April 15, 2021 – Judith M. von Seldeneck is the founder and chair of Diversified Search Group, headquartered in Philadelphia. A pioneer in the search industry, she has been identifying and placing senior-level executive talent around the country for more than four decades. Ms. von Seldeneck recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss her career and how she has expanded Diversified Search Group into one of the top recruitment market leaders. Following are excerpts from that discussion.
Judee, you have been active with public, private, and non-profit boards throughout your career. How has that experience impacted how you manage your own firm and how you size-up senior-level candidates for clients?
Nothing really prepares you completely for board service. It is a unique and challenging duty, and of course one I have relished. And I would say that each of my experiences has added value in their own unique way: I have learned how to deal with difficult situations and make tough decisions, and I have come to appreciate the importance of having a strategy, goals, and direction. But most importantly, I have learned that you cannot do it all yourself. There is a saying: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone – if you want to go far, go together.’ I love that. That mantra has greatly impacted how I have managed Diversified Search Group, and I think it is very telling of how we got to where we are today, with so many talented firms working together as one. As far as identifying senior-level candidates, as anyone in the search business will tell you, they are a lot harder to spot than you think. You have to dig deeply and quickly. Having met hundreds and hundreds of people over the past 40 years, you get instincts about it. You know it when you see it.
You have been a trailblazer, not just in executive search but as a role model for professional women. Have female professionals achieved equality in the executive search field, including in leadership positions?
No, I don’t think so. It’s interesting because, if you were to tell me back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that we’d have the percentages of women in leadership positions that we do today, I wouldn’t have believed it. So, we have made great progress in some regards, and I do think it’s important to look at the glass being half full rather than half empty all the time. But we have a lot more work to do. The good news is that 2020 sounded a wake-up call that time is running out, and full diverse equality in the C-suite is now an imperative. Case in point: Diversified Search Group is the only top 10 executive search firm founded by a woman. I’ve always been passionate about getting more women into leadership positions; it’s what Diversified Search Group was founded on. Creating a level playing field in terms of equal opportunities remains core to our mission, and it is something that we work towards every day. We’re proud to say that over 50 percent of the executives that we’ve placed over the last two years have been women. Dale Jones, our CEO, was the first-ever professional of color to lead a top 10 search firm. But Dale is very much the exception at the CEO level. That needs to change.
Well, first off, Dale is an exceptional person to begin with and would have risen to the top no matter what. His situation is a perfect example where discrimination all these years against not only women, but people of color as well, has prevented providing equal opportunities and therefore pipelines of talent from being developed. Unfortunately, the search industry has not been the leader it should have been. But times have changed, and search firms have an opportunity to show leadership in helping organizations find the diverse talent that we now know is out there and bring them to the C-suite table for consideration. At Diversified Search Group, our life’s work has been to diversify leadership across all industries and sectors, because we believe in the power of people and their unique perspectives. One approach where we’ve seen a lot of success is with our cross-sector placements. We encourage our clients to consider candidates from outside their corporate arena – for example, there are many strong black candidates that are running non-profits, hospital systems, and higher education institutions that have the skills and leadership to lead tech and financial companies, as well.
You launched Diversified Search in 1974. The firm is about to top $100 million in annual revenue. Did you ever think that your firm would achieve this size when you founded it 47 years ago?
Yes and no. Are there days when I sit back and think, ‘I can’t believe how far we’ve come!’ Sure, I’m gratified that we’ve been able to accelerate our growth over the past several years in large part due to our relationship with a private equity firm, ShoreView Industries. Although we weren’t interested at first, we came to realize that funding partnerships aren’t just about raising investment capital, but about securing strategic partners who could help to lift Diversified Search Group to new and improved levels of service. We’ve almost tripled the size of our firm in 10 months, making us one of the fastest-growing search firms in the industry. And we are back in the market for not only other firms, but for leaders of specialty practices we see as growth areas that we need to be doing business in.
Most professionals agree that corporate culture is critically important to the success of any company. You once told me that you worked hard to create a family-like culture at Diversified Search. Why is this so important and how does this type of culture translate into success?
This is a great question. Culture is key to the success of every company, no matter their size. Culture matters. And it should underpin every talent decision that an organization makes. Diversified Search Group truly is a family. That’s a result of my good old Southern upbringing, where you learn about people and the importance of relationships. If you look out for your colleagues and truly care about the person and their journey, not just their output, you’re able to foster an environment where that person wants to put forward their best work. I call it a positive feedback cycle. And it is a winning strategy. Nothing gives an organization more competitive advantage than its culture and how that culture is managed and sustained. Great people need to not only take pride in their work, but they need to take pride in the organization they work for. That’s culture.
How do you maintain your existing culture as you expand, add people, and integrate new acquisitions that might come with different cultures?
Culture fit has always been, and remains, the top priority as we’ve grown our family of firms. That’s why we call it a family – we have a lot of commonalities. So far, all of the firms we’ve acquired were founded by women and each has a proven record of placing women and people of color into executive positions. We also share many of the same core values including trust, respect, integrity, character, and goodwill, which has made all of these integrations easy to transition in. We have maintained our balance.
In 2019 ShoreView Industries, a PE firm, acquired an equity stake in Diversified Search Group. What was the strategy behind the acquisition?
Over the years we had been approached by many investors, but I always said no. When ShoreView approached us two years ago, I was skeptical, but after listening to what they had to say, I realized that they valued our people, culture, and the quality of what we do, and I felt that the opportunity was worth exploring. The timing felt right – the search industry was seeing consolidation and increased competition, and we had an instinct that this could be a pivotal moment for our firm in terms of growth and fortification for the years ahead. The bandwidth that the acquisition provided has allowed Diversified Search Group to continue doing what we do best on a larger scale – while retaining our culture and commitment to clients to provide the highest level of quality executive search work.
At what point, and at what level does your relative size become a challenge, off-limits being one thorny issue?
We’ve been fortunate that our new model has enabled Diversified Search Group to offer our clients the resources and reach of a large firm, and yet maintain the depth and specialization of a smaller boutique. So, while we have grown, our relative size has not become a challenge with regard to the quality of work that we are providing. While Diversified is larger in reach, our size also provides agility in our ability to recruit talent without significant limitations or blocks to talent.
What are the biggest changes in search sector you’ve seen in recent years? How have they impacted the way in which you work with your clients? What adjustments have you had to make?
One of the biggest challenges our industry continues to face is the increasingly competitive war for talent. Right now, there is a global shortage of top talent. And what’s more, this new virtual environment and ability to work from home – or from anywhere in the world, for that matter – has made it so that the top talent we’re seeking have more choices than ever. It is truly a candidate’s market, which makes our job as recruiters much more challenging. For us, success means ensuring that our clients have reasonable expectations and are committed to fostering an environment of inclusion and belonging where top talent wants to be in it for the long-term. As much as we’ve talked about culture fit as it relates to our own business, the same is just as true for our clients’ businesses. Our job is to ensure that we’re helping them to realize their purpose and putting forth candidates that share their values and will help drive performance for many years to come. That’s our mission.