Often it’s the questions you ask, rather than the answers you give.

It’s been a heavy week or two of interviewing for some of our candidates, who are engaging on some top executive roles with prospective new employers.

The employers (our clients) are trying hard to maintain the balance between ‘wooing’ the best people (our candidates), who are not actively looking for jobs and therefore require some good hard ‘selling’ on the part of the new company to encourage them to make strategic career moves; and ensuring that they go through a thorough process of screening and interviewing to ensure that they recruit the individual who is both the ‘best’ AND the ‘best fit’.

In my debriefing process with my clients, it seems that one of the more revealing factors in the executive level interview is the ‘dialogue’ that takes place when the candidate is given an opportunity to ask questions. You know…..that time when most of the standard box ticking has already taken place, and the interviewer passes the baton to the interviewee with an off-the cuff ‘So, do you have any questions?’.

While it may seem very ‘by the way’, it is important NOT to underestimate this part of the session – what you ask, or don’t ask can be the ultimate differentiator between you and the other shortlisted candidates. It will allow you to further demonstrate your strategic insights, your ability to focus on the priorities and challenges of the role, as well as your listening skills. It will also provide you with valuable insight into the company to help you evaluate if you want to work there.

On the other hand, asking low level, pedestrian or logistics-oriented questions is just a waste of a valuable opportunity.

And an absolute, definite, ‘you lost the job before you got out the door’ no-no, is to respond to the ‘do you have any questions’ invitation with a ‘no thanks’.

Some astute questions that our candidates have asked during interviews include:

What do you expect me to accomplish in the first 6 to 12 months in the role?

What are the common attributes of your top performers?

What are the key things that really drive results for the company?

What do you see to be the biggest challenges ahead for the company?

So do your homework and work up some thought provoking questions – it will be the last, and ideally positive lasting, impression that you leave with the interviewer.

madison macarthur - executive search


Playing nicely in the Executive Arena

We all know that it’s almost impossible to go through corporate life without ruffling some feathers, stepping on some toes, and putting some noses out of joint. In fact, if you’re a mover and a shaker, there’s a pretty strong chance that you’ve elbowed some people out the way, and not everyone loves you. What’s important though, is to ensure that there are more people (important ones, with influence and credibility) who love, like or respect you, than those who want to see you fail.

And this becomes particularly relevant when you decide to make a career move to another company! Why???

A few weeks ago I was once again reminded how small the corporate landscape is in Canada. In fact, when it comes to the executive layer of professionals, it’s more of a hockey rink than a landscape. And when you segment the hockey rink into industry sectors, all you really have is patch of ice in the back yard. And then ask what the likelihood is of encountering people in your back yard, whom you’ve worked with at a previous employer in the same industry sector…..the answer is: VERY, VERY LIKELY!!

As a result there is a very strong chance that when you join a new organisation, you’re going to come into contact with people you’ve rubbed shoulders with previously in the executive arena. Those people potentially have the power to put obstacles in your path, from discrediting you, to general mud-slinging. And that’s IF you get the job!

We recently presented a group of 5 executives as candidates for a COO role. As it turned out, each of these candidates was known by at least one member of the executive team or Board. 4 of them were subsequently interviewed and the 5th was not. Why? Because his ruthless tactics when working with one of the Executive Team at another company, led to his becoming blackballed from this opportunity despite having all of the requisite skills for the job. Avoidable? Certainly – if you’re smart and deft enough to climb the corporate ladder without trampling on colleagues or leaving lasting wounds.

So play nicely or you could be on thin ice when looking for your next executive role!stock_business_people_group_by_stiegssen-d3ez9iw

Does a Degree Guarantee Success in Business?

business-degree-madison-macarthurAs we work with many top tier global companies across many industries we routinely see a strong bias, if not an absolute requirement, for undergrad and post grad degrees. These days a bachelor’s degree is practically a prerequisite for getting your résumé read—two-thirds of employers said they never waive degree requirements, or do so only for particularly outstanding candidates. In many companies promotional opportunities are limited for staff without degrees – sometimes despite strong employee performance.
I have seen many quality candidates over the years lose out to far less accomplished and business savvy candidates, simply because the client would not entertain a candidate without an undergrad.

Although a strong proponent of formal education (as a recruiter I know how limiting it can be not to have a degree), I firmly believe that an education is different from a degree. An education can take many forms –  formal, informal, self-directed, on the job training etc. I believe that success in business and life requires a lot more than mere certificates. It is a combination of factors such as aptitude, creativity, inquisitiveness, attitude, an ability to see and seize opportunities and willingness to work hard to attain them.. and more. There are many, many creative and free thinkers that just don’t conform well to a structured classroom setting and learning by rote. They are often stifled by the environment and drop out of university.

