October 17, 2019 – When it comes to her work of placing human resources executives for companies, Robin Levitt, president of 4D Executive Search has two main sources of pride. One is her integrity as a search professional. The other is her longevity in a marketplace that has grown increasingly complex and competitive since she conducted her first HR search more than 20 years ago. “When I started in this business there was only one other firm that was doing human resources placement,” she said recently. “Now there’s more, and I’m still standing.”
Ms. Levitt serves businesses across a wide range of industries and along the way has built untold numbers of lasting relationships with clients and candidates alike. It all comes together in experience and insight and a network that few of her competitors can match. “I’ve been doing this since 1998, and I have seen this market shift from personnel to HR business partners to talent management,” said Ms. Levitt, whose firm is based in Los Angeles.
“We’ve worked for everybody from family-owned businesses to large corporate Fortune 100 companies and into the high growth VC and PE-backed companies but we are always very specifically focused in the HR market. The value we are able to bring is to help companies understand the nuances of the transferable, as well as the non-transferrable skills. And because we’re so focused on the HR space, we’re able to provide sophisticated market data around the function because we have a broader view.”
A client company that is looking to grow from 1,200 people to 4,000 people, for example, may not be best served by confining the hunt for HR talent to its own industry. What such a business needs more than anything is the leadership that can take them to that next level. “Understanding the marketplace is critical to identify that candidate,” said Ms. Levitt. “And if you’re a search firm that is spread too thin, I don’t think you can have the depth of understanding that we do as specialists.”
Heart and Values
Over the years, many people have perceived existential threats to Ms. Levitt’s career as an HR specialist. First it was the rise of Monster.com. Then came LinkedIn. These days she is asked if AI will be the downfall of her business. “My answer has always been the same, which is ‘No,’ because you can look at skills, resumes and companies but the nuanced search component of understanding somebody’s personal story behind the resume can only be done with a conversation,” she said. “Those tools may be helpful in shrinking the candidate pool, but there are a lot of times that I will tell clients, ‘I know this resume isn’t what you think you want but I know this person and I know their story and I know all of their reasons for leaving, let’s take a look at them.’ And every time I’ve done that, the person has been hired. I don’t believe that can ever be replicated by AI or LinkedIn or what have you.”
So it is that the “4D” in her company’s name stands for “4th dimension.” “Looking at people beyond the surface is the concept and getting to know their personal story and their individual genius,” she said.
Why Flexing to Client Needs Matters More Now Than Ever
While large search firms have offered a myriad of talent offerings for years, they’ve more or less kept their traditional fee structures intact. That’s provided an opportunity for boutique firms to move in and fill a widening gap, especially in the area of pricing reinvention.
Robin Levitt, president of Encino, CA-based 4D Executive Search, is one such player. She’s developed a search firm that offers an expansive range of services – from retained and contract recruiting to contract-to-hire and even hourly search solutions. “Our clients,” said Ms. Levitt recently in a wide-ranging interview with Hunt Scanlon Media, “have found that our culture, approach and processes are a unique fit for the way they now do business. I continually hear that it’s our flexibility, focus on solutions and depth of understanding that leads to better outcomes.”
When Ms. Levitt was growing up, her father would often tell her that she had a natural talent for sales and that would no doubt be her career. “And when I started exploring what that meant and realized that you can sell anything—that didn’t connect with my heart and my values very well, selling a thing,” she said.
But one day Ms. Levitt came upon the temporary placement agency concept and it was love at first sight. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is everything that I want to do,’” she remembered. “It’s working with people. It’s about supporting them through times of transition in their lives and really being there in a genuine honest way, but also needing to understand business and different companies and industries. It was helping people connect at that intersection between their life and their values and their job, which I think, especially in today’s marketplace, defines who we are in so many ways because work is such a big part of our life. I literally went home and opened up the phone book– because it was during the phone book era–and I started calling people and got a job a week later. I started working in a temporary agency, then did more junior placement and then ultimately started my own firm in 2003.”
At the very beginning she learned an important lesson that she retains, and passes on to others, to this day. “One of the first things I remember was a trainer who said to me, ‘You should never focus on the money, you focus on doing the right thing and approaching this ethically and with a conscience, and the results will come.’ I have never forgotten that; I’ve never let that go. I’ve said the same thing to all the people I’ve trained in this industry. To me, it’s not about making the money or making the placement fee. That is the result of doing the right thing.”
When need be, Ms. Levitt has stepped away from client companies over matters of integrity. She tells of a longtime client, a Fortune 100 company, that she cut ties with because of one leader’s behavior toward candidates that she sent along for interviews. “The choice was either to keep working with somebody who is going to treat the people that I believe in unethically in order to get a fee, or to walk away from the fee,” she said. “And so I chose to send the retained fee back and said, ‘Please let me know when that person is no longer there; I’d love to come back and be your partner, but as long as this person is there and treating the people that I am representing unethically I can’t do the work.’”
“My approach to this is always about building a relationship,” said Ms. Levitt. “I had built such strong relationships across the company that I was able to call some of my contacts and said, ‘I just want you to know why I’m making this decision, what my priorities are, and that I’d like to continue when this person is gone.’ When that person was gone the client came back to me, and I still have a relationship with them today.”
