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Corporate Courtship

An inside look at how the University of Lethbridge and Micralyne made their high profile hires

Sep 15, 2011

by Lisa Ricciotti

Most executive search professionals cringe at the mention of the term “headhunter.” Not Harry Parslow, though. Parslow, who recently spearheaded the recruitment of the University of Lethbridge’s newest president, doesn’t shun the now-unfashionable term. If anything, he embraces it. Step into his office at the Vancouver branch of Caldwell Partners International, Canada’s oldest retained-recruitment firm, and you’re taken away from the rain, lattes and LuluLemon stretch pants that define the city’s urban landscape and into the much different world of an African safari. The floor is adorned with a mock leopard-skin rug, a wooden giraffe oversees all conversations and an undeniably tacky lampshade topped by two elephants completes the mood.

Illustration by Paul Blow

But after 10 years of successful corporate safaris, Parslow has earned the right to lay on this industry-specific form of irony. He happily pokes fun at the common perception that a hunt for top-level talent is the corporate equivalent of a big-game safari. But today, recruiting the right staff for senior positions isn’t an activity where only the hunters win. Instead, people like Parslow have become the business community’s equivalent of an old fashioned matchmaker. “We don’t find jobs for people,” Parslow says. “We find people for jobs – the right people. That involves compatible chemistry and finding a fit between a company and a prospect.”

Fit: it’s the holy grail of the best recruiters. Get it wrong and the results can be disastrous. “Senior positions require visionaries and leaders,” Parslow says. “Place the wrong person at the helm and the whole company will suffer.” Then there will be the expense of having to repeat the process.

Because the stakes are so high, companies often look for outside help when recruiting for top positions. “An executive search firm offers a commitment of time, resources and manpower that internal [human resource] teams can’t match,” says Antara Spitzig, a ten-year recruitment professional with Conroy Ross Partners who works out of their Edmonton office. Spitzig can call on the resources of a team of over 70 people in three locations. More important than the resources they can deploy is the way they can direct them. An outside firm, Spitzig says, has “the capability of contacting specific talent employed by a company’s direct competition.” Often times, these are the people who aren’t technically on the open job market, and therefore can’t be accessed by a simple job posting. “They’re what we call ‘passive job seekers,’” Spitzig says. “They may be open to considering the right opportunity, but aren’t actively looking.”

That was the case in two recent high-profile searches conducted by Spitzig and Parslow. Just over a year ago, Michael Mahon became the sixth president of the University of Lethbridge after an eight-month search by Caldwell Partners, and Conroy Ross’s four-month effort brought Nancy Fares to Edmonton as Micralyne Inc.’s new president and CEO. When Mahon got the call from Parslow, he was wrapping up a term as dean of the University of Alberta’s faculty of physical education and recreation. After 10 years at the U of A, he was considering a change but had not yet started actively searching for a position. Fares was more firmly ensconced – and farther away – at Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc., where she’d spent 17 years in a variety of senior roles and helped bring the 3D technology deployed in Avatar to market.

At Mahon and Fares’s one-year hiring anniversaries, all parties agree that the critical, and often elusive, element of “fit” has been achieved. But how exactly did these recruiters make it happen? “The actual recruitment is just one small part of the process,” Spitzig says. “Rarely do we start with knowing who the best candidates are. The first step is creating a strategic plan to identify the talent.”

Next, matchmakers like Spitzig turn their attention to the needs of their client. From the organization’s perspective, what skills, competencies and experience are required? What style of leadership are they looking for, and which personality traits matter most? “We start with a blank slate,” Spitzig says. “It’s important to take the blinders off and remove discussions from thinking in terms of who was doing the job before. The focus has to be on where the company wants to go.”

Defining key criteria that the ideal candidate should possess involves an in-depth research process. To create a search profile for the University of Lethbridge’s new president, Caldwell Partners gathered input from current students, alumni, representatives from other post-secondary institutions, the provincial government and the municipality itself. “This consultative analysis is a very important step, and companies welcome it,” Parslow says. “We need consensus on what we’re looking for before seeing candidates, and often search committee members have diametrically opposed views about the type of individual they’re looking for. We need everyone on the same page, so we don’t begin searching for a needle in a haystack then discover it’s the wrong haystack.”

While recruiters are doing their “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats” analysis and consultation, they’re also drawing on their sizable network of contacts and research databases to create a long list of potential candidates. Often they will take a sampling of bios from different backgrounds to the search committee for discussion. This benchmarking refines the criteria by shifting the focus from abstract characteristics into the tangible realm of real people and personalities.

