July 12, 2023 – Technology has always been a major disruptor of business. Historically, innovations like electricity, the telephone, the typewriter, and of course computers have all resulted in work getting done more quickly and efficiently. In recent years, however, technological change has been faster and more expansive than ever before, reaching beyond just the tech giants and impacting all kinds of businesses. It has been so swift, in fact, that many leaders were caught short, only now grasping its significance and what it will mean for the future of their companies. So it is that finding talent in data, artificial intelligence, and software-defined products, among other areas, has become imperative across virtually every sector. And executive search firms that have been quick to capitalize on this need and develop expertise and establish deep relationships have become key players in ushering in this new era and helping determine what businesses will ultimately win the day.
“What’s happened is that there has been a seismic change in industry, but there has not been a seismic change in process,” said Paul Daversa, founder and chief executive officer of Daversa Partners, which helps build leadership teams for growth and venture-backed companies. “The executive search industry was founded in 1926. It’s almost a 100 years old. It’s $12 billion dollars in annual TAM and the parochial processes by what has been evolved for traditional companies has rarely if ever been changed.”
“Yet we know intuitively that the platforms and innovation in technology have challenged the very existence of companies,” said Mr. Daversa. “All we have to do is look back in time. We can look back at the typewriter replaced by the computer. We can look back at platforms that didn’t exist that are now drivers. And you would naturally look back and question, would that require a change in the way that you would approach executive search?”
Changing the Process
“Large corporate public companies still have an insatiable appetite to acquire new talent to make meaningful change,” said Mr. Daversa. “The problem has not changed, but the way in which it’s digested, the process, needs to be changed and that’s where there’s an opportunity for more progressive companies to change the very establishment of traditional search firms. And that is where the hurricane meets the tornado at this very moment and what has been happening over the last five years.”
For public companies, the shift has been especially pronounced, says Daversa president Laura Kinder. “We are seeing more traditional public companies who may not be tech-first companies come to us as they’re looking to radically transform their executive team and focus on initiatives that they know will be critical to the business going forward,” she said. “And oftentimes that includes best-in-class tech leaders and executives in market.”
For Daversa Partners, those clients have included traditional companies like General Motors, The New York Times, and Nike, to name just a few. “For the past 30 years, Daversa has been focused on building the executive teams for the most disruptive companies in the technology ecosystem,” said Ms. Kinder. “All of this search work has meant that we’ve built the deepest relationships with this cohort of candidates, providing us with unique access to more traditional public company searches.”
Daversa Partners is 100 percent exclusively focused on anything tech-enabled or tech services-enabled that can drive either contemporary or traditional businesses. “And that’s 100 percent of our business,” said Mr. Daversa. “In the past, you would have more conventional industries—CPG, industrial, logistics, manufacturing—that had built an industry where it seemed acceptable to move at a slower pace, where there were longer lead times. That’s no longer possible in the competitive race for corporations today. The reality of it is that all of these industries have been disrupted and their focus is on speed, innovation, and access to data all happening at the same time.”
Across All Sectors
Nor can those ingredients be left out of the recipe. “And so what were more traditional companies are now coming to us with the appetite to inject and ingest technology-enabled talent for progressive companies all over their divisional or enterprise-wide companies,” said Mr. Daversa. “And it doesn’t matter in function. It could be finance, product, engineering, logistics, operations. I believe the reason that we’re getting this wide aperture and appetite for this type of talent is because most people know that we have somewhat of a moat and focus and singularity on leading technology-enabled executives. That’s been our harbinger of our success.”
Delivering Talent for the AI Revolution
Daversa Partners’ Lindsay Keith, Paige Kuderka, and Kenny Denton are serving at the front lines of the fast-growing artificial intelligence market. In a recent interview, they shared their insights and experiences in finding leaders that are helping to change the world for companies like Scale AI, Jasper AI, and a host of others.
Over the last 30 years, public companies, and the executives that lead them, have evolved practically decade by decade. In the 90s, companies like General Electric, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Boeing provided traditionally extraordinary executive training and leadership development, says Mr. Daversa. “And there was a constant rotation of these well-developed executives that came out of places like GE’s Financial Management Program and Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations that would focus through great HR organizations,” he said. Then came the beginnings of transformation for organizations like American Express, Visa, Mastercard, and the rise of data services companies, like Bloomberg and Reuters, which began bringing data and a technology orientation to the fore, but still with a well trained corporate etiquette. This was followed by the rise of entities like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix. And then, more recently, in a more modern orientation, there is Instacart, DoorDash, Uber, Dropbox, and the like, which are now setting the pace. “These are all decade-old companies,” said Mr. Daversa. “And there’s a new cadence, a new adoption of what the next generation of a corporate executive looks like that has a focus on innovation, speed, process redesign, data technology that’s creating this seismic shift that is changing the way we think about corporate executives that classically has not been the hunting grounds for very large global executive search firms.”