I had a client that had a Masters degree from the top US Ivy league college that had an interesting perspective on education. She would entertain a candidate without a degree that had done some interesting things over one that had a BComm and an MBA. She felt that this combination was a waste of time as the types of case studies the student would have worked on for both degrees were all based on the same principals and reasoning – just more years of doing the same thing, that likely resulted in the candidate only having one way of thinking. Not the kind of person she wanted for her company, she wanted agile, flexible, creative thinkers.
Great examples of overachievers that either never went, or dropped out of University include multi millionaires and billionaires such as:

Daniel Abraham, founder of Slim-Fast
Roman Abramovich, richest man in Russia, multiple businesses
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft
Wally “Famous” Amos, founder of Famous Amos cookies
John Jacob Astor, real estate builder & investor
Ronald Baron, founder of Baron Capital
Eike Batista, mining executive, one of the 10 richest men in the world
Carl Bernstein, Watergate reporter, Washington Post
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin
Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the Seagram liquor fortune
James Francis Byrnes, U.S. senator, Supreme Court justice, secretary of state, governor
Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist
Scott Carpenter, astronaut
Tom Carvel, inventor of the soft-serve ice cream machine, founder of Carvel
Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel
Winston Churchill, British prime minister
Jack Kent Cooke, media mogul, owner of Washington Redskins
Simon Cowell, TV & music producer
Charles Culpeper, major shareholder and CEO of Coca Cola
John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems & founder of Patron Spirits tequila
Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers
Felix Dennis, magazine publisher, Maxim, Blender, and others
Richard DeVos,  co-founder of Amway
Barry Diller,  Hollywood mogul, Internet maven, chairman of IAC/InterActive Corp
Walt Disney, founder of the Walt Disney Company
George Eastman, inventor and founder of Kodak
Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle software company
Shawn Fanning, developer of Napster
Carly Fiorina, prior CEO, Hewlett-Packard
Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company
J. B. Fuqua, industrialist, philanthropist, funded Fuqua business school at Duke University
Bill Gates,  co-founder of Microsoft
David Geffen, founder of Geffen Records and co-founder of DreamWorks
J. Paul Getty,  oilman
Amadeo Peter Giannini, founder of Bank of America
John Glenn, astronaut, U.S. senator
Hyman Golden, cofounder of Snapple
David Green, founder of Hobby Lobby
Philip Green, retail mogul, Topshop
William Randolph Hearst, newspaper publisher
Richard Heckmann, investor, CEO of U.S. Filter,
H. Wayne Huizenga, founder of WMX waste management, owner of Miami Dolphins
Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, billionaire oilman
Peter Jennings, news anchor
Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers and Pixar Animation
Henry J. Kaiser, founder of Kaiser Aluminum
Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, one of the richest people in the world
David Karp, founder of Tumblr
Li Ka-Shing, one of the wealthiest investors in Asia
Kirk Kerkorian, owner of MGM movie studio, Mirage Resorts, and Mandalay Bay Resorts
Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s
Ralph Lauren, founder of Polo & Ralph Lauren
Mike Lazaridis, founder of Research in Motion
Marcus Loew, founder of Loews movie theaters, co-founder of MGM movie studio
Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke College (America’s first women’s college)
John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods
John Major, British prime minister
Hendrik Meijer, founder of Meijer grocery stores
Dustin Moskovitz,  co-founder of Facebook
David Murdock, real estate tycoon, investor, chairman of Dole Foods
David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue airlines
David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather
Larry Page, founder of Google
Marc Rich, commodities investor, built Philbro into the world’s largest commodities firm
Leandro Rizzuto, founder of Conair
John D. Rockefeller Sr., founder of Standard Oil
Karl Rove, presidential advisor
Colonel Harlan Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC)
Vidal Sassoon, founder of Vidal Sassoon
Al Schneider, founder of Schneider National freight company
Richard Schulze, founder of Best Buy
Walter L. Smith, president of Florida A&M University
Daniel Snyder, owner of Snyder Communications, Red Zone Capital & the Washington Redskins
Alfred Taubman, chairman of Sotheby
Jack Crawford Taylor, founder of Enterprise Rent-a-Car
Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s
Ted Turner, founder of CNN and TBS
Jay Van Andel, co-founder of Amway
Anton van Leeuwenhoek, microbiologist, discoverer of bacteria, blood cells, and sperm cells
Theodore Waitt, founder of Gateway Computers
DeWitt Wallace, founder and publisher of Reader’s Digest
Ty Warner, developer of Beanie Babies
Sidney Weinberg, managing partner of Goldman Sachs
Leslie Wexner, founder of Limited Brands
Dean White, hotelier and billboard magnate
Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inns
Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook

And this is far from a complete list!  I can’t imagine that there are too many top tier companies that would not have wanted to harness the talents of at least some of these people despite their lack of degrees.

