Of Pirates And Saviors

There are no secrets in this book. Rites Of Passage is about self-interest. On the one hand, we understand this [...]

September 1 1988 by Lawrence G. Blackmon

There are no secrets in this book. Rites Of Passage is about self-interest. On the one hand, we understand this to mean “enlightened,” and on the other, “greedy.” We should also understand it to mean the self-interest, not only of a headhunter, but also of an employee or an employer. The pejorative term “headhunter,” has at least be come respectable enough for the author to use it repeatedly. The corporate world-at-large is more than a little ambivalent about executive recruiters. They are perceived to be little more than legal pirates, and at the same time, thought of as saviors in a time of corporate need, producing the model person to solve some horrible problem. For the employee who may become his product, the headhunter is another kind of savior, but one who makes for conscience-twinges when deals are made in secret meetings beyond the sight and hearing of the current employer.

This leads to what Lucht refers to throughout his book as the Off-Limits rules. The first of which says that for two years after a search, the client is off-limits as a source for other clients. This is welcome news for any new client, though I don’t believe that any search firm would get its first client without extending this kind of protection. The more sinister implication for the corporate client is that the larger the search firm, the greater the number of potential corporate sources that are off-limits. Thus, a large client firm that engages a large search firm, may have selected a headhunter who has very few heads to hunt. In this case, the implications for the CEO of the client firm are self-evident.

Most CEOs should be aware of and fully appreciate the first of these Off-Limits rules. The second is perhaps somewhat screened from view. It implies that only one recruiter within a search firm has access at any given time to any given candidate. Thus, Mr. CEO may be deceiving the hell out of himself if he believes that the full resources of the search firm are at his disposal.

The author is tooting his own horn when he points out the barriers that may exist when a company engages a large search firm. The number of recruiters in his own outfit is something less than 11, whereas the “biggies” range up to nearly 154-Korn/Ferry International has 187, by estimate. Since Lucht came out of Hiedrick and Struggles (the fourth largest search firm), he knows from where he speaks.

Logic would seem to suggest that the best protection from raiding comes from the use of large firms and, at least at times, the widest search may come from a smaller firm. If a company is large enough to frequently rely on headhunters, the advice given is to spread the business around.

Lucht is a good communicator. His prose is punchy and spare. He knows the value of emphasis and how to achieve it. As “how-to” books go, this one might serve as a model; even if the subject were refinishing antique furniture. He uses outlines, examples, bold type and repetition to pound his points home.

Perhaps the punch line in all of this can be found among the remarks on “Choosing Your Successor,” as reported in the May/ June 1988 issue of Chief Executive magazine. Professor Richard F. Vancil (Harvard Business School) noted that in a piece of research spanning 25 years, 10 percent of CEOs were fired in the first three years on the job; he adds that “surely another 10 percent must have been mediocre.” (Another 20 percent would be more realistic.) Edmund R. Hergenrather (chairman and CEO of Hergenrather and Company) observed that the most startling trend in the CEO succession process during the last 25 years has been the frequency with which an “outsider” is named to the top slot.

It would be an understatement to say that CEOs had better know everything there is to know about job-changing.

Lawrence G. Blackmon is former president and CEO of Microdot, Inc.