April, 2002

Employers Look for a Little Salt

By Jim Leverette and Randy Neal

Jim Leverette and Randy Neal are partners with The Broadmoor Group, an international executive search consultancy headquartered in Dallas, Texas.

The ideal candidate for an executive leadership position looks a little different today than he or she did 12 months ago. For one thing, today’s top candidate wears a commanding looking business suit rather than jeans and well-heeled leather shoes rather than sandals. But the most important visible difference starts at the temples. The ideal candidate today has a little (and probably more than a little) salt running through his or her hair. This badge of experience and discernment speaks volumes to employers who are seeking sound leadership in turbulent times.

Indeed, in executive search today, gray matters.

This shift in corporate thinking has become abundantly clear over the last several months, as clients reiterate that they are seeking executives who are seasoned and have some hard-won notches on their shields. What are businesses trying to achieve by hiring veterans instead of the Generation X managers who drove much of the dot-com boom? They have several objectives in mind, including:

* Diversity. One error that plagued many dot-coms was a lack of diversity in management — not necessarily a lack of ethnic or gender diversity (though this may have existed in some companies) — but a lack of intellectual diversity. Too many dot-com managers shared the same interests, experiences and perspectives. Most were technophiles with little operational background. Many put a premium on creativity for creativity’s sake. Often, they didn’t know what they didn’t know and didn’t care to know it. To avoid that error, corporations and venture capitalists today are seeking managers who are not necessarily cut from the same cloth. In particular, they are seeking people who have played a variety of roles over the course of their careers and understand how a decision will impact all aspects of an organization – financial, operational, technical and personnel.

* Perspective. There’s a narrow line separating wisdom and folly and in challenging times corporations become more concerned about crossing that line than they may be during a boom. The path to wisdom usually comes through experience — sometimes through negative experience. “Through suffering, wisdom,” as the ancient Greeks used to say. More experienced managers often have been through their share of various tribulations such as recessions, restructuring or other trials by fire that have taught them a measure of judgment and insight and given them a broader perspective.

* Leadership. The definition of leadership and the qualities that make a good leader can be endlessly debated, but in the context of today’s executive search the term has a definite connotation. Corporate leadership today is defined as the ability to make a difference. Businesses are looking for individuals who have the vision, resolve and charisma to get things done and to turn a stagnant or negative situation around. The difficulty, of course, is determining who will be a good leader in a given situation. Obviously, leadership qualities are not reserved for the middle aged. Alexander the Great conquered the world in his twenties. However, corporations today are less likely to take chances. Employers are more comfortable handing over the reins to a candidate who has proven to be a difference maker in the past and proven it more than once.

All this is not to suggest that younger, Generation X managers are now out of the picture. Far from it. The dot-com boom and subsequent bust has provided many younger managers and entrepreneurs with a virtual “hands-on” master’s degree in business administration that will prove vital to their future success. They now realize the importance of operational fundamentals and appreciate the fact that management is a learned skill that can’t be absorbed on the fly. Combined with their technical skill and their vision, this experience will make Generation X managers formidable indeed on the next go-round.

In the meantime, however, salt and pepper rules.