The New Year Will Provide Opportunities for A-Players

By Perri Capell

Brian M. Sullivan is chairman and chief executive officer of Christian & Timbers, an executive-search firm based in New York.

Yes, because a positive economic cycle is finally starting, and the presidential election is over. It doesn't matter whether George Bush or John Kerry won; it's the fact that the election is over, and we can resume planning and forecasting because there's stability in the U.S. political system. The fear was that the election might be dragged into the courts and that this would shut down business activity.

The economic cycle also seems to have turned upwards. People complain about interest rates rising, but rising rates are more of a positive indicator of economic activity than a negative. The reason rates are going up is that there's activity, and it's becoming positive. I feel really good about business conditions. This will translate into more jobs for executives because it means corporate investment, and that, by definition, means adding to the management team.

In talking about what's ahead for the next five to 10 years, we are calling this period the "new normal." It's an era where senior management is saying, "Let's look at our five- to 10-year plan and determine what goals we want to reach, how we are going to do it, and what type of skill sets we need." Companies are more appreciative of global involvement, managing priorities and determining the three or four things they want to accomplish in the next 12 to18 months that will position them to year five. Then, they're assembling the team that can accomplish both the 18-month and the 60-month goal.

This is a dramatic departure from the pop-or-drop hiring in the last upturn. Then venture capitalists and companies themselves were looking at new-business opportunities and saying, "Quick, let's get a CEO, because we have 18 months to pop this thing or drop it and get out." Companies aren't doing that now. They're looking at systematic growth around sustainable economic models that require really sustainable growth. So it's completely the opposite. This is attracting a more sophisticated business manager. Before, you had a crank-it-up-and-forget-about-the-expense type of thing. This is a more systematic, long-term and financially disciplined approach.

Demand is good where job descriptions have changed. The chief financial officer job has probably changed the most because of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and the incredible regulation and attention to detail that's required now. In keeping with the terrorist threat, the role of corporate security officer has evolved to include protecting all company data and information. In the past, senior sales-and-marketing executives have had the luxury of being U.S.-centric. Now, these executives must have an appreciation and understanding of global affairs and not just what's happening in the U.S. They need to know how to market and sell in Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region. Being successful in the European market means understanding what has happened lately to alienate the Germans and French and how to position your products given that sentiment.

The sectors that are doing well include telecom, especially wireless, biotech and financial services.

There is a lot of growth where technology, consumer products and entertainment intersect. Examples include the computer-driven products oriented to receiving music, video or other entertainment. For instance, iPods will be as common as the mobile phone soon. There will be growth at companies that can create consumer products and make information and entertainment available on a personalized level.

We continue to be really strong in terms of searches for chief executive officers and their direct reports for telecom and tech companies. Many employers also are revamping their sales-and-marketing organizations. Companies are scrutinizing chief financial officers more than in the past. The reason has a lot to do with the personal risk to CEOs and the board's fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. We are doing a lot more board searches to find people with certain direct skills. Boards members used to be fairly generic; a company would seek the "best athlete." Now companies want someone with financial acumen or marketing experience in northern Europe or technical insight about a financial institution. For example, you might find a software company that wants to attack the financial marketplace, so it hunts for a board member who came out of a major bank and understands paperless transactions.

Demand for people to work in Asia and India is taking off. A lot of large organizations are tapping into the Indian scientific or engineering community. They don't want to bring these people here. Instead, they are setting up labs or think tanks in India. Those typically will be run by people from home offices or corporate headquarters. Managing the human talent in these facilities is very different culturally from managing a typical American facility. Executives sent there must be able to understand and appreciate those cultures.

To position yourself, you must be in an organization that has the need and show an interest and perhaps be pursuing some external cultural endemic or advisory group. But in many ways, if this isn't a passion of yours or you aren't already doing it, it's almost too late for an executive to be looking for this type of job now.

About 50-50. Since things slowed down from the late 1990s, we have been doing searches for a No. 2 to jump to a No. 1 slot about half the time. For the other half, we look for people to make a lateral move. People will make this type of a move if their current company is de-emphasizing the importance of their job or if their boss is only two years older than they are and it's unlikely they'll get the top slot. They feel they are better off going somewhere where the person is 22 years older, and they will maybe get the top slot. Also, when you are recruiting for a Fortune 500 company out of a Fortune 50 company, you can take the No. 2 person and move them up to the No. 1 job. It's the other way around if you are going the other way, from a Fortune 50 job to a Fortune 500 job.

That job hunting isn't something that gets turned on and off. It's a life journey, and staying in touch with people who are of high quality and caliber is part of overall business networking. If you are interested in what someone else is doing, and they're interested in what you're doing, it isn't job hunting. You're simply contacting your circle of influence and staying in touch.

You should never put your head down, because as you get more senior in your career, it's from your external contacts and relationships that you'll get successes, such as distribution rights, an acquisition, new products, or being able to recruit the best talent and call their references to get the inside skinny on them.

I usually ask this after I have presented the opportunity to them. Then the question is, "Tell me why you think this opportunity is big, and why you think you can maximize it on behalf of the company." The answer tells me if they comprehended what I said and could quickly assimilate what needs to get done. If they can, I have a good shot on he or she being the right person. If they can't, they haven't been in that type of situation before and can't figure it out.

-- Ms. Capell is a senior correspondent for CareerJournal.com. She can be reached at frances.capell@dowjones.com .

From CareerJournal December 2004

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