March 3, 2016 – The boards of directors for publicly owned search firms continue to skew toward older males, with no change in sight anytime soon. That hard truth, however, does little to dim the enthusiasm that Amy St. Denis holds for executive recruitment as a career choice – or her belief in the potential for women to succeed in the field.
As recently as the 1970s, it was tough to find women conducting searches anywhere, says the chief executive officer of the St. Denis Group. But in the intervening years, women have made inroads at the big firms, including those who are now running important practices. And with the rise of boutiques, the big picture has changed considerably now for smaller, specialist recruiters serving clients across the nation.
Just a Matter of Time
“The public search firms have boards made up of older executives who still look like companies from 30 to 40 years ago,” Amy told me recently. “Their executives will probably mirror the rest of NASDAQ for the foreseeable future,” she says. Regardless, a large percentage of executive search work in the U.S. and abroad is now completed outside the 10 largest search firms. “There is so much opportunity for women in the rest of the industry,” she adds.
The St. Denis Group, founded in 2007, helps find talent for clients across the breadth of the real estate industry. The firm, based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, near Denver, also offers ancillary services like organizational development and change consulting. Its clients include debt and equity providers, owners and investors, and those who advise them.
Amy is high on executive search for many reasons. It’s a business that a woman can enter in her 20s, as she did, and keep working well beyond the typical retirement age. Many search consultants and leaders of recruitment firms, she points out, go on to practice for many years. “This means that the individuals whom they placed initially are now running companies and boards,” Amy says.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, there were few women actually running searches. Today, women are graduating from college at higher levels than men. Women are staying in their search careers through raising their families rather than taking 10 or 15 years off. It is only a matter of time before many of the big 10 in our field begin seeing more qualified women candidates for these roles.”
Why It’s Ideal
Amy became interested in executive recruitment in the early 1990s, when she and her husband moved to Chicago for his medical residency. Twenty-four years old and not knowing anyone in town, Amy was referred to a search consultant, whom she recalls spent hours of his time to provide her with contacts and market intelligence to help her get her feet on the ground.
“He was so kind to me that I thought search must be such a wonderful industry,” Amy says. “That man was Rick King (president and CEO) of Kittleman & Associates, and I still refer work to him whenever possible. I have tried to model my search practice after what I experienced in his office on Wacker Drive 24 years ago.”
In many respects, executive recruitment continues to live up to her early vision of it. There are challenges, to be sure. But Amy still considers search an ideal business for women. It allows for plenty of flexibility, for starters, as well as the potential for a true entrepreneurial experience.
“I received some advice early on that has proven true: a successful practice takes years to build,” she says. “I was lucky and had success with my client base early on, but my sector is cyclical, and it has been my dedication to my client base, my candidates, and my practice that has led to the long-term success of my business. There have been times when I have been encouraged to switch industries, but my resistance to that advice has led me to prosper.”
Women played a role in helping to mentor Amy as she learned the business. Even today she draws upon much of what they taught her. “During my early career I worked in Dallas at a firm where a few experienced women were essential to my growth as a professional,” she remembers. “Those women were not involved in my practice, but their example as professionals in terms of how they handled themselves served as an important guide in my development. Their grace under pressure is still an inspiration to me.”
Amy is committed to helping women candidates who have a true desire to succeed in their field. She knows firsthand how tough it can be, especially for those who are just starting out. “My team is composed of women, not by design but possibly because they can deal with my ‘creative chaos’ search style,” says Amy.
“I work in the commercial real estate industry, where women are considered ‘diversity candidates.’ When there is an opportunity for me, or the firm, to mentor or coach a woman who has a passion for real estate, we are going to work hard to give her opportunities. I participate in a number of forums specific to the industry and to my city that promote women in business. It’s very clear that the gender balance will change dramatically in the next generation of real estate companies.”
Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media