A Larger Purpose
Early on in her career Ms. Levitt was involved in recruiting for bio-pharmaceutical companies and also worked for St. Jude Medical, which makes cardiac devices. Being involved with entities that were positively impacting people’s lives helped shape her own philosophy of donating a portion of her firm’s search fees to organizations that improve people’s lives. She has also mentored underprivileged youth to help them with interviewing skills, connecting them with companies for jobs, and helping them dress for success.
For Ms. Levitt, a big part of her work is to dig deep into what her clients want and need in an HR role and then see where their parameters can be stretched or altered in order to find the right person. Having an honest, open back-and-forth is critical. Ms. Levitt remembered one leader who insisted that she bring him no candidates who worked in consulting, reasoning that such individuals never worked out. Ms. Levitt, however, had someone in mind whom she thought would be perfect and who in fact was in consulting. “I called the client and said, ‘I know you don’t want somebody out of consulting but I think you need to trust me, because this person is the exception to the rule.’ I said, ‘Please just trust me on this because I think they’re right, and they’re different.’ I placed that person and that person is still with the company 15 years later and has become an extremely valued employee.”
“To me it’s about openness, it’s about the partnership, it’s about goals we have and who we want to hire, but at the same time there is openness and respect and dialogue about what may actually be the right thing,” said Ms. Levitt.
Much of her work involves educating her clients about the marketplace and giving them a reality check as to the talent that’s available within their requirements, from pedigree to experience to salary. “I can’t tell you in this year alone how many clients I have had who have said, ‘I want to hire somebody at $150,000,’” said Ms. Levitt. “And my response is, ‘Let’s use that as our target salary but what is your ultimate goal? Is your goal to hire the right person or is the ultimate goal sticking within that range?’ And then it’s up to us in the marketplace to say, ‘This is the kind of candidate and the experience level you can get at that number. Now, if you want this other kind of experience, this is what you’re going to have to pay, so you have to make a decision: Do you want the potential or do you want the experience? I’m not a magician.’ There’s no right or wrong answer, but it has to be an open discussion and dialogue instead of just saying yes to your client, because I don’t believe that just saying yes is going to get the results the client wants.”
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4D Executive Search, which has two employees in addition to Ms. Levitt, has no formal consulting practice. But Ms. Levitt’s sage advice, backed by two decades of experience has been an invaluable resource to countless clients. She told of one client that has been struggling to achieve the results it wants but failing to understand why. “So I made a suggestion,” said Ms. Levitt. “I said, ‘Look, until you bring in a head of talent acquisition who can oversee this function on a national basis and create a cohesive approach, everybody is going to continue to flounder.’ So our approach is consultative; it is really making sure our clients are in conversation with us and achieving the best results.”
“It’s not about the money,” she said. “It’s not about me driving additional business. It’s about the fact that I can place the best person and the best match to a leader, but if the company does not have the right infrastructure internally it may not matter who I place.”
Greg Sinaiko, who founded the Coding Source, a Los Angeles healthcare services company, has worked with Ms. Levitt for close to a dozen years. And though the Coding Source has since seen new owners and Mr. Sinaiko himself has moved on to consulting, he said he remains indebted to her and often sends clients her way. “We were in a fast-growing environment,” said Mr. Sinaiko, of the Coding Source. “Unbeknownst to us when we started, our business just took off, and we didn’t have the right kind of personnel at the right time. So we relied on Robin to find us not just the people we needed for the spot we were at but where we were going. Having Robin work with us strategically was a huge asset. As a first-time entrepreneur and CEO, that was something that I hadn’t expected to need. Once we started working with Robin, it really made a big difference in terms of getting the right people in place and putting ourselves on the growth trajectory that we had. Her work was vital to what ended up being a successful run for us.”
Mr. Sinaiko said that too many recruiting firms seem to care only about filling the role and moving on to the next deal. “But Robin took a long-term approach with us and with other clients that I’ve seen her work with,” he said. “That translates into being very patient and allowing for questions and interviewing more candidates if it’s not the right fit right away. And even with things that we kicked around that didn’t end up actually resulting in a sale for her, she was very available for us strategically. Not a lot of people are willing to do that, to put in that time without necessarily a big payday at the end.”
Since the beginning, Ms. Levitt’s firm has focused on interim placement and direct hire placement. In recent years, however, the interim placement function has begun to grow in importance as a result of shifts in the marketplace. “We are looking to expand and have someone that would specifically focus on the interim placement division of companies,” she said. “We also are often asked by companies because they like our approach, what can we do for them other than HR. As a result, we are expanding into having a specialist on our team who will do operations-based searches in marketing, finance and overall operations.”
And while Ms. Levitt’s firm grow, it will never become so large that she loses that critical human touch connection. “I’m never going to focus on making the placement or just closing it for the sake of trying to achieve metrics,” she said. “That’s why I’m not part of a bigger firm. When I keep it small, I’m able to focus on doing the right thing and placing somebody in the right job because I don’t need to report metrics to somebody. And that allows me to build rapport and honesty, with both clients and candidates.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media