March/April 2011
Volume 31 No. 2

View complete issue as a PDF»

For Top Jobs In a Tough Mart Execs Call On Top Job Finders

Howard Lipson runs Lipson & Co. from his Los Angeles headquarters. He’s a veteran executive recruiter in the entertainment industry who doesn’t mind being called a “headhunter." “I sometimes kid my clients that they should call me Dr. Headhunter," said Lipson, who happens to have a Ph.D. in psychology.

recruitersIn a buyers’ market, one wonders why companies need a recruiter, considering that, in the Internet era, companies can google potential candidates. “I am sure many companies do exactly that. If money is an object, you can always fill a job through the Internet," he said, then continued: “But, I also know that some do it with much less success than others. And one of the most significant and least documented costs of every business is the unsuccessful hire.”

“[Another] of the biggest misconceptions is that higher unemployment levels mean less need for recruiters. In fact, the opposite can be true, with so many marginal candidates seeking positions with inappropriate credentials. But, certainly, companies have been hiring fewer executives in the recent past.”

In Lipson’s view, he provides his clients “with a great deal more than simply presenting a list of candidates whose prior jobs and experience will fit our client's stated needs. We provide details that may not otherwise be forthcoming. We bring out the ‘religion’ in candidates, and their references. And, along the way, we help educate our clients about the range of possible choices, and the full picture of the executives they are planning to hire. The more information to evaluate, the more likely the hire will be successful”

So, when does a company call you?

“We are retained by our client companies to find executives (from VPs to CEOs, creative executives to hands-on operators) for several of the following reasons:

  1. Clients want to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ whom they have already heard about. In other words, they are not satisfied with their own list of candidates.
  2. Our client wants to make a ‘confidential’ management change. In this and other cases, we will not identify the client until absolutely necessary, which also allows us to approach those competitors that most of our clients seldom want to contact directly.
  3. Clients do not have sufficient time to actually search for candidates, or to properly evaluate those who reply to online postings, or are suggested by colleagues.
  4. Clients may be starting a new business area and are not adequately familiar with executive leaders in that field."

When asked how his job has changed since he started over 20 years ago, Lipson answered, “Things have not changed that much in the selection process. And in some ways, they haven't changed much in finding and evaluating entertainment executives either. There are no short cuts. It is time intensive. What does change is the economic climate, and the emergence of different ‘hot’ areas, as media technologies and models evolve.”

But, have the requirements changed? It is assumed that nowadays recruiters deal with MBAs, while yesteryear they dealt with SWAs (street-wise administrators).

“By the time retained recruiters get involved,” Lipson explained, “it is usually at a level where specific experience and a compelling track record are much more important. And so, properly assessing the diversity, breadth and depth of experience becomes much more relevant. Based on the feedback we receive, as well as the candidates sometimes referred to us, hiring authorities can often ‘miss’ key indicators in an executive's CV. Stated differently, they may be great executives, but they are not always great recruiters.

As far as change in ‘executive search’ goes, another difference is that in the past companies might have questioned using a‘boutique recruiting firm.’ After all, went the thinking, how could we go wrong if we hire the biggest? Now, most hiring authorities realize that it is the individual doing the search who really makes the difference, but they must still make sure that it is that individual who actually conducts their search, and I mean involvement at every stage of the search.”

VideoAge wondered if companies have changed.

“That can be answered in so many ways," Lipson said. “Companies have tried new business areas, often with mixed results. Others have wanted to expand internationally, usually with greater success. We have often helped our clients do so, whether in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, and from those areas adding executives in the U.S.”

Another question is: In today’s entertainment business, can one exec fit-all? Meaning, can an executive easily move from film production to TV production to broadcasting, without problems?
“The last time I saw fairly consistent success was not in transferring from TV to film, but when domestic television executives moved into international territories," said Lipson. “Not all succeeded, and companies became less enamored paying expat packages, but the transnational experience has proved valuable to many of them as the international market has exploded. As a Canadian who has lived and worked in Europe and Asia, I know something about what is required to adapt to other cultures.”

