Saving & Wasting Time

Article by Adam Pekarsky

Time. Not once, in 20+ years in the search business, has it been my friend. Sure, it may heal wounds and it may be money, but as Robin Williams noted, “time is the best teacher, unfortunately, it kills all of its students.”

It kills deals, too. Every time, time is undefeated. The more time the prospective client needs to consider our proposal, the more time a candidate needs to ‘think about it’, the more time between first interview and second, second and third, the more time involved finalizing the offer, scheduling the start date…all of it kills deals.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the dirty little secrets around here – the stuff we talk about when you’re not around – is that we often know who’s going to get the job very early in the search process, sometimes even before it starts. In fact, early in most searches I’ll ask the member of my team leading the mandate, “so, who’s going to get the job?” They almost always have an answer and they’re almost always right. Each search informs the next one; today’s runner-up is tomorrow’s victor. Every passive job seeker we meet for a courtesy coffee today is that much more easily found tomorrow. Not to say we’d ever cut corners – we never do – but we can work very, very quickly indeed if only you, and we, would let us. The irony? It isn’t usually our client that discourages speed; it’s us. For we feel dutybound to scour the earth, counterintuitive though that may be.

Counterintuitive because the realtor who shows the purchaser the perfect house on the first showing shouldn’t earn less of a commission than had they shown 20 homes. Arguably, they should earn more. The likely reason they got it right on the first showing isn’t because they’re lazy or lucky but because they’ve been driving around the neighbourhood for 20 years and they know the ins and outs of every home in the community. The pilot that gets paid for a 10-hour overseas flight doesn’t actually work the entire time, hands affixed to the joystick, eyes peering, steering the aircraft through the sky and across the ocean. But they sure earn their money in that nanosecond something goes wrong. They, like us to some degree, get paid for what they know, not solely for what they do. And do you feel somehow cheated out of your airfare when the plane lands early? So long as quality isn’t compromised, safety assured, I think we’d all prefer [the thing] be over sooner and we’d happily pay for it.

This is best illustrated by a story I first shared back in 2018. (One of the benefits of getting older is you get to tell the same story to the same people over and over again. I have a great friend who is so guilty of this that he starts every story with, ‘stop me if I’ve told you this before’ to which all the assembled invariably yell, “STOP!”).

Several years ago, we were invited, at the urging of a Board member, to meet the CEO of his company – let’s call him Ray – to present our credentials so that he might be suitably impressed to hire us to find him a much-needed General Counsel. At best, Ray was double booked and severely distracted the day we met; at worst, a wholly unwilling participant in a meeting he didn’t request. He allowed us four minutes to make our pitch (we thought we had an hour) and when he asked if that was doable, I confidently replied, “yes, but what will we do with the other three?” With that, we got hired.

A couple days later came the kick-off meeting with the entire executive team. Though this time we had more time, Ray’s mood was no bubblier. As I painstakingly explained our comprehensive search process and projected timelines, our weekly updating, thorough candidate assessments, pre-screening methodology and post-placement onboarding, he interrupted me and said, “cut the sh*t…if you’re any good, you already know who’s going to get this job so why don’t you just save us all a bunch of time and tell me.”

“But that would defeat the point of doing a search” I politely protested. “I mean, the point of a search is to, well, search and even once we arrive at a shortlist, we still have to narrow to a finalist, negotiate salary and assume the offer will be accepted…I couldn’t possibly predict who will get the job, there are way too many moving parts and variab…”. “Zzzp!” he snapped impatiently while raising a hand in the universal symbol that means ‘stop talking now.’ “Process bores me. Advisors advise! Have an opinion, young man!” he scolded.

Then it got really weird. As if in some old spaghetti western, he dramatically slid a pad of paper across the full length of the very polished boardroom table while his executive team nervously turned in unison to watch it screech to a halt right in front of me. Then came the pen, which travelled by air. “Now what yer gonna do is yer gonna write down the name of the person who’s going to get this f’ing job and Lynn over there, well, Lynn is going to seal it in an envelope and in a few months’ time, when all your fancy process is finished, we’ll be right here where we should’ve been all along. Whaddya say?

Conflicted, yet cornered, I obliged, scribbled a name, folded the paper, gave it to Lynn, who tucked it away and then guarded the envelope like an EY accountant at the Oscars. This was all very uncomfortable for we are hard-wired around here not to pre-judge or play favourites. It’s not our role to tell the client who to hire but rather to skillfully orchestrate a competition among several excellent candidates. Yet, in this case, I knew he was right. I did know who was going to get the job and, many months later, after running our full fancy process, and after having Ray assess five stellar options, the name I wrote down, let’s call him Chuck, accepted the offer. But, in that moment, on that day, during the standoff at the O.K. Corral, rather than express an opinion, circumvent our practise, and simply give Ray the name, I fell back on the urge to show process to justify value. What took three months could have taken three minutes. The outcome, and the invoice, would have been the same. And yet, I’d do it again. And again. As we do. Every time.

Therein lies the rub. As a firm that specializes in the search business, we are paid to be thorough. It’s right there in the definition. “Search” is defined as “to try to find something by looking or otherwise seeking carefully and thoroughly.” But if it goes on too long, you’re not so much searching as wondering. When a search is conducted without the constraints of time placed upon it, you are simply floating, untethered to consequence. Search requires gravity. Urgency. Something to be found. When our clients say, “oh, don’t worry, we’re not in a rush” we worry.

When you search for your car keys, your wallet, your dog, your reading glasses, there is always some panic and perseverance to it. You don’t just spend the weekend idly looking for Bella.

So, when a client recently wrote us, over a year into a search, and said “we are not in a position of imminent need at the moment…we are definitely interested in top-flight candidates but are not currently in a position where we have to hire just to make a hire, so the canvas can be targeted accordingly” it created a problem for us.

You see, we are in the Imminent Need business. A search without an imminent need is something else entirely. Realtors don’t usually list a home if the owners aren’t ready to sell it. Surgeons typically do not remove perfectly healthy organs. Lawyers are not commonly seen rushing up the courthouse steps absent a litigant. You don’t call 911 to help raise your children and you don’t do the drive-thru at a Michelin star restaurant. Time and search are inextricably linked. Yet, here we are, search consultants trying to navigate at times being called upon to canvas for top candidates even though the client isn’t actually hiring and, at other times, pressed for a name on the spot like a contestant on a game show. The adage of Parkinson’s Law holds true in either scenario: that work expands so as to fill the time allotted for its completion. If we only have four minutes to complete a task, we’ll try to do it in one, but it also follows that if there is unlimited time for its completion it will expand forever.

Another, less comfortable fact is that we know more about our clients – at least what people really think about them – than they themselves usually do. And oh how we wish we could just grab the odd client by the lapels and tell them that. “Trust us! This is as good as it’s gonna get!!”

And this is our pickle. If we move too quickly you think we’re cutting corners; and if you move too slowly the deal dies.

Time, you are a fickle mistress, indeed.