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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let me preface this blog by acknowledging that I am not a parent. But I get asked by a lot of parents and occasionally college students about what undergraduates should do to maximize their chances of success in the business world. Here are some objective and hopefully helpful thoughts.
Some philosophy about the goal of education
One of my high school mentors imparted that the academic goal of a high school education is primarily to teach budding brains how to study and how to learn. This makes inherent sense to me. In high school students need to learn how to listen, take notes, read complex material, gain understanding, and apply knowledge to class discussions, writing papers, and taking tests. On the other hand, the academic goal of a college education is to learn how to solve problems and be a critical thinker.
Application process and the importance of school selection—or not
I know third hand how hard the college application process is today. You have to apply to 8, 10, or 15 schools because that is how the game is played. It is a bit frustrating to see it from the sidelines, even before addressing the shocking bribing that is going on.
When the highly anticipated acceptance letters come in, the talk is about what schools accepted you into their hallowed halls. Then you make the big decision: which one to accept? It is less important than you think! In reality, it is not the school that you have selected that will ensure your success in business or in life. It is how you apply yourself once you are there. Based on my many years consulting with companies on their hiring decisions, any good hiring manager would take the top of the class from a state school over the bottom or even middle of the class of a “prestigious” Ivy League. What you do, how you learn, and how you apply critical thinking to solving problems begins in undergrad. An April 30, 2019 New York Times article, “Almost All the Colleges I Wanted to Go to Rejected Me. Now What?” talks about this very subject.
The importance of developing “executive presence”
I would also argue that the whole concept of developing executive presence begins in undergrad as well. The key elements of executive presence are reputation, communication, leadership, and charisma. All these traits can be seen in varying degrees in recent college graduates. The types of activities you choose to engage in as an undergrad directly affects the foundation of your executive presence and what people think of you—what leadership roles you pursued and secured, what speaking engagements you undertook. These are all differentiators and indicators of your potential in the workplace that your future employer will carefully consider.
The right major for getting a jump start on your career path
A question I get asked frequently is what majors are most sought after by businesses looking to hire entry-level workers. I would encourage you to focus on a liberal arts degree coupled with courses in computer science (CS) and business/accounting. The liberal arts training will teach you to think critically and the CS and Business courses will give you practical knowledge. Depending on the program you are enrolled in the reverse could also be true: focus on CS and Business, but take enough electives in the liberal arts program to round out your education.
The value of attending junior college
If you are a high school grad who is not quite ready for a four-year program, attend a good Junior College. This can be a brilliant strategy! Many JCs in California have automatic acceptance routes to the UC system. This approach gives you time to catch up academically and/or emotionally if this is the reason you are not going off to a four-year program. The general ed topics that are mandatory for any undergraduate degree may indeed be taught more effectively at JC than some four-year schools. It clearly reduces the financial burden, which is no small issue for most students and their families these days. Finally, I can tell you for a fact – if you go on from a JC to a four-year program no one will ever know. In my 24+ years of recruiting it has never occurred to me to ask a candidate where they did their first two years of school. But do I look at where you graduated from? Of course.
Undergraduate diploma vs experience
So how much weight does an undergraduate degree carry? Is someone 10 years out of school from an Ivy League an immediately superior candidate to someone from Chico State? Not in my book. What we look at 10 years out are your achievements in the roles you took on. What sort of progression have you achieved? What types of companies have you worked for? Who have been your mentors? What are your accomplishments?
To counter this argument, it may be true that the top-rated universities have more on-campus recruiters from top-tier companies combing the ranks for the best and the brightest undergraduates. But if you are in the best and brightest in a lesser-known program which may not be on the on-campus radar, it is upon you to make yourself known to the companies you want to work for. This entails a diligent effort, but it most certainly can be done.
As a follow-on to this blog, I will write one about MBA programs, a different animal.
Congratulations on your graduation and acceptance. Now, go forth and learn to solve complex problems; we need your contribution in this complex and ever-changing world! If you feel so inclined, shoot me an email with your comments and or questions at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you and wish you a productive and satisfying career.
Have you ever done this? Or had a CFO candidate do so?
In my 20+ years as an executive recruiter I have never heard of nor experienced such behavior. Until now.
Is it a sign of just how overheated our market for talent has become?
A little backdrop: Our client came to a negotiated agreement with a sitting CFO to join them as their new CFO. However, the candidate needed more time than normal before leaving their current employer. (Red flag #1) Given this situation, I encouraged my client to treat the candidate more as a new employee during this interim period rather than someone starting in eight weeks, and to hold regular meetings and provide them a constant stream of information so the relationship would take hold and a strong bond would start to form. I could not control what happened during this interim period, but my understanding is the client did make an effort to bridge the signed candidate into the CFO role.
I was very confident the candidate would part ways with their current company given the circumstances that led to their interest in leaving in the first place. Nonetheless, my client and I were collectively holding our breath a bit and I think we both felt a sense of relief when the candidate announced their resignation. We were all feeling pretty good at this juncture. Signed offer letter from four weeks earlier and now a public resignation. What could go wrong?