Now the million-dollar question: Adjusted for inflation, have salaries really changed over the years? “No,” was his quick answer. “And, I believe compensation changes are more often due to the prevailing economic situation. Today, you can get a lot more ‘executive’ for a certain level of compensation than you could several years ago.”

How do clients find you and how do you find the candidates?

“After all these years, people seem to know about us. What they are sometimes surprised to learn is that although we are based in Los Angeles, we have an extensive worldwide network and have done many international searches. Attending MIP since 1988, going to the international Licensing Show, speaking French, all that has helped.”

“How do we find candidates?" he mused. “We begin with a precise description of the open position, and we then have questions that help our clients add other criteria they might not have thought of.

Then, we become detectives. ‘Where is this executive?’ Yes, a database can sometimes help as a jumping off point, but rarely is that where we find the final candidate. The joy of my job is hearing about people we have not previously known about, and networking our way to them. But, ultimately, it is determining if they do indeed fit along all the criteria, how it works for our client and their family, and to then bring about the marriage so that all parties are excited to move forward together. And to monitor the results.

In approaching executives, we are always very respectful: people are busy; listening to or helping us is not their main job; they have to like you and respond positively to your professionalism. If they do, they may opt in, or refer us to others. Above all, you have to listen to their needs and goals. These are major career and family altering decisions. And they have to work for everyone involved.”
Are candidates afraid to talk to you? (This could be for several reasons: a) if they're not selected, it could become embarrassing for them, and b) they might not want to be seen as looking around). How do you reassure them?

“We have experienced the opposite. From the very beginning, we have had candidates say to us, ‘I can't believe I told you that’ They trust us. We have always felt that if we betray a single confidence, we will lose our credibility forever. As for their embarrassment or discomfort at not landing a job, candidates know that it is not merely about their skills set, but, the overall personality and cultural fit as well. We try very hard to manage their expectations; but clearly, people can be disappointed.

However, we pride ourselves on being honest. I was told years ago that in the entertainment industry, ‘you can die of encouragement.’ Nobody wins in that scenario, so we tell it like it is, without being unnecessarily blunt.

The toughest part is often providing candidates with timely feedback, especially when we have none because our clients don’t yet have it. Candidates may feel neglected; but to call them week after week and say 'we have not heard anything’ is a waste of everyone’s time. We do our best to keep things moving forward.”

What is your business model?

“Obviously, we are retained and charge for our services. I have often said that if a recruiter cannot disagree with his client, by honestly discussing the pros and cons of a favorite candidate, then they have short changed their clients. Our job is not to ‘nod in agreement,’ even when it means not closing a deal.

That is our value, serving as the sounding board, as the devil’s advocate. We all have flaws. Beyond finding, evaluating, negotiating, and hiring, we always offer to follow up with our clients, staying in touch with the executives who we place with them. Too many clients fail to take advantage of that.

And, we want that to be a bigger part of our services. Regular executive evaluation and, hopefully, executive retention, should be a major goal of every company. Too many senior leaders are left alone too long. Problems can fester. But, being able to voice an opinion will often go a long way to relieving tension. And so, we would like to add variations of that service to our business model in the future.”

You have to describe other executives’ job functions; can you describe yours?

“We expand upon our clients’ existing job descriptions. In virtually every case, their criteria will change either before or certainly during the course of a search. We must be ready to adapt to, encourage or facilitate such changes in criteria by relaying candidates’ reactions and adding our own feedback.

We regard this as an ongoing aspect of every search, and, I believe, we are better than our clients at incorporating such changes, even with their internal resources. Call it our ability to be objective.
Our other key role is to understand our clients’ corporate culture and assess the hiring executive’s specific issues for the successful candidat’s personality. This is usually a subtle process, and [my] background in psychology seems to help.

Most everyone agrees that a candidate’s ultimate success is not simply his or her ‘skills set;’ it is also how he or she fits into the organization, how they manage up, manage down. These behaviors are usually difficult to precisely measure in advance; but, after many years observing who has succeeded, and why, we have a broader evaluative context, and we use it.”