Interview: Carrie Pryor Discusses the Power of Hunting Solo for Game-Changing Talent (Part 1)

January 18, 2011 – Late last year, after a 20-year career at some of the most prestigious search firms, Carrie Pryor established independent Greenwich Harbor Partners. More than a new chapter in a long career (starting in the executive suites of innovators Pacific Telesis and Kidder, Peabody and moving to media & entertainment partnerships at Korn/Ferry International, Spencer Stuart and CT Partners), her move signals a new reality for recruiting in high-change arenas. With her new firm, Ms. Pryor sets sights on what she calls game-changers in the merging worlds of entertainment, media and technology — where search has never been more important or more complicated. In the first of a two-part interview, Ms. Pryor discusses the allure of independence, the excitement of a redefining media world, and the challenges that tech tumult present to recruiting.

After so many years, why go out on your own now?

I wanted to be 100 percent client-focused in a completely open playing field. No internal distractions; no competing agendas; no limits in clients, candidates or time.

Why does this matter for the market?

We’re living in a Golden Age of media. There’s never been a more exciting time to work in this industry, and there’s never been a more difficult time. Everything about the sector is in transition. The technology continues to be disruptive. Viewer patterns are changing by the minute. Digital advertising is rising, spreading and recalibrating daily. Platforms are becoming interchangeable. And that’s just on the macro level. There are no stable ways of doing things anymore. Whether we’re talking about product, software, marketing, sales, operations, you name it — in media it’s being rethought, redeveloped and restructured. Then there’s a new wave of executive talent entering the sector from unusual places, with untraditional worldviews and management approaches. So we have to apply the fundamentals in creative ways. We can’t do search by formula. Sourcing becomes an intense discovery across a broader list of businesses. When we’re talking with candidates, we need a deeper understanding of the true nature of their types of positions and companies. We have to introduce an opportunity within the framework of emerging platforms, processes and practices and the nature of our client’s platform as a career builder in order to attract them. That’s high-level, hands-on work we can’t leave to the research room. As an independent practitioner, I can structure for an intensity of service that my former firms can’t afford.

Is the recruiter’s role changing?

Definitely. I’m in the risk assessment business now. Many companies are torn between cutting costs — so they build a big internal recruiting function and play hardball on fees — and filling transformative positions where there’s no blueprint, like a chief digital officer. They know they need game changers, but they don’t know how to break out of their comfort zone in hiring. Because the industry is in upheaval, they don’t know what to risk. Do they take less experience than they’re used to looking for? Do they get someone who’s pulled off major changes but broken a lot of glass in the process? The recruiter’s first job now is a risk-reward assessment that expands, not limits, the position profile.

Does industry experience carry more weight in this environment?

No question. C-level mistakes put a company behind by at least 12 months, sometimes 24. No one in the media space can afford inertia. Everything about the marketplace moves too fast. My personal experience working at a Fortune 50 company and top-tier investment bank pay off in tangible ways, principally in probing candidates’ accomplishments and personalities. We have to really dig today to make sure that candidates are truly responsible for the successes they claim. That takes more thorough referencing than it used to, and the referencing itself requires intimate knowledge of how things actually work in a corporation. I won’t even introduce a candidate until I’ve done background references.

Is that unusual?

Quite a few recruiters don’t bother to do that. And a surprising number let LinkedIn and other online tools carry too much of the work. LinkedIn can’t tell you whether the CMO really built the marketing strategy or simply took orders from the CEO. Only deft referencing can do that.

What’s toughest to assess in this climate?

The toughest qualities to assess right now are the softer qualities like personality, what motivates an individual, interpersonal and listening skills — all the things that determine fit. Cultural compatibility has long been a priority, but now most media-related companies are trying to change their cultures. Tech companies are transitioning from an engineering to a sales, and eventually, marketing focus. Ad agencies are transitioning from creating ads to creating branded customer experiences on everything from TVs to smartphones.

Who will populate exec suites?

The most successful companies will balance homegrown and imported talent. Homegrown are carriers of corporate culture; they know the history and have the longstanding relationships that make the company unique. The imports bring in world-class processes. These are our search assignments: people who can think two years ahead and still get hands-on in this quarter. That can be a CMO who knows how to extract conclusions from all the new research data and understands how social media really works. A blend wins today.

Is there a shortage of ready candidates for the jobs no one has had before?

It’s increasingly rare that we find anyone who fits a top management profile 100 percent. And it’s increasingly likely that a first-thought candidate won’t want to move. Our job is reprioritizing around six essential criteria. A large cable company needed a unique CFO, but none of the obvious industry candidates were open to leaving. We searched for similarities and found them in aviation. The hire had processed millions of transactions a month with huge capital expenditure and union involvement.

Is it the same with boards?

Middle market and early stage boards now want people with true functional knowledge from sales to digital to logistics or multiculturalism. True specialties. They’re looking for sounding boards and mentors to senior management, not just people to vet a presentation a couple times a year. The independent director is becoming much more important for a fresh perspective that can add a lot of value.

What do you mean by time limits?

The industry is extremely social. So many people cross over sector and functional lines to take on unprecedented jobs, and everyone’s reconnecting and relearning from unfamiliar vantage points. Without partners to answer to, I’m free to go where the people and ideas are, and there’s nothing stopping me from being on the case of an active search while I’m there. Now I don’t look at my calendar and see that in April seven days are taken up with internal conferences and meetings where client work is discouraged; and I don’t have to fight with anyone about who an event has more value for.

How does going solo affect your benchmarks?

My goal is to have ultra-satisfied clients who will refer and rehire us. So I get to focus on quality — of company, assignment, candidates, and hires. I can do whatever an assignment really takes, which often includes doing all the heavy lifting yourself, because nuance is so important at every stage in these sensitive, complex searches. In the end, it’s about what I can accomplish for emerging, redefining businesses, not the billing I can rack up for the firm.
Next Wednesday, we conclude our interview with Carrie Pryor.

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