Because of the unique qualities of this person, their phone began to ring with additional CFO opportunities as soon as the resignation hit the wires. I believe the correct response to these incoming inquiries is quite simple: “Thank you for your call, but I have already accepted a new position and will be starting shortly. Good luck in your search.” Since I call on recently resigned CFOs all the time, I have heard this response and respect it. In fact, I think it would be not only ungraceful, but also in bad taste to push a person in this situation for more information or for them to entertain what it was I was calling about. That is not what happened in this case.
I suppose the candidate was pleased, surprised, and or even flattered by the attention the resignation ignited. Given the volume of purported calls this person received it is another sign of how overheated this market really is. So, the calls came in, but rather than simply offering a simple no, they apparently entertained the new inquiries. Now in my book this is a black and white situation; just say no. Am I wrong? Once you sign a contract that was negotiated and evaluated in good faith you stick with it. There was nothing negatively affecting the new company the individual was joining. If the company had produced bad news or the CEO announced they were departing or some such other major event had taken place, I would understand. Things were actually headed up and to the right, so backing out at this point seemed unthinkable and in my book unethical.
But backing out is exactly what this person did. I was speechless when told. Dumbfounded. What exactly changed in their mind? What happened between the time of signing the contract and now? They said it just did not “feel like the right fit.” Well frankly, that is what the interview process is for. That is the purpose of due diligence. We are all supposed to make sure the “right fit” exists before we make an offer and we did.
Never a dull moment in the recruitment business!
If you read my blogs regularly, you know it is rare that I write about a deal gone bad. But honestly, I do believe lessons can be learned out of every experience, good or bad, and I do write about such experiences. This one stung. Now that a bit of time has passed, I can look back and see a few red flags early in the process. I will take the experience I have gained to my next client and the next. That is the silver lining of this experience. What about you? I am curious to hear from you whether have experienced such behavior and your thoughts on ensuring that it does not happen again.
If you are in a company seeking a CFO, please know that yes, the market is red-hot for talent. You need an experienced recruiter at your side to take all precautions who has a laser focus on any red flags and employs a well thought out methodology to land the CFO you want and need. Give me, Dave, a call at 408-205-7373 or shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.
I recently met with a CEO who is a potential client in need of a new CFO. He is in a name-brand company that most people in technology circles would recognize. He is also one of the most network-connected people I have ever met. Part of the value he brings to his company is his deep and wide network of connections to influential people; this helps him recruit exceptional talent and drive customer and vendor relationships.
However, because his network of CFO talent is not the deepest and widest, he is considering engaging Arnold Partners to help him identify and land the CFO. It is pending while he reaches out to a few folks before engaging a full search. I always encourage my prospective clients to work their network prior to engaging a search; it just makes sense.
On my soapbox again
For frequent readers of my blog, you will recognize the soapbox upon which I stand regarding the importance of a strong network. As I emphasized last year in my video on the importance of networking and ways to do it effectively, I am constantly in awe of the power of a great network. Most folks in full-time jobs may only occasionally think about networking, but for me it is a daily priority. One of the greatest assets I bring to my clients is the depth of my network and my ability to tap into long-term relationships based on mutual trust to deliver exceptional results. When I entered the executive search business over 20 years ago, it was clear to me that building a trusted network of people of influence was truly the goal each and every day.
What also surprises me about my own network is the breadth of its reach and its value personally as well as professionally. When I needed sold-out U2 tickets for my friend’s 50th birthday celebration I had someone to call. When my client needed to set up their first European operations I had someone to introduce them to. When my client was looking to move office space I had top-tier folks to help them. When there have been personal medical issues beyond my control, my network was there with well-connected referrals. When my good friend started an HR consulting business and needed help setting up a website, I introduced him straight to excellent vendors. All these significant relationships have come from years of networking.
In the last week I have received inquiries about partnering on two separate CFO searches—one in Florida and one in New York City. Both are successful SaaS companies and will need seasoned CFOs to help chart their next stages of growth. With a quick look into my contacts database I have confidence that we have an excellent jumping off point to help these clients efficiently and effectively. Our research team will supplement our existing network with additional introductions as needed.
Brand-building and networking go hand-in-hand
I just read an article about executive branding. Building a personal brand is important, but if you do not have a network to share it with, what good is it? For most CFOs, and up-and-coming CFOs, building a network is not on the top of the daily to-do list. So, how do you do it? It does take time. And the time is worth the effort. As cited above, a strong network is more than about finding your next career opportunity. It is about being a knowledge resource for all sorts of solutions. It is about knowing who to tap to find the answer for both personal and professional challenges.
Taking time to assess the marketplace
One of my favorite high-profile CFOs said in a Business Journal article last year that he takes the time once a quarter to step back from his current job and assess the marketplace. Not only to assess what is happening with specific opportunities for himself, but check out what is happening in the broader pulse of technology and in the tea leaves of the economy. If there is a certain item or trend that grab his attention he will make the time to explore who he knows in that new vertical or emerging industry. This is a good practice for all of us. Get out of the weeds of our daily roles and take a look at the macro. When something in the larger field grabs our attention, it’s the perfect opportunity to explore it and become networked in that new universe.
My personal new year resolution is the same every year: keep building the network. I encourage you to do the same. If you are looking for a top-notch CFO or Board Member to join your team, call me at 408-205-7373 or email me at: email@example.com and we can have a conversation about taping into a deep, wide, and continually expanding network.