There has been a lot of talk in recent years about using artificial intelligence and machine learning in technology. In fact, many of our clients at Arnold Partners in Silicon Valley and beyond employ these tools in a variety of applications to help their customers outsmart the competition. Within the recruitment industry, there has been talk of AI and ML potentially replacing recruiters all together. I am happy to report that AI is being deployed by Arnold Partners as an enhancement to our recruitment services – not a replacement. How so?
One cool thing about being in Silicon Valley and serving tech clients is the exposure we gain to cutting-edge technologies. We make it our practice to keep abreast of what’s coming down the pike and applying technologies that are applicable to the recruiting industry. For one, we added AI capabilities to help uncover talent for our clients. This will help us continue to win the battle with the Goliaths of the recruiting industry: Spencer, Heidrick, Russell, Egon and Korn aka SHREK and will clearly separate us from other boutique firms who do not embrace technology platforms to enhance their client interface. (I did not coin this acronym; my long-time, friendly competitor Cliff Scheffel was the first person to share it with me.)
Powering up with AI
Utilizing the amazing powers imbedded in the AI tool provides unprecedented efficiencies in uncovering passive and hidden talent. This means more refined and targeted prospect lists and potentially much faster turnaround times for our clients. However, it does not translate into the irreplaceable human process of turning a prospect into a candidate!
In the last two searches we have completed, the art of getting a CFO to the client meeting has been on full display. Through deep listening to the candidate and shaping the client opportunities appropriately we were able to get the meetings initiated. There are a whole lot of “no’s” we hear as recruiters. “No, I’m not interested in making a change right now” is the most common thing we hear; I would say we hear 20 “no’s” for every “yes” or “maybe.” But what, if through a bit more dialogue we could get those “no’s” to a “maybe” or a “I’ll take a look”? There is no software out there that can do that. I further posit that getting a CFO candidate to “take a look” is even more difficult than getting the C-suite to do so.
Delicate art of persuasion
By combining the cutting-edge abilities of AI and ML with the decades of experience in the delicate art of persuasion, we are not only keeping up with the SHREKs, we are winning. Just like David took down Goliath by being more nimble and by utilizing the right tools, we are doing the same by integrating the right technology into a well-honed recruitment process for success. Our tool was developed at Stanford and the company is still in stealth mode. As an early adopter of their solutions, I will be placed at the front of the line as new tweaks and improvements are made to the platform, further enhancing our competitive advantage.
It is an exciting time to be in the recruitment business. Things are changing; some things will stay the same. But, as I wrote in my last blog, we have to constantly be learning. While there is a steep learning curve with this new tool (it could still use a lot of work on user interface). But for me personally, by mastering and utilizing this new software, I am confident it will add another arrow in our quiver to stay one step ahead of SHREK and perhaps even other boutique recruitment houses who do not adopt and learn in the fast-changing world we all operate in.
No way am I going the way of the dinosaurs!
If you would like to learn more, shoot me an email. In meantime, happy recruiting! Dave
But first, some thoughts on the current business environment…
For those of you who follow me closely, you will note I have not written a blog in a long time. When Covid hit, it just did not seem to be the time to promote ideas about recruiting, hiring, and all things business that I cover in my blogs. What has been shocking to me is the pace of business…it has not slowed down at all for the tech companies we at Arnold Partners supports. Honestly, this has led to some degree of thriver guilt – to see so many fellow citizens (and in many cases very good friends) struggle in this K-shaped economy we are living in. In the direct world where I focus, the demand for CFO talent has never been greater. Tech IPOs are booming, which has a direct effect on the overall CFO market. As CFOs get drafted up into IPO companies, it frequently leaves a void somewhere down the food chain of the tech continuum. This has certainly had a welcome effect on our business and frankly has kept me from taking time to blog about this or that or the other thing. But now, following a brief respite, on with the show!
It is something we all muse about in both our personal and professional lives. Some of us actually try to do a bit of it…I still take a saxophone lesson every week, even if my skills seemed to have leveled off. I was taking Spanish classes when Covid hit, but those are on hold. It is especially important for me to always be learning. Whether a new skill or tactic, or perhaps even a whole new strategy around hiring.
