May 20, 2013 by Christina Hamlett
A Conversation with Catherine McGuinness
“Big jobs,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “usually go to the men who prove their ability to outgrow small ones.” There’s no question that employment is a prominent topic of concern – and conversation – in today’s unsettled economy. Hiring authorities want to know that they’re getting the best qualified candidates just as much as the latter want reassurances that they’re not jumping from the proverbial frying pan into an inferno that will extinguish the life out of them. The demanding role of an executive recruiter in the 21st century is to understand what both sides of the personnel equation are looking for and to work tirelessly to bring those results about. Catherine McGuinness, Managing Director of Preod LLC in Austin, Texas (http://www.preod.com) took time from her busy schedule to give us the inside scoop.
Q: Tell us a little about your background and your experience in executive search. What, for instance, attracted you to this field?
A: Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I relocated to London upon graduation from Fordham University. An advertisement for a research assistant with the London office of worldwide executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA) caught my eye. At that time, I had no perspective on or experience with executive search. However, the idea of matching talent with a company intrigued me. My introduction to executive search at RRA was multinational, inclusive of work for European and Middle Eastern corporations and afforded me opportunities to influence senior levels of client organizations about hiring decisions. This intellectual challenge had a great deal of appeal.
Returning to the US, my subsequent consulting work spanned global search firm Heidrick & Struggles and F50 Dell Inc. At Dell alone, I placed hundreds of executives and senior managers across the globe during a ten-year stint. I remain active today in executive search, serving corporations, non-profit organizations and higher education clients through my boutique firm, Preod Corporation. I have been recruiting for a long time because I enjoy helping clients solve problems by hiring the right leadership talent.
I like to think that my New York City roots coupled with consulting and a corporate human resources background offer a unique perspective through which to view the business challenges and character antics, including executive hires and fires.
Q: If an executive recruiter’s job description were written as a classified ad, what would it say?
A: Executive recruiters are consultants who are engaged by a specific company to find and encourage business executives to assume new leadership challenges. Executive recruiters research, check references and confirm that the candidate is who he says he is and can do what he says he can do. Executive recruiters also negotiate compensation packages and “close” the candidate. Closing means we make sure they show up for work.
A classified ad would likely require prior recruiting experience, negotiating skills, and some level of experience in the industry of the company needing the recruiter though equally important will be the personal attributes. Discretion really is the better part of valor. Candidates and clients alike count on recruiters to maintain confidentiality with regard to some very personal as well as professional information. Also, understanding a balance sheet, particularly the triggers that might impact the business of a client organization, is critical. How can a recruiter solve a business problem without a good sense of how that issue became a problem in the first place?
Q: What attributes are essential to be successful in today’s executive recruitment business?
A: While many recruiters aspire to advise and consult, the best recruiters I’ve worked with have become consultants as a result of being good recruiters, not the other way around. It’s about service, though that is more easily said than defined. Great service involves heavy upfront planning and engagement as well as going the extra mile in all things, resulting in a better customer experience for clients and candidates alike.
Good business practice is increasingly about expertise, too. In executive recruiting, this is a matter of gathering and communicating rock-solid information in a timely fashion in order to enable a positive, speedy and quality hire. Help a client recruit a talented executive and you help that company solve a business problem. That’s success.
Q: As someone whose experience has spanned a multiplicity of geographic regions, have you observed differences in leadership traits that vary from one country to another?
A: Having started my career in London, I was exposed to companies, and unique business challenges, across Europe and the Middle East. More recently, I helped staff leadership positions for Dell in Asia, Canada, South America and Europe. I’ve earned my keep recruiting executives with multi-national as well as global experiences. My observations have been that there can be differences in leadership expectations from one country to another, often reflecting nuances in cultures. These distinctions appear to be decreasing, however, in a growing, global economy. The number of leaders with the aplomb to maneuver successfully in a variety of cultures and communicate ably in more than one language is increasing — though not quite fast enough to satisfy the burgeoning demand. More problematic for recruiters may be the challenges presented by various regions. For example, China is only beginning to close the leadership gap resulting from a dearth of managers over multiple decades. Also, emerging and emerged markets are competing for finance executives with experience in international accounting standards.
Q: I’m curious about the name of your company. How did you choose it and what does it mean?
