Executive Search: Finding the best leaders

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1 April 2005 | 0

The fear of being made redundant is something that all of us have laid awake worrying about at one time or another. However, thankfully, few of us have ever been faced with the grim reality of wondering where the next paycheque is coming from.

Be that as it may, it isn’t that difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how hard it would be to find yourself suddenly cast out to sea. In such a position, there’s not just the immediate concern about loss of income to worry about, there’s probably also a lack of self-worth to contend with.

Regardless of whether the individual has a role to play in losing their job, redundancy is a huge blow to one’s ego, and one that’s not easily overcome. Perhaps what makes the situation ever more difficult to bear, is the fact that there’s still a certain stigma attached to unemployment. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to think that if you’ve lost your job then it’s because of something you did or didn’t do.

 

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This is particularly the case with company executives. On one hand they’re more likely to be better off than other members of the workforce who are made redundant. But at the same time, executives are charged with ensuring that companies do well, and therefore there’s a natural tendency to point the finger at them when things go pear-shaped.

Unlike the US, where it’s not a sin to try and fail, Ireland has often been portrayed as a nation of begrudgers just waiting to laugh at those foolish enough to stick their neck on the line. But just how true is this portrayal these days? Have we matured enough to feel comfortable with failure and to see that it can teach us valuable lessons that can prove indispensable elsewhere? Or do potential recruiters view those who were previously with companies that don’t make it, as fragile goods?

Ben Anderson, managing director with Renoir Partners, a UK-based executive recruitment firm with a number of high profile Irish clients, suggests that our attitude to those that fail is mixed. ‘In the US, companies recognise that being on the board of a company that goes under is an invaluable learning experience, and therefore placing such candidates is much easier there,’ Anderson says.

‘In Europe, educating the market about the value of going through this process is still a challenge for executive search firms. The issue is particularly complex in Ireland because on the one hand it is a small market and therefore reputation is very important, so being perceived as having headed up a ‘failed’ company can be negative. However, on the other hand, because of its small market size, Irish companies tend to go international faster than in other European countries and so their perspective may mean that they will appreciate sooner than other European markets, the value gained in having gone through closure.’

Track record

Many in the local executive search sector believe that Irish companies aren’t afraid to employ a former executive who may have previously been employed with a company that didn’t succeed. Most argue that when it comes to looking for people at this level, companies are far more interested in someone’s overall track record, rather than just their last role.

As James Griffin, managing director of Solomon Search Partners International sees it, there’s very little negative feedback from being with a company that’s gone under unless they are perceived to have played a major part in the firm’s downfall.

‘Some former executives are seen to be people willing to take a risk and deliver on target — skills that are attractive to recruiters,’ Griffin points out. ‘Moreover, there’s the growing realisation that not every company in business can make it.’

Meanwhile, John McCullough, director of KPMG Ireland’s Executive Search & Selection Division, feels that the current downturn has done much to change the way that ‘failure’ is perceived in Ireland. McCullough says, ‘executives that have been with companies that have failed are not seen as liabilities because the current market is transient and is going through its own difficulties. These difficulties are seen for what they are and don’t reflect on the individual. However, while being made redundant may not be seen as a liability it’s not necessarily an advantage either. Despite the fact that there’s a lot less of a stigma attached to failure than there would have been ten years ago, we still don’t have that American mentality of seeing it as a learning experience’.

Thomas Walsh, manager of PriceWaterhouse Coopers’ Executive Resourcing Division, also believes that the economic slowdown has helped to make us reconsider what it is to be with a company that doesn’t make it. He says that in some instances, experience gained from being with a failed company can be an advantage because some people fail through no fault of their own and they may have had no control over the situation whatsoever. ‘What we’re ideally looking for at the executive level is someone who can alter the bottom line fairly immediately,’ he says. ‘If you can do this, then having been with a company that didn’t make it is not something that anyone would hold against you.’

Young guns

Throughout the 1990s we saw a whole new wave of business executives coming through the ranks. Young, brash and full of verve, these gunslingers and their newfangled dotcom enterprises undoubtedly changed the local landscape and for a while, it seemed as though you had to be young to succeed in business in Ireland.

However, according to Bill Hennessy, a partner with Merc Partners, that’s all changed now following the economic slowdown. He suggests that potential recruiters are now tending to opt for the more mature executive to steer them through the downturn. ‘There’s been a general move in the marketplace recently because three or four years ago during the height of the technology boom, it was the young entrepreneurial go-getters who were in demand. However, following the bust, the older, more experienced executives are being sought because management has become more complex and experience is highly valued,’ he observes.

Although recruiters hear all the stories of job seekers and their circumstances, what of executives who were at the coalface with companies that didn’t make it?

Bob McClean, sales manager with Telecity, was formerly an executive with the managed services provider, The Wolfe Group, when it became insolvent in 2001. He says that the whole experience of suddenly finding himself without work taught him some valuable skills, which, while they may not always come into use in his day-to-day operations, are nonetheless useful.

‘When I became redundant the best way forward for me was to use a network of people that I knew rather than going to an executive search firm,’ he recalls. The main reason for this was simply that I didn’t have time.

‘One of the most valuable things that I learnt from the experience was that I wouldn’t shy away from approaching someone who looked as though they were going to be available through insolvency. In the past there was a fair degree of stigma associated with insolvency, particularly around three or four years ago during the boom when it was seen to be almost impossible to fail, but that stigma has lessened considerably in recent years. Obviously, there are some people who still work on the assumption that if you were in a senior position with a company that went down, there must be a question mark over your ability. But, that’s disappearing because its become a lot more common for companies to fail and this has led people to accept that this can’t just be down to an individual. A lot of the casualties out there are victims of circumstances and if anything there’s now admiration for how long they were able to hold on in the face of adversity.’

05/03/2003

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