out some of the qualities they look for when evaluating a potential Board member. First and most important was the ability to receive a tremendous amount of input from management and to be able to sort through it all and ask incisive questions. Second, they agreed that a high degree of business acumen in the domain of the business was key. They left us thinking about the role of the Board when it comes to social responsibility, which is becoming more of a conversation at the top than ever before. That is good news and certainly something for all of us to think about.
If your company is seeking a strategic Board member, particularly someone with a CFO background, Arnold Partners’ network is the one to tap for tech and life science companies. I welcome your comments and questions; contact me at email@example.com.