Strategy Comes From the Top, But People Implement Success

August 18, 2016 – Charles W.B. Wardell, has enjoyed notable success since he took over as chief executive officer at Witt / Kieffer five years ago. The Oak Brook, IL search firm has scored record revenues and profitability and seen ongoing growth in its traditional lines of business, including leadership searches for healthcare, higher education, academic medicine, and information technology clients.

Chuck has also overseen the launching and building of five additional practices. And the international joint venture, Witt / Kieffer Ccentric, which came together under his watch, is expanding the firm’s global reach.

Still, Chuck remains wary of the pitfalls of the search industry, which is unavoidably tied to global and domestic market forces and upheavals in business everywhere. And though by its nature Witt / Kieffer has a certain degree of protection from the worst storms, Chuck says he never forgets that executive recruitment is a people business and that his people will continue to play a key role in the firm’s progress.

Insulated From Change

“Economies are always a concern – across industries, regions and countries,” he told me in a recent interview. “If business is not good and industries are lagging, search firms will struggle accordingly. We like to think that we’re in sectors – healthcare, education, life sciences – that are changing dramatically but primed for continued growth and will always be strong fields to operate in.” And new technologies and a host of other things are changing the very nature of the firm’s search work, he added.

“One of the nice things is that our firm is insulated somewhat from some of those changes in that we are still a relationship business,” he said. “For the level of recruiting that we do, it’s important to get on the phone, show up for face-to-face client meetings, and to manage jobs the old-fashioned way. We’re leveraging technology to be smarter, but we’re still defined by our people.”

While Witt / Kieffer has enjoyed strong growth, it has done so with its existing workforce and existing customers. Unlike other larger global search firm rivals, Chuck says this: “We didn’t buy anything and we did not bring in huge rainmakers, which can be very disruptive to a firm. We also didn’t incur any debt.”

Chuck’s record speaks for itself. Before joining Witt / Kieffer, he spent 10 years at Korn Ferry serving as chairman of emerging markets and as senior advisor to the CEO. In 2008, BusinessWeek named him one of the 100 most influential executive recruiters in the world. He has also received the Gardner W. Heidrick Award for his contributions to the search industry, and has served as global chairman for the Association of Executive Search consultants.

Staying Focused is Job One

This summer, Chuck was appointed chairman of Witt / Kieffer’s board, replacing Anna Wharton Phillips, who served in that role for seven years and who remains with the firm as an adviser.

“Our firm is meeting the needs of our clients and communities better and in more ways than we ever had,” Chuck says. “I look forward to helping Witt / Kieffer continue to grow and, from a governance capacity, keep it focused on its strategic goals and mission of serving organizations committed to improving the quality of life.”

A decorated combat veteran, Chuck served with distinction in Vietnam. After the military, he went to the White House as deputy special assistant to Presidents Nixon and Ford and later, assistant secretary of state under President Ford.

His accomplishments at Witt / Kieffer have been many. It is telling that when Chuck is asked to discuss those of which he is most proud, he starts by discussing the firm’s employees.

“People generally like working here,” he says. “We’ve had some departures, which happens, but for the most part this is a company where top consultants and professionals want to get on board and stay for the long haul.” This is reflected in the growth of the firm, which has gone from 148 to 230 employees since 2011. Its consulting staff has grown from 70 to 95 during that time.

The bottom line, too, has shown impressive growth. Witt / Kieffer’s 2016 fiscal year (ending June 30) saw revenues climb to more than $58 million, up from just over $35 million in fiscal 2011. “This is a 66 percent increase over the five-year period, or a compound annual growth rate of about 10.7 percent per year over the same period,” he says. “This does not include revenue from client administrative fee charges, which are in addition to these professional fee figures.”

Nor has Chuck allowed the firm to stagnate. Being willing to change and to explore new avenues of potential growth is critical, especially in today’s volatile business climate. “We started five new practices around our core practices the first year, all of which are thriving,” Chuck says. “We also launched an international joint venture with Ccentric Group, an Australian firm that works in the same spaces that we do – healthcare, higher education, and the life sciences. Witt / Kieffer Ccentric, based in London, is really taking off. Finally, revenue growth is important. We’re a bigger firm that is more capable of meeting our clients’ needs than ever.”

The firm has also addressed the need to serve the growing global demands of its client companies. “Witt / Kieffer will continue to go overseas when our clients ask us to – for example, to recruit in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, most notably in the U.K.,” says Chuck. “As noted, we have launched Witt / Kieffer Ccentric in the last year to allow us to serve clients overseas. This is a joint venture and will clearly help further the Witt/ Kieffer brand.”

Knowing When to ‘Do Something’

His transition from Korn Ferry posed some challenges. Besides shifting from the biggest of big firms to a large boutique, Chuck was also getting an education in sitting in the seat where the buck stopped. “The main thing for me was taking on the role of CEO,” he remembers. “This allowed me to introduce new ideas and act upon them. I was fortunate that I was coming into a firm that was already successful but was also open to growth and change. It’s been a good fit, which surprised many people because I did not have a healthcare background.”

His history and skills, however, make him highly adaptable. Among the experiences Chuck has been able to drawn upon is his role as a lieutenant in the Army, which included time in combat. “One of the first lessons of combat leadership is ‘do something,’” he says. “In business, that translates into ‘make timely decisions.’ The second, most important thing that I’ve learned is that it’s absolutely critical to find ways to help difficult people work together. Unless you can organize, direct and create a cohesive organization, you will not meet your business goals. Lastly, the military teaches you to delegate, find good people and let them do their jobs,” he says. “Strategy comes from the top and implementation comes from the firm.”

Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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