Having defined the search parameters, the process now goes into overdrive. Recruiters are increasingly considering a global pool of talent for executive positions, and both the university and Micralyne searches were international. “When you’re looking for exceptional people in a field, you can’t limit your choices geographically,” Spitzig says. “We put the spider web out and approach key leaders in the industry. If they’re not candidates themselves, we ask for referrals and the ripple effect begins. When you start hearing the same names over and over, you know you’re on the right track.”

Like any first date, the initial interaction between recruiter and candidate is important. Spitzig knew it would be a challenge to get the attention of someone like Nancy Fares, but she was ready for the task. “When someone like Nancy Fares is sitting at her desk in Dallas, at a peak in her long career with Texas Instruments, and she gets a call out of the blue for a job offer, you expect to do some persuading,” Spitzig says. That said, if you want a prospect to really fall for what you’re offering, don’t try to entice them with dollars. “Obviously compensation is important,” she says, “but we don’t talk about that during the search process. We focus on the opportunity, and how it’s right for them.”

Search Party: Harry Parslow of recruitment firm Caldwell Partners International, Antara Spitzig of Conroy Ross Partners and Michael Mahon of the University of Lethbridge

Fares had fielded plenty of calls like Spitzig’s before, but she always brushed them off. She was happy where she was, and had no desire to relocate outside Texas, having put down roots in the Lone Star state after a big move 25 years ago from Cairo, Egypt. “But Antara was very skilled and very prepared,” Fares says. “That impressed me. She’d done her homework and got me talking. She was very open about the challenges at Micralyne, but also the growth potential. She convinced me there was a match and showed how I could make an impact.”

If Fares was open to the idea, there was still the not-insignificant matter of implementing it. “That was the hardest part, the Canada move,” Fares says. “But Antara immediately brought the issue forward and systematically dealt with my concerns.” Surprisingly, the biggest issue wasn’t the change in climate but the maintenance of Fares’s lifestyle and the impact the move would have on her husband and children.

But if Fares still had doubts, the search committee that was considering hiring her didn’t. If anything, after flying Fares up for two days and meeting her husband, they were downright smitten. They arranged tours with real estate agents to give the couple a feel for the community, organized meetings with school principals and brokered introductions to professionals with whom both Nancy and her husband would have something in common, including other American ex-pats who had successfully made the move.

Then, in February, the company flew the entire Fares family up in a private jet for a weekend ski adventure at Jasper. That may have been the clincher. “It’s hard not to fall in love with Jasper,” Fares says. “But what really meant a lot was that the board did something special for my whole family. It showed they really understood what’s most important to me. And the depth of their commitment to making our move a success reassured me.”

Like Fares, Mahon was open to the right opportunity, but family had to come first. He’d been courted before, and even seriously considered a few offers. But the timing was never right; he didn’t want to put his three teenagers through the upheaval of a move during their high school years. Thankfully, from the University of Lethbridge’s perspective, that was no longer an issue when he got the call from Parslow. The kids were now in university, and he and his wife were looking for new adventures in a different setting. Lethbridge met their criteria: a mid-sized community that was active, friendly and closer to the mountains to boot.

Here too, the deciding factor was the combination of a great opportunity and a good fit between the organization and the candidate. Mahon was attracted by the university’s progress over the past decade and the opportunity to take it to an even higher level. As well, he recognized that he’d enjoyed being the dean of a smaller faculty, and wanted to continue connecting directly with students and faculty – exactly what the university offered.

“An executive search is always a dance,” Parslow says. “What’s a plum in one person’s eyes isn’t in another’s, and even when the opportunity is perfect, timing and personal considerations have to align.”

Hands Off My Staff!

“It’s no secret that we now have a mobile workforce,” says Caldwell Partners International’s Harry Parslow. “The days of retiring with a gold watch and guaranteed company loyalty are over.”

He’s right, of course, but what can employers do to keep top talent from taking headhunters’ calls? Not much, it seems. Every employer knows unhappy workers have their eye on the door, so job number one is taking care of the basics: appropriate compensation and benefits plus intangible rewards like engagement, empowerment and recognition. But this may surprise: employees are also vulnerable when they’re happy and successful. Consider Nancy Fares, recently headhunted to Micralyne from Texas Instruments. “It sounds weird,” Fares says, “but I was ready for a change because I was on top of the world at TI. I’d reached all my goals and was ready for a new challenge.” The lesson: it’s important to keep your employees happy if you want them to stay. But it might be even more important to keep them challenged.


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