How to land a superstar executive

Recruitment often starts with a dance of sorts

The government contracting market has seen its share of shifts in the executive suite in the past year, with the likes of BAE Systems, ManTech International, Science Applications International Corp. and DynCorp losing or gaining new senior leaders.

That raises the question of how companies recruit top-level executives because a classified ad just doesn't cut it.

“There’s a little dance that occurs typically among people that you know,” said Ed Meagher, who recently left SRA International Inc. to join Computer Sciences Corp. as vice president of health care strategy.

“I expressed an interest,” Meagher said, which led to further preliminary talks.

“There are discreet discussions about generalized opportunities and hypothetical situations to just sense whether or not there is any interest in going further in the discussion,” Meagher said.

When both parties see the possibility of a good fit, the next step is to say, “Let’s talk some more about that,” typically after work, perhaps over dinner, he said.

However, most of those discussions go nowhere because the prospective candidate, the position under discussion or the company turns out not to be a good match, he said.

But even when the dancing ends with no movement, “you always want to leave on good terms and leave open the door to further discussions at a later time,” Meagher said, because “it’s a small town — news gets around quick: who’s talking to who, who’s not happy, who’s interested in moving and so forth.”

When Meagher and CSC executives got down to substantive talks, they discussed job specifics, the parameters of the proposed position, and salary ranges and benefits. Soon after, the deal was completed.

That’s similar to the way Lee Carrick approached Perot Systems in 2007 when he hoped to join the company after an Air Force career and 12 years at Northrop Grumman Corp.

“I actually pursued Perot Systems, and that’s how I ended up here,” said Carrick, vice president of Dell Services Federal Government, the result of the giant computer-maker’s acquisition of Perot Systems last year.

“I was drawn to Perot by the icon, Mr. [H. Ross] Perot, what he stood for and the reputation of the company,” Carrick said. “It was a company that was well respected by its customers and treated its people very well with an environment that I thought I would fit in very well.”

In addition, Carrick said he was enticed by a position with greater responsibilities that also offered an opportunity for him to grow professionally.

Now he is on the receiving side of the sales pitch from potential new hires.

“Usually a discussion will start up at a dinner or an event,” Carrick said. “Somebody will approach me and ask how my business is doing, how things are going on.”

Carrick said that as a top executive, he is wary of making the first opening because often people are happy where they are and what they are doing.

“I’m much more of the ‘let 'em come to us’” technique, he added.

When on-the-record interviews and in-depth discussions take place, Carrick said, it’s then up to the candidates to sell themselves to the top-level executives and perhaps even to the board of directors.

“It becomes very personal when you bring on a senior executive, and there needs to be a very personal connection, that we understand each other,” Carrick said. “I always communicate what are my core beliefs and values about myself, about running a company, and what I believe is my overall vision.”

He said any new senior hire must share the vision and core beliefs with the management team.

“They can do things differently,” Carrick said. “They can operate in their own way. But I think you need to have that base alignment and a general idea that, ‘I want to go in the same general direction. I have the same values as you and this company.’ ”

Carrick’s recruiting techniques mirror those of many corporate IT executives. He belongs to a number of professional organizations for networking opportunities, and he pores over industry publications to look out for potential executives to join his team.

“I definitely look for a leader that has got a very solid track record, someone that has consistently been able to deliver solutions effectively to the client as well as deliver the growth and the margin numbers for the shareholders,” Carrick said.

“I always try to look for people that are smarter than I am and have more experience than I have,” he added. “I like people who will challenge me to do more.”

He said he seeks candidates who bring high energy and new ideas to the position, someone who is a change agent and also a team player.

Carrick said it’s been his experience that team-oriented executives tend to stay longer and become an integral part of the company rather than move on to the next opportunity every few years.

Having an outstanding personal reputation also is among his top criteria.

“There are some that have done exceptionally well in growing [the company], but perhaps they don’t have the best reputation,” he said, adding that it’s important that a candidate “is very high on the integrity scale.”

Asked whether he would ever consider creating a position for an outstanding executive just to get him on the team, Carrick said, “That’s certainly a possibility.”

Meagher, a former Interior Department deputy chief information officer, said recruiting retiring government executives is similar, with one important difference.

Any contact with a private company or top executive requires high-level government officials to submit a recusal letter to their agency’s Office of General Counsel within 48 hours of each contact, Meagher said.

No one else within the agency has access to the letters, so post-retirement plans remain confidential. But the official cannot have any further professional dealings with those companies.

“It’s not something you do lightly because once you start down that path anytime there’s an approach, you are required ethically to file a recusal letter and to actually recuse yourself from any dealings,” Meagher said. “It can start to detract from your effectiveness if you let that go on too long.”

Social media has become a widely used tool for job postings and résumés. But social media sites are not the preferred method of choice among C-level executives, Amtower said.

“If it’s a publicly traded company, this ain’t football," said Mark Amtower, president of Amtower & Co. and a Washington Technology contributor who writes about social media. "If somebody makes rumblings that they want to be traded, the board’s already looking for your replacement."

“A lot of major firms still use retained executive search for the very highest level,” Amtower said. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t looking on the Web, that they aren’t vetting these people on the Web.”

Carrick said Dell will post vacancies on its open Internet site and try to recruit internally whenever possible. He said executive search firms do a fine job, but he has rarely used their services.

Meagher said resorting to an executive search firm isn’t done lightly because the good ones are expensive.

“When you can’t come up with viable candidates or you’re not happy with the candidates you find and time is ticking, that’s the point when you might turn to a professional headhunter to broaden the search,” Meagher said.

Recruiting can be tricky among government contractors because they often partner with one another, said Beth Olson, an executive headhunter at Snelling, a professional services firm with offices in Herndon, Va.

Companies often have internal recruiters, but they are limited by the nature of the government contracting work, she said.

“Where we come into play a lot of times is where it’s just unethical, at best, for companies to be poaching from other companies,” she said.

“Lockheed may be teaming with QinetiQ or whoever else, so it would be frowned upon, at the very least, for them to go and get an employee from somebody that down the road they are going to want to be teaming with,” she said by way of example.

“Whereas if this is somebody that I recruit directly, they didn’t know about the candidate beforehand,” Olson added. “So it’s not like they’ve asked me to go into QinetiQ [for example] and start recruiting people.”

Reader Comments

Mon, Oct 18, 2010 Evan Scott Alexandria

I am alwyas glad to see an article written about recruting senior level executives.There were many good points raised in your piece.The one critical issue not mentioned is the effectiveness of a third party when it comes down to an offer.This is where a experienced executive recruiter earns their fees.

Fri, Oct 15, 2010

This isn't so much reporting as giving voice to people who want to pat themselves on the back. The Federal contracting industry big businesses are not known for strong and effective leadership. This is because what matters is at the customer facing level. "Senior Executives" are generally far from that. They just preside. Margins are so small that none risk investment that would bring them into the 21st century. Fewer stil integrate their business development, contracts, and finance efforts well. I'd rather hear from successful smal business owners - the ones who have more than that one big contract with their buddy still in government.

Tue, Oct 12, 2010

Great article overaal, but what difference does it make if Snelling’s Beth Olson “poachers” people from QinetiQ for Lockheed or Lockheed does the poaching themselves? This type of comment is nothing more than sales babble, and I find it interesting that Ms. Olson in particular cites ethics as the rationale.

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