I had an “Aha!” moment last year as I took on a fairly early-stage client needing a CFO. One of the clear mantras of the culture in the company was around continuous learning. Everyone in the company is encouraged and engaged in learning something new all the time. It could be how to juggle or how to improve listening skills. It does not matter as long as it is something outside of work that involves learning. When I met the CEO, I knew we were simpatico on that and immediately wanted to support him in finding an excellent CFO. (Which we did, and all went well!)
Learning a whole new approach to interviewing candidates…
The prospect of a taking a new tack for interviewing candidates was an entirely different kind of challenge. I mean, come on, I have been interviewing finance pros since 1992. I think I know what I am doing! Along came another client who had a VERY specific approach to the hiring process based on a book written in 2008. When they informed me of their dedication to this technique, I quickly got the book and read it from cover to cover. Three times. I went back with a highlighter to study certain elements of the process outlined. It was exciting. Some new ideas, some GREAT ideas and as it turns out, some really interesting learnings in the actual process with CFOs. Not as expected!
First, the positives:
The book gives a particularly good template to design a job spec that actually fits what it is you want to hire for. This may sound obvious, but I will tell you from experience, most companies take a spec off the shelf and maybe customize a line or two for their needs. By really thinking about what problems, you are trying to solve at the beginning of the process, it definitely makes screening candidates against a specific wish list of skills and experience for the exact needs of the client more effective. I have written about this before in a blog, “For CEOs and CFO Candidates: The Importance of an Exacting “Spec” in Executive Recruiting,” and the authors got it right.
The real aha in the book for me was around having various members of the interview team focus on different areas of expertise and skills of the candidates during the interview process. So often after a series of interviews candidates will tell me that everyone asked them the same thing. Or that they spent the first 10 minutes of the interview talking about something completely off subject such as a hobby. If there are six people on the interview team and each one spends 10 minutes talking about the same hobby, your interview team just spent a whole hour on it – not exactly productive! The takeaway is to have people on the team with specific skills or knowledge to hone in on those areas you are seeking in the candidate. Certainly, overall impressions are still made with each interview regarding communication skills, reasoning skills, presentation, listening, etc. So even tho each interviewer had a specific task, each contributes to the overall assessment.
The authors also offer a great litmus test to getting to a “no” on a particular candidate very quickly. Focusing on what the candidate’s recent former bosses say about them early on in the first call reveals whether or not their bosses have confidence in the candidate and will stand up for him/her.
Now the negatives:
The overall arch of the first five or six meetings as outlined in the book is heavily weighted to the company who is evaluating the candidate and offers very little opportunity for the candidate to ask any questions about the company, the role, or even the people they are meeting. In practice, this was a particular turn-off to CFOs. CFOs are data driven. They want to learn about and be sold on the opportunity as much as they like to show off their abilities to ask penetrating questions. We lost some good candidates that were totally turned off by this one-way approach. I think it may have something to do with the book being written in 2008. It was a buyers’ market for talent in 2007-2009. Not anymore. Not by a long shot. (Credit – when I gave the client this feedback, we altered the process a bit to give candidates an early opportunity to learn more about the company.)
Specific to my client, the first “real” interviews between the company and the CFO candidates after passing a 30-minute screen with the CEO were conducted by a very junior person on the staff. While this staff member is really well respected within the organization, the feedback from CFOs was basically they felt insulted and a real reluctance to continue the process no matter the outcome of the meeting. CFOs were telling me that spending an hour being grilled by a person with three years’ experience out of college sent a message that the company did not know what it was doing. (Credit – after a few of these meetings, the client heard the feedback and altered the process). I have another blog to follow this one about hiring a CFO and how much weight needs to be from “the team” (code for the people who would report to the CFO), the “executives,” and the CEO/Board. Stay tuned…
Conclusion on the book:
It was well intended. As with most business books there were a few good nuggets. I did take away some good learnings, both positive and negative. But to apply it literally to each hire was misplaced. CFO hires are unique. This hiring template was unique but the two were not really compatible. Fortunately, my client was open to feedback and we were able to alter the process and ended up making a great hire. If you want more details, please reach out…good to be back. More soon, Dave.
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.