Some companies like Google (FORTUNE top company to work for)are starting to rethink the requirement for degrees. Lazlo Bock, VP of People at Google stated in a recent NY times article that after extensive analysis of Google employees, they found no correlation between how people fared in college and how they performed on the job. He went on to state that while previously quite focused on requiring degrees, they now have units where 14% of the team is made up of people that never went to college. However companies showing this level of creativity in hiring are still few and far between.

So, while having a degree is not the be all and end all to realizing success in business, if you choose that route you better have vision, passion, and the perseverance and drive to do whatever it takes.

Time Is Of The Essence When Hiring Top Management Talent

madison-macarthur-time-is-of-the-essenceThis is pretty conventional wisdom – and you certainly didn’t hear it here, first.  No sales training session would be complete without a reminder of Time’s toxic effect on the pitch-to-close process.  In every industry, in every economy, in every region – it’s up there with “Don’t count your chickens”, and “A stitch in time…”
Whether you’re raising a fund, buying or selling real estate, closing a venture capital deal or selling your business, the old truth applies.  Hiring is no different.  Nothing makes a recruitment project as likely to fail as a significant delay in the process.  Why?  Because stuff happens.
Work issues improve, relationships heal (or deteriorate), the excitement wanes.  We’re dealing with human beings, who, given enough time, are bound to rethink their decisions.
Thinking twice (or even thrice) is good – and I’m certainly not suggesting that we should all rush blindly into big decisions.  Do your analysis, consult your advisers, get your paperwork and your background checks in order – and then propose!

We know there are lots of good reasons for delays in process, and too fast can also be a bad idea – making your move before you’re sure you even like each other is likely to result in disaster.
Am I contradicting myself?  Not really.  What I’m saying is there’s a reasonable time within which to make an informed decision.  In the world of executive search, that’s at most, four to five weeks from the first meeting with the candidate.
Any longer than that, and you’ve got to start weighing up your risks.  Circumstances change.  Fatigue sets in.  People start whisper campaigns.  “What’s up with them?”  And your candidate’s going to start wondering just how serious you are.  And whether it’s going to be less of a risk to fix their current situation than to dive into your unknown… when you finally get around to asking! After all – “Better the devil you know…”
Executive candidates can read a stalled process as reflecting negatively on the company in the following ways:

  • The company is indecisive, does not know what they want/need
  • This hire is not a priority – therefore not the kind of role I’m interested in
  • The company does not have the financial wherewithal to make the hire
  • The company’s slow movement in this process is a reflection of their overall corporate dynamic

Hiring an executive is a deal like any other – the company is selling the merits of their opportunity and the executive is selling their skills and talents to the company. It never fails to amaze me how often a company will interview a candidate, provide very enthusiastic feedback, invite them back for multiple meetings, indicate an offer is being pulled together and then… silence…! For weeks!
Too frequently the cost to the company can be, losing that top candidate.

Working Women: Overcoming Barriers to Promotion

women-promotionsDespite the fact that 75% of women said that more changes are needed to achieve workplace gender equity, most are not associating their beliefs to their own workplace situations. A poll was taken from a LinkedIn group of about 1,800 professional women, who were asked “Does it matter what gender your boss is?” The results were staggering; 67 per% claimed that their manager’s sex does not matter, 23% acknowledged that they prefer a male boss, and only 5% preferred working for a woman.4 It seems then, that the solution to overcoming this gender gap has to stem from a shift in mindset rather than implementing new programs or initiatives (such as quotas or hiring practices). The goal of such an initiative is noteworthy for corporations wanting to stay ahead– businesses who achieve a healthy balance of gender diversity place at the top of the competition.

The most difficult aspect, however, is finding lasting solutions. Perhaps we can look to Deloitte, a leader in gender diversity, for overcoming this issue. The company has already saved millions in turnover costs, and their latest solution includes holding “Inclusion Labs” across their offices worldwide. These labs are one-day sessions, which were founded at the Leadership Centre for Inclusion at Deloitte University in Texas. The Inclusion Labs were first created in March 2013 to help clients define their diversity and inclusion issues and solve other relatable challenges. Each day includes many small group discussions, including participation by individuals. Topics of discussion include issues such as barriers to promotion, deeply held and subconscious biases, and stereotypes of both genders in the workforce. The sessions are also accountability exercises. “Becoming aware of those diversity metrics is a real eye opener,” says Deloitte partner Jane Allen, former Chief Diversity Officer in Toronto. “You might say men and women are treated equally, but when you look at the data, the gaps in the metrics are much more than you thought they’d be.”2 At the end of the session, each client is given a detailed report with an action plan for change.

