Creating a Culture of Collaboration

November 18, 2016 – Oddly enough, LinkedIn has been embraced by search firms even as it threatens them. The dirty little secret in the search business is that LinkedIn has made most proprietary databases somewhat redundant.

But while LinkedIn has disintermediated and demystified initial candidate identification, it has also accelerated the recruitment process. And it has actually opened up the possibility of widening the relationship between recruiters and those they serve. CHROs and HR executives, in particular, are seeking much deeper insight from search firms, taking expectations far beyond candidate identification.

In this highly informative interview, Julie Ford, president and founder of Ventura Partners, and Bob Damon, a partner who joined her earlier this year, discuss the culture they are creating, the future of their firm and the ‘great beyond’ of executive search.

Bob has 25 years in C-level operating roles, first at Spencer Stuart, and then at Korn Ferry where he served as executive chairman of the Americas. His clients have included the NFL, Fender, Levi Strauss, Office Depot, Under Armour and more than a dozen private equity firms; among them TPG, Castanea Partners, Main Post Partners (fka Weston Presidio), KKR and Apax Partners. Julie spent more than a dozen years between Korn Ferry and Heidrick & Struggles where she served as a partner. She launched Ventura Partners six years ago and since then she’s led C-level projects for companies including Patagonia, The North Face, and Incase as well as private equity groups like Gores, RLH, and Wedbush.

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Julie, why did you initially form Ventura Partners?

Ford: With the rise of LinkedIn and other database platforms, I saw that my profession was going to be forever changed and so not only did I want to stay ahead of that, but I honestly believed — and still do — that I could offer a more personalized approach to my clients if I opened up my own shop. You have to understand that I had worked most of my search career in large firms with a large infrastructure to support. Clients pay for efficiency and want superior service for fair value. So, in 2010 I founded Ventura Partners to create a new paradigm for the search industry. Large firms, in my view, are driven by individual metrics to measure consultant performance on business booked, business executed and quality of service. In that world, search consultants must develop and execute their own business to get paid. But that compensation model often fosters internal competition among partners and not the kind of internal collaboration that I was seeking. At the outset, I knew I had to change the old executive search structure of a ‘culture of competition’ into a ‘culture of collaboration.’ That was so important to me. With my husband Kevin joining me, we began collaboratively delivering a unique client-centric service focused primarily on small / mid-cap private equity-backed companies. Now, of course it was easy for me and Kevin to collaborate. The issue was creating a new model of collaboration that could be sustained and shared with others. This past year when Chad Chatlos and my longtime friend and colleague, Bob Damon, joined we wanted to make that culture of collaboration operational and sustainable.

What created the culture of collaboration — what was the basis for it?

Ford: It is part of our core values. First, all partners are paid equally. Second, growth for growth’s sake is not our goal. Finding impact players for our clients is our goal.

Are those key values a real differentiator? Bob, first you. 

Damon: I have had some major leadership roles in both large and boutique search firms. The compensation structure always drove internal competition and it drove revenue. It rarely fostered collaboration between firm partners to deliver excellence for clients. The Ventura model is a culture of collaboration between all the firm’s partners. We work on all aspects of the business together. We are agnostic about who, where and how the business is won or executed. It is a true team effort that occurs on every assignment and this ultimately translates into collaboration with our clients. The goal is to create shareholder value for the client in every search we undertake. It is a win-win across the board.

Ford: Let me add that the search industry pricing model has not changed substantially over time. Given the access to candidates by LinkedIn, cycle time has been reduced on the front end. Shouldn’t that be passed onto clients? We believe so and we have put that into action. Our fees are customized to provide great service and great value. Larger search firms would like clients to believe that they have more access and better tools to identify and assess candidates. LinkedIn and the proliferation of readily available, validated assessment tools have leveled the playing field.

Damon: And while our fee model is the starting point that assures that every client gets true value, in the end we are here to find impact players for our clients. The fact of the matter is that people fill assignments, not firms. It is not the size of the quiver or structure of the bow, but the skill of the archer that hits the bull’s eye. Our partners possess senior level experience and unique track records for assessing what culture fit makes for a great leader in a given situation. We also have our own nontraditional methods for assessing fit.

You are economically aligned with clients, but how and why are you culturally aligned?

Ford: We put our skin in the game. We have no interest in just filling boxes on organizational charts in Fortune 500 companies. We pride ourselves on being trusted advisors to small / midcap companies, boards and private equity groups. We attend board meetings. We live and breathe our clients’ lives. Given our life experiences, we are mirror images of our clients. We act as, and are, in some cases, independent board directors and investors. In addition, the culture of collaboration opens the door to innovation. Our partners have license to pursue their big ideas — to figure out how to remove the barriers to speed, efficiency and quality that can trip up searches.

What is Ventura’s primary focus?

Damon: We focus on boards, CEO and C-suite leaders in small / midcap private equity-backed or owner-founded companies. Working in this closely-held environment enables us to develop and hone deep, intimate relationships with clients. We sit with clients, solve problems and find solutions. That’s our focus. We also have deep knowledge and expertise in sports. We are focused on collegiate and professional organizations as well as teams.

Ford: Yes, our sports experience is somewhat unique. Bob, for example, is a rare breed having actively worked on searches for the commissioners of the NFL, NHL and MLB during his career. And we are extremely adept in consumer brands in the broadest sense, including lifestyle brands, action sports, specialty retail, health and wellness, nutrition, food & beverage and the hospitality sectors. Chad’s addition to the team has been very exciting as he brings tremendous search experience in the sports world working on some of the biggest searches to include football coaches at Michigan, Florida and the Atlanta Falcons.  He has introduced a consultative model that is redefining talent management in college and professional sports. Our intense focus assures that every piece of information accumulated is leveraged to create more value down the line. We have been able to create incredibly rich data stores in our areas of expertise. That’s the key. We are not jack-of-all-trades; we are the ultimate masters of some. Our expertise creates value for clients.

You say that clients are first — that sounds like what any other search firm might say. Why are you so different?

Ford: When Bob and I worked together at Korn Ferry a decade ago, we had periods of time where it felt like we were working deeply with clients as partners. We had passion for their products, their culture and their mission. We were helping them realize their goals and dreaming their dreams alongside them. It was like we were a boutique within a big firm. But not every client relationship worked that way. There were times that we simply had to take on searches to drive revenue. We both knew back then that we wanted to create a place where we could have those good but fleeting moments all the time — where all partners could perform their best. As a result of our equal partnership and careful consideration on assignment selection, our clients come first. Now, every day we go to work we love what we do, and do what we love. That’s Ventura Partners. That’s different.

Damon:  Plus, we’re not a firm for typical search partners — cogs in the machine wouldn’t fit well here. Our search partners can’t stop thinking about the next great idea, the next way to turn the industry on its ear, the next search to crush, or the next idea that will blow a client’s mind. All of us can’t wait to get to work. Every day, we collaborate on projects we believe in with clients we trust. Who wouldn’t want that?

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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