Why It Can be Lonely at the Top in Executive Search

No matter what sector is involved, trust is paramount in executive search, says Lisa Maxwell, founder of Gerard Stewart. Establishing it quickly is essential. Honoring it is the foundation of a successful career.

Layers of complexity are baked into the process of every search for a new executive. From competing agendas, to strong personalities, to internal dynamics – no search is simple.

“Specializing in executive search within the human capital industry means being the ultimate in relationship and trust building,” said Lisa Maxwell, founder and managing partner of Atlanta-based recruitment search firm Gerard Stewart, in a recent report. “In an industry with people at the epicenter, these executives are especially astute. In fact, most of the C-suite I work with have grown up in the human capital space.”

“Whether it’s HR technology, staffing and recruiting, vendor management systems (VMS), or managed service providers (MSP), the net end is human,” she said. “We’re not product-based, we’re people-based. As such, working in these industries is reputational – and it’s almost entirely built on trust.”

Senior executives naturally have one eyebrow raised when a search firm is engaged to find a new leader for their organization. And the other eyebrow goes up when a new executive is brought in – whether through a search firm or not. “In my 20 years of experience, there are, of course, ways to minimize the level of skepticism, but the real solution is almost always founded in trust,” Ms. Maxwell said. “And the ability to build it quickly is important.”

Building Trust with Integrity

In a critical function like executive search, where the wrong hire could take years to recover from, guidance, thoughtfulness and consultation is what it takes to identify the right person, said Ms. Maxwell. As the saying goes, “It’s lonely at the top,” and the higher up you go in executive search, naturally the fewer options there are.


Lisa Maxwell is responsible for many of the senior executive and board-level placements across the talent acquisition, human capital management, HR tech and private equity space at Gerard Stewart. Named as one of the 100 most influential people in the staffing industry five years running, she has spent the past 20 years curating her network of industry leaders and visionaries while building her executive search firm.


“At the C-suite level, there are rarely multiples to choose from, said Ms. Maxwell. “It takes precision and expertise to make recommendations that come from a highly detailed process, but it takes stakeholder trust to accept those recommendations. So, whether it’s a family owned business and the founding CEO is moving on, or a private-equity backed company with funding on the line, wisdom and having conducted searches under similar circumstances means providing critical input and direction to lead the company into the next phase of business.”

Related: 7 Characteristics of a Great Recruiter

What may take years for an executive to do with their teams and direct reports, an executive search consultant does in a matter of weeks. “In order for communication to be effective and helpful, it has to be well-received – no matter what the message is,” said Ms. Maxwell. “And if there isn’t trust, conversations can quickly become counterproductive. I’ve observed leaders who think they’re being effective, and who falsely assume they’ve developed trust with their executive teams, only to find out there’s a lot of head nodding when they’re in the room but naysaying when they’re not.”


Gerard Stewart focuses on recruitment for C-suite executives in the human capital space, including for private equity firms, HR technology, HR services and talent solutions companies. The firm advises client companies on recruiting and retaining leaders and helps mitigate the risks involved with senior-level appointments. Gerard Stewart has completed engagements across the global human capital landscape. Its client list includes organizations in staffing, workforce management, human capital consulting, information technology services, vendor management software, recruitment process outsourcing, managed service providers, professional services and outsourcing.


“If an executive does not have trust, they miss out on important information and perspectives – and people will rarely disagree with them,” she said. “This, of course, only adds to a false perception of how effective they think they’re being. In addition to getting a read on the people and dynamics involved, simultaneously – and quickly – an executive search consultant is working to build trust and credibility with each stakeholder.”

Related: A New Way to Build Partnerships with Recruitment Firms

If the search consultant lacks the trust of the board and the current CEO, they won’t be able to effectively lead them through the executive search process and towards the best decision, said Ms. Maxwell. “In executive search, there can be uncomfortable conversations that happen along the way,” she said. “In my experience, as long as you are leading with integrity and continuously building trust, the results will follow.”

You Either Have It or You Don’t

The executives who are successful in the human capital industry arguably have to be more honed into people – at all levels. In human capital, the CEOs are not just board room executives, they are the people’s people. “Their ability to communicate and be effective leaders depends largely on their ability to build trust,” Ms. Maxwell said.


Why Trust is the Most Critical Ingredient to a Successful Search
Of all the elements that go into an executive search, the most important is trust, according to Price Harding, founding partner of CarterBaldwin Executive Search, in a new report. “Interestingly, there may not be anything in our lives that is more foundational to both business and personal relationships than trust and yet, for most of us, we have never really thought about what builds trust and what diminishes trust,” said Mr. Harding.


In fact, Staffing Industry Analysts recently released a study that found that “transparency and communication are the top recommendations suggested by internal workers to build trust with their staffing firm, with respondents indicating that a large part of establishing that trust is simply being candid.”

The same is true in executive search. “To be an effective – and genuine – leader, you have to be willing to make decisions and give advice that do not always result in quick and easy wins,” said Ms. Maxwell. “I’ve taken companies through the executive search process, mapped out the industry and come to the conclusion that there’s simply not a better person, right now, than the current person they have in the seat.”

Related: 24 Ways to Work with an Executive Recruiter

Providing that kind of objective advice takes a high level of selflessness and honesty. “And to me, you either are that person or you’re not,” said Ms. Maxwell. “In all leadership capacities, trust comes down to a willingness to put personal interests aside. And when you do, your track record will speak for itself.”

“People will know you for being honest and a person of integrity,” she said. “The level of trust you build will be palpable. Building this level of trust isn’t a destination; rather, it’s the foundation from which all great relationships, careers and people grow.”

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. Original post here.

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