Star search Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

Judith M. von Seldeneck fights the war for talent on two fronts.

As the founder, chairman and CEO of Diversified Search Odgers Berndtson, she oversees the U.S. operations of London-based executive search firm Odgers Berndtson, which generated $275 million in revenue last year. That means she needs to find top executive and administrative talent not just for her firm but for the many clients that contract with her firm.

It has given her a unique perspective on attracting and retaining top talent.

“We’re in the business of finding the right people for others, so it’s sort of like the cobbler has no shoes himself,” von Seldeneck says. “Finding the right people in our business is probably the hardest task of all. We have a culture that is changing, that is much more team-based, and you need people who can not only work on the firm in teams but, even more importantly, know how to sustain long-term business relationships with our clients. It’s sort of an interesting mixture of attributes, and it really has changed over the years.”

Before you do anything else with regard to recruiting, you need to understand what your culture is and what you are looking for in a manager or executive. And don’t allow yourself to be wowed by a candidate’s resume before you’ve had a chance to speak to the candidate in person.

“If you understand your culture, you’re going to understand the people who are going to fit and who aren’t going to fit,” she says. “Sometimes it is tempting when people come in and they’re million-dollar producers. They’re going to bring with them all this revenue and new clients and so forth, and maybe they have a quirky personality, but you figure that you’ll find a way around that. I’ve found that you need to take a pass on those people, because they can ruin your culture. It’s a bad apple that ruins the bushel.”

Here are some of the other lessons that von Seldeneck has learned about finding, hiring and retaining the best leaders for your company.

Find the right match

The first step in any executive search is to identify what attributes the ideal candidate should have. That can be determined by a number of factors, including your company goals, cultural principles and requirements of the specific job.

But von Seldeneck says there are some universal traits that every executive is going to need, regardless of the specifics of the position for which you are hiring.

“You need people who are good listeners,” she says. “You need people who are really good at getting a read on other people. You should try to find someone who has had attained some life experience, both professionally and in their overall life. They have to have an ego and be ambitious, but they need to be able to balance that against the team concept.

“Sometimes it can be easy to get prima donnas on your staff who want to bring in lots of business so they can make lots of money. But you really can’t have people like that in an organization and expect to sustain any type of culture or cohesiveness.”

Identifying people who could potentially damage your culture is never easy, but you can find out a lot by asking many background questions during the interview process. You need to look for answers that focus on the team as opposed to the individual accomplishments of the candidate.

“We interviewed somebody the other day who was from another firm,” von Seldeneck says. “The individual had a really impressive book of business and set of clients. But the person just kept talking about ‘I’ and ‘me,’ and how all these firms are always after him. Those are just red flags. The answers were all about the individual, and that’s a show-stopper right there.”

What you really want to know is the role the individual played, how the candidate fit into the overall scheme of the company. You want to know how the person helped the organization attain its goals.

Von Seldeneck says there are several sources you can tap for that kind of information, including assessment tools like questionnaires, asking thorough follow-up questions during the interview process and inquiring with outside references.

“You need to find good references, particularly for an upper-management candidate,” she says. “As a search firm, that’s what we do, using primary and secondary references. You do research and really find out about the person and what kind of team member they are, because a lot of times, those kinds of things are not readily apparent.”

During the interview process, you should ask management candidates to think of specific examples of their performance. Ask them to demonstrate a time when they were a part of a successful team and what role they filled. Ask them the opposite, as well — a time when they found themselves in a team environment where there were some problems, and how they handled the situation.

“Those are direct questions you can ask,” von Seldeneck says. “Ask them to point out both the good and bad examples of when they served on a management team. Ask them why the good examples worked and why the bad examples didn’t work and what was their role in both outcomes.”

However, if you’re hiring someone for a decision-making position, you’ll probably need to find someone who can both build a consensus and take a stand when needed. That can be a problem if you’re hiring someone from a major company with a large, stratified management team.

“Some of the larger companies are so team-oriented that it can be a bad thing,” von Seldeneck says. “You find someone who is so used to consensus and being part of a team that they can’t make decisions on their own. You want team builders, but if you’re hiring someone to help execute a strategy and vision, they need to be able to make decisions, as well. Again, it comes back to developing a culture, developing your expectations for your leaders prior to making a hire. You need to understand the process of decision-making in your company so that you can pass that understanding along to the people you hire.”

Scout internally

Though she heads an executive search firm that specializes in finding the best external talent for its clients, von Seldeneck says she is completely in favor of internal promotions whenever the situation allows.

Internal candidates will, in all likelihood, possess a high level of familiarity with your culture, core values and organizational goals. If anything, an external search for management talent might solidify your belief that an internal hire is the best way to go.

“My personal feeling is that if you have a person internally who meets all of your criteria for a given position, you ought to think long and hard before you don’t go that way,” she says. “There is always less risk internally because you know the internal candidates. They’ve most likely been tried and tested, and any time you bring in someone from the outside, there might be a potential huge upside and reward but there is also risk that is going to be present. You like to know what you’re getting with an outside hire, but you don’t always know. There is always room for surprises.”

In order to have a pool of management and executive candidates within your company, you need to build a system for developing and

evaluating them. Some leadership traits, like an outgoing personality, are innate, but even the most charismatic leaders need coaching.

Formalized leadership training programs are well-developed among larger companies that can draw on a wealth of resources. But if your company is a little smaller and doesn’t possess the resources of an organization of thousands, it’s still an issue for which you need to find a solution.

“A lot of larger companies now have career path counseling and very comprehensive developmental programs for future leaders,” von Seldeneck says. “But a lot of other companies don’t, and a lot don’t even think about it or know how to go about setting up a program. If you’re a smaller entity, it’s still something you need to do. The whole idea of training leaders is an area that needs more attention in business overall.”

You can start by taking the initiative yourself and encouraging others in your organization to do the same.

“If you’re a younger leader, you can start taking your education into your own hands,” she says. “There are a lot of good seminars and programs, a lot of good books on the subject that are out there. You need to get out among other businesspeople at events and start networking. Don’t rely on your company alone to do that. There is a lot of information and knowledge out there and a lot of people out there who can help in your development. With the Internet, there is so much accessible information nowadays that allows you to take a lot more initiative.”

Whether you are a younger executive climbing the ladder or an older executive looking to groom younger leaders, communication is an essential element of good leadership and should be an area of focus in any type of internal leadership training.

You need to teach your up-and-coming leaders good communication skills while they are still a ways down the corporate ladder. If they’ve made it to a level of the company where they are addressing large numbers of employees or even speaking with the media, that is a bad time to have to learn on the fly.

“You don’t necessarily want to be learning this on the job if you’re a senior manager,” von Seldeneck says. “Particularly with regard to media communications, you want to make sure that the candidate you hire has experience in that area. As with team-oriented skills, you want to hear during the interview process of specific examples of what worked and what didn’t work and what they learned from it.”

You have to stay vigilant when it comes to communication training. There is no secret to it beyond repeatedly hammering away on developing the qualities of a good communicator in your leaders.

“Good communicators need to have self-confidence, but not arrogance, along with a dose of humor and a willingness to stay well-informed on what is affecting your company,” von Seldeneck says. “And you have to admit when you don’t know something. That is really a virtue.

“In communication, as with many other aspects of leadership, experience can oftentimes be the best teacher. You want to find people who learned from any mistakes they made. Many of the most successful people I know have been through hard times, made mistakes, learned from it, and have become better people and better leaders. When you sit down with them, they can recognize and admit the mistakes they’ve made and communicate the value they received from it.”

How to reach: Diversified Search Odgers Berndtson, (215) 732-6666 or