Applying Lean Practices to the Senior Executive Recruiting Process

June 10, 2016 – In the world of high-end recruiting there are many ways to score professional level talent. One of the more interesting approaches is what a small group of search consultants term lean executive recruiting. Adam Zak, principal and co-founder of Adam Zak Executive Search, was one of the very first to embrace lean recruiting more than two decades ago. “Lean is a business system… it is a business leadership model and a methodology for transforming the organization,” he said recently during an interview.

In the following discussion, Adam reflects on why lean executive recruiting is so critical in today’s fast pace culture of global business. A concept that began in the manufacturing sector, Adam contends that CEOs in all high performance companies want their entire organization to adapt and “embrace its principles and practices.”

He also focuses in on why people are the No. 1 challenge for companies and “why it’s more important now than ever before to figure out who the right people are, and will need to be, for the complex roles and shifting accountabilities of the future.”

Adam started his career with KPMG Peat Marwick before moving into the search sector with two Chicago-based firms. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Business, Adam is the co-author of Simple Excellence: Organizing and Aligning the Management Team in a Lean Transformation.


You formed Adams & Associates in 1987. What led you to a career in executive search?

I began my career consulting for KPMG, spent some time in industry as a CFO and business unit general manager, and eventually wound up with a small West Coast venture capital firm. We were pretty hands-on and offered our portfolio companies more than just funding. I really enjoyed helping recruit the executives we needed to build out these start-up leadership teams. Unlike in consulting, this sort of problem solving work allowed me to make a direct impact on business performance, and company & investor success. I liked that a lot. I got pretty good at identifying and persuading talented individuals to consider career changes, so it was an easy decision to move into executive search, at first with a small Silicon Valley search firm. My subsequent work with a couple of the very largest search firms convinced me that I could add significantly more value and provide infinitely better service and quality to my clients from a smaller and more focused, responsive platform. Plus, even as a big firm partner, I had never really felt in control of my own destiny. So I chose to change all that by starting my own firm, and I absolutely love what I do.

Describe lean executive recruiting.

Viewed from the 30,000-foot level, it’s recruiting senior executives who can drive major change in their companies – people, processes, culture, business model and systems – based on their knowledge of, and experience with, lean principles.  When you dig a little deeper you find that lean, when properly understood, is actually a business system, a business leadership model, and a methodology for organizational transformation. Too many people still view it as a set of tools applied in pursuit of cost reduction. It’s much more accurate to see lean as a way of combining leapfrog innovation at the strategic level with continuous improvement at the operating level. It’s built around a desire to listen to your customers and provide products and services they want and are willing to pay for. When you hear about companies focusing on operational excellence, that’s what they’re doing, and it’s what allows them to experience sustained profitability and growth. Lean executives are individuals who get this and have the ability to execute on it. While lean got its running start within the manufacturing function, CEOs of high performance companies today want their whole leadership team thinking lean, and expect employees throughout the organization to embrace its principles and practices. This is lean executive recruiting.

Do you apply lean practices to your recruiting process and how adaptive is it for your clients?

I do apply lean practices to my recruiting process, which means I’m constantly looking for ways to improve how I work. This has been a huge benefit for clients because we’re always focusing on achieving higher quality recruiting outcomes in a speedier and more cost effective fashion. Not to over-simplify, but at a minimum this involves defining a very clear and specific vision of the executive profile we’ll be searching for; building precise metrics and guideposts for the recruiting process itself; and planning for regular and continuous communication and feedback throughout the search. The last part is particularly important because real time information from clients about a prospective candidate’s fit for the position allows us to quickly tweak our focus and direction towards more ideally suited candidates. This approach to executive recruiting is highly collaborative, biased in favor of action and corrective response, and built around systemic problem solving. Structured, yes, but at the same time highly flexible and adaptive to the unique needs of every client. That’s lean executive recruiting, too.

According to a recent survey conducted by The Conference Board, the No. 1 challenge facing CEOs today is people. Do you agree?

Yes, very much so. This is something I hear about in every conversation I have with CEOs and their top HR executives. Not only at the executive level but with just about every hiring manager in every company. Most of them are asking the right questions: What are the technical and leadership skills we’ll need in our business to succeed in the future? How will emerging technologies change who manages our business and how they’ll do that? How will we ensure that we can compete effectively for the adaptable, creative and entrepreneurial people we want to hire? How will we make the necessary cultural, managerial and compensation shifts to accommodate the requirements of the Millennial vs. Baby Boom generation that’s becoming the largest portion of our talent pool? It’s more important now than ever before to figure out who the right people are, and will need to be, for the complex roles and shifting accountabilities of the future. Where markets and industries increasingly demand global mindsets and cultural competencies. Recruiting, rewarding and retaining them. Developing, engaging and motivating them. These are concerns almost uniformly voiced across the whole spectrum of clients with whom I work, from the Fortune 500, to privately held and private equity portfolio companies, to Silicon Valley start-ups.

