March 4, 2016 – The hallmark of many successful search firms is their structure: focusing in on one, specific industry or functional discipline can make them, in the eyes of that sector, the go-to expert. While it is challenging, some search firms have been able to stay small while combining specialty practices where the focus of their expertise is not diminished.
Alan J. Work, president and founder of Work&Partners, has seemingly found the secret recipe. A specialist across technology, management consulting, financial services and various digital disciplines, he has created a unique brand in search. Clients ranging from Capgemini, Merrill Corp., LiquidHub, Deloitte and PayPal have created a solid and varied base of business for Alan and his team.
In the following interview, Alan discusses his breadth of expertise and the strategy behind developing his firm over the past 14 years.
Alan, you have worked in executive search for over 25 years. What was your career path into the industry?
Serendipity and naivety at some level. When I got of college many of the agencies and recruiting firms that I was working with asked me to join their teams as a recruiter. It didn’t seem like something I wanted to do. Then I went into the garment industry as a sales executive and had a very successful six years both financially and with my career. Just before I was going to get married, my then fiancée suggested I meet with her oldest friend’s sister who was running a search firm that was focused on the technology sector. Initially I thought they might introduce me to IBM but, instead, they offered me an opportunity to work with them in executive search with a focus on the sales/sales management side of the hi tech sector. I came on board in the middle of a big economic downturn and survived by the skin of my teeth. I naively thought that I would be protected because of the personal relationship that existed. I found out later that they had let go many relatives and friends of the firm’s leadership. On the serendipity side, I got married, moved into a new place and changed careers all inside of six weeks which, 30-plus years later, has proven to have been a great decision.
You serve an interesting array of industries, from management consulting to healthcare. How did you decide to focus on that grouping of sectors; was it strategic and do you consider your firm a specialist or a hybrid generalist?
Great question. Our decision to enter the management consulting arena over 25 years ago was driven by the fact that there was a void in the marketplace. The big search firms tended to struggle in that space based upon client feedback [and our subsequent experiences and successes] and I felt that the mindset, processes and personalized service that a firm like ours brings gave us an advantage in a very competitive environment. And I think this is true throughout search. I genuinely believe that some of the best one-on-one relationships exist in firms that are boutique in nature. That’s not to say that consultants at large firms don’t care about clients or work hard. But as the large firms keep getting larger there has been a tendency to look at this business in more of a commoditized way instead of what we view as a one-on-one partnership. It’s so critically important that I conduct my own work. I am not handing it off to a junior consultant who might also be working on a dozen other assignments. Also, as a boutique firm, we can be very nimble, proactive and can respond to evolving market directions, both due to our size and knowledge of the sector we have been serving for so many years. As a result, our successes in healthcare, big data & analytics and in chief marketing officer functional searches certainly have given us a hybrid look, but with a specialist tint. Not every firm our size has narrow specializations. In fact, there are dozens of firms that I would term ‘semi-specialists.’ They work across maybe five to six sectors; they know the space well and maintain a focus on just those sectors without adding or subtracting. It’s worked well for us, but it’s not an uncommon combination for this industry.
You recently placed much of the senior management team at LiquidHub, from its COO, to its digital practice leader to its corporate strategy officer. Describe the process when you work with a client like that and do you consider yourself more like a strategic talent acquisition partner than a recruiter?
We consider ourselves ‘partners’ in every endeavor we undertake with all our clients. That’s part and parcel of insuring mutual success throughout the relationship. Clearly, having a relationship like we have with a LiquidHub puts us in a terrific position to add value and have a tremendous impact on their business. We work very closely with all of their leadership [CEO, COO, CFO, CHRO, VP’s and practice leaders] from beginning to end and also have done SME/consulting type assignments for them around growth strategies and the hiring experience. I believe we are considered trusted advisors and we value that relationship tremendously. This is where I think a firm that is structured like ours works well with clients. Again, this is not a knock on the large generalists, but when you know and understand your space as well as we do, as is the case other firms with a similar make-up as ours, we can spend significant time on the inside and are not be pressured to have to go out and land 10 other assignments simultaneously. That’s partly the challenge of larger firms at times. Due to the fact that many of the larger firms, particularly those that are publicly traded, have to satisfy the bottom line or quarterly earnings, spending significant time with one specific client is counter to the type of pressure they are under to add to their volume. Because we are nimble and require far fewer clients, to not only survive but also succeed, we can spend the time necessary to get inside and understand the culture from top to bottom. The result is that we just do better work and the client really looks at us as a true partner, not a recruitment firm that is going in for the quick score and moving on to their next assignment. I think we are beginning to see more clients really taking a harder look and I think the lines of demarcation are getting larger because, quite frankly, the larger firms are expanding while we are remaining small and as pure-play search providers.
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What do you view as the biggest challenges facing technology companies today in terms of recruiting senior talent?
I think technology companies today have a number of challenges to contend with – but I think the most prominent issue is that our clients are really looking to younger professionals today versus those with more experience but who lack knowledge on what is new and cutting edge. It’s evident to most that technology is changing today so quickly that one can barely keep up with it. Therefore, companies are really looking at a much broader scope of candidate today versus in years past where they may have considered only a very seasoned professional. In short, they are keeping their options open. I also think technology companies are looking, to a greater extent, at best athletes today versus those that may operate in more narrow silos. There are a great many talented professionals in this space and the landscape is highly competitive. It makes our work more interesting for sure.
You work extensively with management consulting companies. Are recruiting firms, which are diversifying into more consulting-type services, becoming more like those clients and do you think consulting firms will look to search firms as acquisition targets?
To answer your first question, yes, I do. Look at a firm like Korn Ferry, for example. They recently acquired Hay Group for almost $500 million. But they have been broadening their services for some time now and, to your point, they are looking more like traditional consulting firms than traditional retained search firms. In some respects, I think this is helpful to their clients because, as a ‘broader’ consulting firm they can service their clients from top to bottom and side to side. Here, again, I think this has helped distinguish a firm like ours that is not pushing into every business. If we attempted to broaden out to include audit and assessment or compensation consulting I think it would be a turn off to our clients. Instead, we are focused on just search and, for those clients of larger search firms that still want just that, it’s helping firms like ours that are sticking to their knitting so to speak. As far as consulting firms looking at this industry as a viable option, it could happen. Years ago, firms like A.T. Kearney were involved in search and, with the industry broadening and the lines blurring, I would really not be too surprised to see consulting firms looking at recruitment once again as a viable option.
Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media