Coming from an executive director of 10 years and mother of three, Melissa Kushner gives two points of advice for all working women. First of all, use your gender to your advantage. Men and women run organizations differently, and both can learn from each other’s unique styles. Embracing the unique perspectives you can bring to a company is a precious asset. Second, she states it’s vital to accept your individual strengths and weaknesses. A common discussion in the workplace, she points out, is the point about whether women should be as aggressive as men. Melissa advises that people in general can evolve through their experiences, but at the same time not worry about changing their fundamental traits that make them unique.


1. “When It Comes To Workplace Sexism, Millennial Women Suffer Most.”Leadership. Forbes. Retrieved June 16, 2014.

2. “Diversity & Inclusion – New Programs That Work.” Career. Women of Influence. Retrieved June 16, 2014.

3. “Five crucial leadership lessons from a working mother.” Leadership. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved June 16, 2014.

4. “Who do you prefer as a manager, a woman or a man?.” Management. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved June 16, 2014.

The Right Executive Leaders Make the Difference

Sylvia MacArthur, Madison MacArthur, April 2014

madison macarthur - executive search‘The Right Executive Leaders’ are undoubtedly the key differentiator between success and failure in organisations of any size, sector or type – be they public or private sector; listed blue-chip or family-owned; established brand or start-up – the bottom line is all (or mostly) about the people at the top.

When you look at the public sector, especially in the political arena, everywhere you look in this country leaders are failing their constituents and, worst case scenario, increasingly being charged for criminal activities.  Just look at the many disgraced politicians that have been in the news over the past few months alone. The reason is simple: we continue to appoint the wrong people to the wrong jobs for the wrong reasons.

What is less obvious, much less visible, and often assumed not to be the case by reasonably literate and intelligent people, is that unsuitable appointments happen in the private sector frequently too….. in spite of (or possibly because of) the many boxes that need to be checked in almost all executive level appointment processes.

Not the least of which is the multiple interviews with stakeholders (direct reporting lines, dotted reporting lines, regional reporting structures, functional reporting matrixes, executive board members, non-executive board members) who will interface with the new recruit.

So while there may be a shortlist of 4 to 5 talented individuals at the beginning of the interview process, the one who ultimately reaches the finish line is not necessarily the most exceptional leader in the group – but rather the one with the best interviewing skills, the one who is the most diplomatic, and the one who poses the least threat to the above-mentioned stakeholders. One who is also on occasion the ‘wrong’ person!

And then there are organisations who are willing to make bold decisions (many of them among our clients, thankfully), led by boards who are willing to secure leaders who ruffle feathers from time to time,  who are unapologetic about excellence, and who know what it takes to get there! These companies appoint the right leaders, to the right jobs, for the right reasons.

Saluting Women Executives!

Celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8th, 2014

madison macarthur - executive searchWe’ve just celebrated International Women’s Day. So I think a suitable theme for this blog post must focus on women in executive positions and leadership roles. A topic I am most comfortable with, considering my first hand experience and personal perspective.
Let’s start with the constant question posed by commentators on the ‘workplace’ – being “Why are there so few female executives in senior roles relative to the male contingent?’ (or derivatives of this).

Which I’ll answer as soon as I’ve finished whipping up a batch of homemade soup, called the TV repair man, arranged a veterinary appointment for the dog, had a run around the block (that’s all the time I can allocate to exercise today), and gotten to the office – by 7.30 am, so that I can be ready for my first meeting of the day.

But I digress – back to the question, ‘Why so few women executives at the top?’  Well, there’s a pretty clear answer to that, and it has nothing to do with any incapacity or lacking in skills, intelligence, energy, strength, maturity, wisdom, drive or ambition of professional women.

And everything to do with the fact that most women in their career-climbing years (30 – 40 years of age) are also in their family-rearing years, and unless these women have some kind of super-special domestic set-up combined with the willingness to outsource and delegate most of the domestic issues to 3rd parties (husbands or partners included), they will face the gruelling task of juggling a full-time executive job (you don’t get half-day executive roles) and the needs and demands of family.

In the corporate world, meetings take place at all hours of the day – often first thing (7am) or later in the day (from 4pm), resulting in early starts and late home-coming. Travel is undoubtedly part of an executive’s job description, sometimes weekly – resulting in nights away from home. Weekend conferences for strategy development, team building, and other initiatives are par for the course. Urgent board meetings and ExCo meetings (over and above the regular ones) typically take place after hours. And then because the day is filled with one meeting after another, admin and preparation needs to take place after these….usually on the laptop at home.