How do you most effectively build a leadership team? Is it looking at the best prospects on paper that fit with the company’s culture or is there more to it than that?

Much more. Even a well written candidate resume – about which I have some very clear and specific ideas — presents me only with credentials and demonstrated accomplishments. Or should. But it most certainly can’t tell me about cultural fit. I believe that long term, sustainable success in executive search – finding just the right person, pretty much every time – requires the ability to combine the science of rigorous problem solving with the art of emotional involvement and predictive judgement. I’ve never worked with a client who wanted to recruit an executive who would just preserve the status quo: maintain the organization in its current state; don’t touch our company’s culture. And why would any true leader be interested in that sort of role anyway?

Why do some transformational leaders fail?

One thing I learned early on in my career about bringing a new executive onto an existing leadership team is that he or she will not be allowed to succeed unless they’re perceived to be ‘just like us’ or as some of today’s management writers put it, ‘fits into our tribe.’ You can’t actually make change happen unless you first become an insider, a trusted colleague, empowered by your colleagues to make it happen. I find this is especially and somewhat paradoxically true when we’re recruiting someone who’s primary leadership challenge will be to influence those same insiders to drive change and to transform the business. Which is a big reason why so many transformations – not just lean transformations – fail. The body simply rejects the transplanted organ. So first off, in very close collaboration with the executive team, I create a success blueprint for each search. In short, we start with the question: ‘What is it about the company, the people and the position that will inspire our ideal candidate to join us?’ We build on that foundation to define what needs to get done, why that’s necessary and important, and what professional, technical and personal traits the ideal candidate will need to present. And, how will we measure, how will we know? Then we have lots of conversations. With candidates. With the people who’ve worked with them and experienced them in a wide variety of environments and situations. We use very specific, highly customized questions, developed in collaboration with our client’s leadership team, to develop an intimate understanding of the executive’s personality, character and professional experience and qualifications. Then we share our findings and opinions with the client leadership team. So yes, a resume is only the first small step in our analytical recruitment process.

How critical will the lean approach be to companies over the next 10 to 20 years? Do you see this as a sustainable trend?

Very critical. And yes, sustainable for the long term. So I would encourage readers to dig more deeply into this to understand the difference between companies simply using lean tools vs. those seriously embracing lean at the strategic and systemic level. Because authentic lean is more than just an approach; it’s really at its most effective when viewed as the foundation of an organization’s culture. In that sense, then, lean is potentially one of the most powerful leadership and business systems available to enlightened CEOs and their teams. Which makes lean, whether you call it that or something more generic such as operational excellence, a high-impact competitive weapon in virtually any industry anywhere in the world. Many companies start small, often beginning with lean in their manufacturing or supply chain functions. As they move to apply these concepts and practices more deeply across the organization, into every aspect of its commercial and administrative activities, the synergies of thinking lean across the enterprise begin to deliver simply outstanding results.

Does incorporating lean recruiting give companies a competitive advantage?

In fact, every company I know that has truly understood this, and implemented lean across the enterprise, has significantly outperformed its competitors on every meaningful operating and financial metric you could want to measure. Examples abound: the Danaher Business System (DBS); the Amazon Customer Excellence System (ACES); the PPI Business System at Thermo Fisher Scientific; the Crane Business System; New Balance Executional Excellence; Valeo Production System; Starbucks Lean Thinking, and its Lean Innovation Lab; ZARA (Inditex) with what is considered one of the most outstanding examples of a well-executed and sustained lean business model outside of the automotive industry. Because what these companies and many others like them have in common above all else, is a clear understanding that sticking with the status quo might work in the short run but turns into eventual disaster and descent into irrelevance. Lean systems thinking helps their leaders articulate the company’s vison and purpose (True North, at Medtronic), promote an entrepreneurial and ownership mentality (Menlo Innovations – culture of joy; Nordstrom, Marriott), build flexibility and autonomy into jobs at every level (self-managed work teams at Tesla, Gore Associates), and encourage engagement by focusing on experimentation, creativity and innovation (Google, Intuit). Who could argue with the success of these organizations, and which high-potential Millennial wouldn’t want to work for one?

Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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