January 25, 2011 – Last week, we started an interview with Carrie Pryor, who left behind partnerships at some of the executive recruiting industry’s most prestigious firms to start Greenwich Harbor Partners, an independent search consultancy focused on the fast-changing world of media, entertainment and technology. Ms. Pryor’s focus is on game-changers – the people who can have a disproportionate impact in an unconventional environment. In that interview Ms. Pryor discussed how her markets, and others like it, are changing the game for recruiters — and opening up opportunity for independent recruiters. This week, she discusses the search business itself from the perspective of a veteran of the big firms who has opted to be a sole practitioner.
Is there a size advantage, or, said another way, is smaller better in a reorienting space like media, entertainment and technology?
Yes, smaller is better! The bigger you are as a search firm, the more limitations you have to serving a specific market vertical or segment.
Is this an off-limits issue?
That’s only the first problem. Recruiting giants do have the severe off-limits issues that don’t allow them to put the best people forward for clients. That’s a simple math problem given the volume of their current work and previous placements. Right now the requirements for successful executives are changing as new technologies redraw the old delineations. There are fewer obvious candidates with the complex experience necessary for the new positions and the candidates are often at the big companies where executives can still get broad experience. These companies are often clients of the big firms. This situation makes it difficult for the large recruiting firms to be able to approach many of the best candidates. The big firms excel when a company needs someone to run a division in Russia or Singapore, or a company needs a highly technical specialist to run call centers in the East. A big firm has the hyper-specialization needed for these positions. Even then, though, the fundamental off-limits issues come into play.
What’s another issue?
Midsized to large firms are often organized in artificial verticals that don’t reflect the new marketplace. For example, consumer products and technology are “owned” by different practice leaders. This may make sense if you’re dealing with a chemical conglomerate or a manufacturing firm. However, within media, entertainment and technology every consumer-facing company has a deep technology underpinning and every core technology company has a major media component. Candidates are blurring the lines as they go from a wireless to a technology to a social media company. Who is to say where Facebook, Netflix and DIRECTV belong?
How does this artificial delineation show up day to day?
I experienced perpetual battles over which practice group is entitled to the revenue of my assignments. As a partner, I had to serve on multiple committees designed to discuss and review conflicts. For example, partners in Silicon Valley who specialized in hardware thought they should be leading the efforts on social networking companies because both the partner and the company were in the Bay Area. That’s a prescription for incorrectly staffing the assignment. Wrangling with these conflicts on a firm-wide basis cost me time, energy and opportunity.
How would this cost you opportunity?
In this space, the little startups want to know what the big guys are doing and vice versa. Consequently, there are more conversations to be had, to build rapport based on real experience, and there are many more social gatherings to attend. People in media, entertainment and technology like to get together both formally and informally to compare notes on technology, industry developments, people, and so forth. If you can’t attend a cocktail party with 20 hot companies because you’re stuck in a committee meeting to sort out internal conflicts, you’re severely disadvantaged.
How are you more opportunistic now?
I can go where the clients, candidates and conversations are on a moment’s notice when needed. The smartest people in this space want to work with peers. They need to know you really understand all the emerging variables of their world and can add to their strategic thinking. The younger innovators, in particular, seem to get intuitively that only people who can contribute to their worldview will be able to attract the special candidates they need. It’s a question of credibility, and clients judge that in live contact.
Are there other client advantages inherent to independence?
Clients think the only caution with a large firm’s size is off-limits. They don’t see that with 200 partners doing 10-15 searches a year the odds are that at as many as 10 of them are working on similar assignments. There’s cutthroat competition for outstanding candidates. A CFO who’s engineered a successful restructuring, stayed with a company and had major success with an IPO or sale, will be fought over internally. I was with a big firm when there were six partners fighting to talk with a terrific CFO who announced that he was leaving his company. I literally had to wait for eight weeks to approach him even though my opportunity was two miles from his house, had world-class investors and was about to do an IPO. The candidate did accept my assignment and went on to be very successful and make a considerable amount of money. From the firm’s perspective, you need to go in order of who signs up on the database to approach the candidate regardless of any other factor. The clients who get shut out have no idea that this is the rule.
As a boutique, what is the size of your clients?
I’m free to work with all sizes and maturations of companies. It’s important to be flexible in every way if you want to work with the innovative small firms that are redefining the space. The earlier stage companies don’t want to pay as big a fee and may want to compensate you with equity and other instruments. Big firms usually can’t do that — especially if they are publicly traded. We can take a lower fee, take equity, get creative, and truly be part of their ecosystem.
Do you have a speed advantage?
Speed is a tricky question. In general, I am more efficient, but it’s not just a question of speed. I know the value of process after doing search all of these years. Speed can sacrifice quality. I have the focus to talk to all the appropriate sources. I’ve been on extremely tight timelines for spinoffs and post-bankruptcy projects, and the advantage of a boutique is focus. I don’t have internal distractions.
What’s the lesson?
This arena forces us to focus on what really matters. Clients want you to provide them with several excellent candidates from whom they can choose the finalist who best fits their organization, its culture and the needs of the position they are trying to fill. My goal is to provide them with a broad portfolio of candidates who include the proven veteran, the up-and-comer, people who have the exact experience we are looking for and people who have deep experience on a highly relevant yet one-step-removed sector. Because I can apply my industry knowledge and relationships on a clean slate, I can produce uncommonly strong short lists of truly relevant candidates.
This concludes Part Two of our interview with Carrie Pryor. To read Part One, please go to HSZ Media news archives.