Leaving not a lot of time and energy for anything outside of work. And resulting in many extremely talented and capable professional women ‘opting out’ of the corporate world, because they are unwilling to make the compromises and sacrifices required of them.
So the question should not be “Why are there so few female executives”, but rather “When will the demands made of executives allow for flexibility, balance and consideration of family needs?”
But I don’t have the answer to that one, and now I need to dash off to take the cake out of the oven.

All I can say is… women rock….a lot!

What’s in a Name? The Down Side of Non Traditional Executive Job Titles

Sylvia MacArthur, Madison MacArthur, February 2014

madison macarthur - executive searchA decade or so ago, with new approaches to management and leadership penetrating both big corporates and entrepreneurial businesses alike, two trends became noticeably fashionable: 1) breaking down office compartments and styling offices in an open-plan design, and 2) limiting corporate hierarchies and striving for so-called ‘flat’ management structures.

What has transpired over the years in such companies is that grand job titles have become anathema…however, in many instances, the management hierarchies and job levels have remained (what exactly is a ‘flat’ structure in a company of more than 50 people?), and regardless of whether everyone on the executive is called ‘Head’, “Guru” or some other vague description (as opposed to Chief, Vice President, Director or similar), everyone in the organisation knows who’s on top!

However, the challenge for the abstractly designated employees of these companies comes into play when Johnny No-Title decides to move on, and places his CV in the market (or is approached by a headhunter).
And then the harsh reality of how companies (and their HR departments) evaluate executive level candidates becomes clear – frequently, a new prospective employer will look at the candidate’s most recent job title, and if the appropriate combination of words are not present (Executive Head, Chief something or another, etc), Johnny No-Title’s CV will go to the bottom of the pile. He will probably not even be given the opportunity to interview – purely because of a job title that is perceived to be at a lower level than required.

We’ve worked with one company in recruiting an executive that was to be the 2iC to the CEO and their internal title was “Operations Co-ordinator” rather than COO. You can imagine how much appeal that had to the VP level candidates we were recruiting. Many declined to consider the opportunity – a loss to both the prospects and to the company.

In the interests of ‘managing their CV’s’, we’ve recently experienced understandable push back from executive level candidates who are taking new positions in companies which don’t do job titles. As part of the deal, they’re insisting on appropriate job titles being included in their employment contracts. Although they will not be using these designations internally, they can use them in a public space (business cards and the like). This at least allows them to include their ‘legal’ job title in their CV’s should they make a career move at some point in the future.
Tricky to negotiate, because it’s a bit like planning for the divorce at the time of marriage, but if it can be handled deftly, worth your while!

When a Key Executive Resigns

Sylvia MacArthur, Madison MacArthur, December 2013

madison-macarthur-executive-searchIt’s a fact of life – people move on! Even key individuals in the executive team who have been with an organisation for years, who have become synonymous with the company and its brand, and whom one would never expect to leave.
Nothing is static, people change, their personal and professional circumstances change, and so when compelling career opportunities arise at the right time, even the most loyal professionals may decide to pack their bags and move on.

What’s interesting to observe is the way in which different organisations respond to a key resignation. Some will literally march the ‘traitor’ to the door within hours of receiving the resignation letter, others haul the potential defector into meeting after meeting with corporate heavyweights in an attempt to make a counteroffer, while some (very few) accept the situation and focus on dealing with the impact of the impending departure.
The reality is that, unless a counteroffer tactic is successful, the executive employee will shortly be leaving the building for good, so it may be best to focus on filling gaps and managing stakeholders.

And who are these ‘stakeholders’? Some are obvious – (in no particular order) the rest of the executive team, direct reports, and the broader organisation; clients and customers; media; shareholders and investors; service providers and consulting partners…amongst others. In my experience, my corporate clients spend ALL of their time focusing on these ‘stakeholders’ (to varying degrees) with a view to minimising the fallout of the resignation.
However, there is one important stakeholder who is almost never given any consideration at all – and who, with different treatment – might be able to contribute to a successful transition and tremendously reduced collateral damage. Who is this key stakeholder, you ask?…..well, it’s the very same key employee who has just resigned!

Yes, it may feel like a bitter pill to swallow, but undoubtedly, the CEO’s and executive teams who can keep things amiable, respectful and dignified in the days and weeks after a resignation, are MUCH more likely to not just reduce damage, but to actually turn a gaping hole into the foundations for growth.