A Different Type of Search
All this has been to the advantage of Daversa Partners, which focuses on technology as a specialty. “Most of the large enterprise executive search firms, their technology practice makes up approximately between 10 and 25 percent max of their enterprise offering for global corporations,” said Mr. Daversa. “I think what the industry is now looking for is specialty. We spend 100 percent of our time developing executives who are changing companies, and that 100 percent of the time is 100 percent focused on technology or technology enabled.”
So it was that Daversa this spring would help place Mike Abbott, former vice president of engineering for both Apple’s Cloud Services division and Twitter, among other roles, as GM’s new executive vice president, software, where he is helping transform the automaker as its steps up its efforts in renewable energy and software-defined vehicles. “To be able to track that type of talent requires a different type of search, a different type of cadence, a different speed, and a different set of relationships,” said Mr. Daversa.
The New York Times is another example. “Here you have a traditional media company that went from analog to digital,” said Ms. Kinder. “We see a lot of publishing platforms pushing for digital. The New York Times has done that very well with Meredith Kopit Levien at the helm. We brought in Jason Sobel, who had been a senior vice president at Airbnb for a number of years, as their CTO. He came from an innovative, forward-thinking tech platform to The New York Times with the specific intention of perpetuating innovation and harnessing technology.
Other noteworthy clients have been Lennar, the second largest home construction company in the U.S., and Nike, the largest athletic apparel company on the planet. “Lennar had classically been a purveyor or a buyer or an acquirer of traditional executive search expertise,” said Mr. Daversa. “And while the examples of the people that we’ve placed with Lennar may not come out of the very companies that we described, Lennar made a go decision on hiring us based on style, focus on speed, accuracy, and tempo, mostly to be able to have the advantage of access, no embargoes on hands off.”
Lifetime Changing Impact
Nike, for its part, has complemented its traditional retail commerce side with an aggressive push into innovating how the company digitally connects with its consumers. “And so we have led senior searches for them that again are coming from very innovative tech companies and platforms and helping to bring that focus of best in class, deep technical, and very focused on Next Gen as Nike’s also looking to the future,” said. Ms. Kinder.
For prospects, such public companies have a special allure. A lot of candidates are already attracted to the brand and the reputation, as well as the scale and the reach that these companies have built up over the years, says Ms. Kinder. “And if there is truly alignment internally in focusing on this next chapter and next area of growth and innovation, it’s an incredibly compelling opportunity for candidates because it’s giving them an opportunity to transform industries, to work with companies that are often household names, and to really drive that change at a scale that’s unlike what you see at a lot of other platforms,” she said.
Add to that the fact that many tech executives, like leaders across virtually every sector, were deeply affected by the pandemic and the relentless, consequential macro events that have played out over the past 36 months, right through to the cryptocurrency meltdown and the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and other regional banks. All this has led them to re-evaluate how they want to spend their time and live their lives. Said Mr. Daversa: “I think public companies, large companies, have recognized that they have an opportunity to court and woo away extraordinary talent that may simply be fatigued and want to do something different and plant themself on the stage where they can make a big impact with this next tidal wave of AI coming, that they believe they can have legacy changing, lifetime changing impact on these large companies.”
And make no mistake, the hottest trend out there, for Daversa and other recruiters, is the demand for artificial intelligence talent. “For us, it’s AI, AI, AI, and it’s coming from every single company,” said Mr. Daversa. “We need to get ahead of this now. We’re not seeing an uptick in M&A activity or new product introduction, but data and the speed of data. This is going to be a data war. This is to be won on data. Data and artificial intelligence. AI will reduce cost by 20 to 30 percent if it’s done right at the corporate level, drive EPS up, increase earnings, and create a much greater shareholder retention. And that is the No. 1 driver. The last time something like this happened was a methodology change in business process re-engineering in the early 2000s. And that was how you thought about approaching a business re-engineering transformation. That also would take years. AI will lead this re-engineering transformation in months. That is what we’re seeing.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media