A: The name of my firm is Preod which stands for Professional Resources on Demand. My former business partner, who started the firm, worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) for years, many of them on the consulting side. PwC Consulting hired out experts to client organizations. My business partner appreciated the flexibility and cost effectiveness of this business model. Plus, the burgeoning category of “on demand” service offerings in the consumer market inspired an “on demand” aspect of consultants for hire. Hence the name. When I was considering Preod as business partnership, I wrestled with the unusual name as I thought about pitching a prospective client. As it turned out, answering questions about our company name enabled me to expand the dialogue into Preod service offerings. And, Preod’s unusual name also makes it stand out a bit. Not a bad thing when you are growing a consulting practice.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d like to offer to executives as gleaned from your experiences of being a professional recruiter?
A: The best executives identify what they want and go after it. This confidence is attractive, to a team, an investor, a Board of Directors. It is also helpful as that focus drives results. For example, the best deals I negotiated were those with executives who, early on, identified and communicated what they required—and stayed on point. Those deals were often quickly completed, too.
Q: In addition to the demands of your day-job, you have also added the title “published author” to your credits with the release of your novel, Emperors’ Clothes. What’s the premise and who is your book’s target demographic?
A: Emperors’ Clothes is a braid of intrigue and humor. A novel about a modern-day corporation—where a mob boss serves as executive recruiter, a ruthless general manager marks time according to her CEO-clock and a human resources leader fancies himself consiglieri in the CEO’s war room—will likely be of interest to anyone who works in, or has worked in, corporate America. They will be able to relate to the circumstances in Emperors’ Clothes and may feel like they ‘know’ some of the characters. Emperors’ Clothes is also a great read for anyone just starting out in the business world because it offers a peak into what happens inside many corporations and touches on some of the major themes that define the business world.
Having said that, Emperors’ Clothes is about being entertained. The business situations are addressed, briefly yet credibly, but humor is leveraged throughout. Thus Emperors’ Clothes, a novel where The Office meets The Sopranos, offers escape from the heavy lifting of the workday.
Q: In Emperors’ Clothes, you have a character named Sal Scruci who undergoes a career transition. How would you describe Sal’s leadership style and what do you believe will be the takeaway value for your readers?
A: Sal Scruci’s presence in Emperors’ Clothes created an opportunity for sharp contrast between what we know is evil with what we assume is good.
Although a typical mob boss, Sal is one of the more honest characters in the novel. He does not see the need to hide his intentions, to play politics. He does not toot his own horn, either. Sal always keeps his focus. For him, the focus is on money: How he can get it and what it can do for him. Money drove Sal into executive recruiting in the first place, when he usurped the business of a gambler who owed him “large”. And, money will keep Sal in the game as long as CEO Carol Himmler pays him handsomely to stock a revolving door of scapegoats required to attain the corporate perch to which she aspires.
Initially a little sloppy in transitioning to the recruiting business, Sal’s a quick study. Remaining focused on his endgame, he adjusted his approach. Not unlike what one might expect from a good general manager. Thereafter, Sal took a more tactful approach to influencing (based on his unique interpretation of “tact”). Still, if tact did not do the trick, Sal could rely upon the more primal techniques he found successful in his other life.
While you might not like his methods, where it concerns dead wood or underperforming assets, Sal moves the inventory, and quickly. The politically minded executives in Emperors’ Clothes, not so much.
Q: There is no escaping the pervasiveness of technology in the workplace. How has its presence impacted what you look for in candidates that will be called to fulfill a strong leadership role?
A: While the storyline of Emperors’ Clothes evolves with the digital age, self-serving characters Stewart Narciss and Carol Himmler generally like to wrap boardroom doors around their agendas, an imprimatur suggesting importance and value. Sal Scruci, the mob boss-cum-executive recruiter, counts on the anonymity of brick and mortar—as long as he is within striking distance of an exit. However, many of today’s successful executives would find boardrooms and other brick and mortar structures to be impediments. These real executives must learn to be persuasive from the President’s Club in airports around the world, while influencing customers and the workforce alike via tweets and Facebook postings. Those executives who keep up with the advances offered by technology, while successfully managing the new expectations wrought by these advances, are particularly attractive. Also, this evolving way of conducting business outside the office means that leaders who are able to build a business this way are often well known outside their organizations. Their influence extends into their industry. This is very appealing to boards and C-level executives building succession plans.
Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I’m a Tough Mudder. In fact, this is still somewhat surprising to me and I’m the one who subjected myself to ten miles of mud, ice, muddy water obstacles, 8-foot (and higher) wall climbs and multiple rounds of electrocution (yes, you read that correctly). Having completed this unusual and unique challenge with my ego (largely) intact, I have since found myself facing other challenges with more confidence and zeal. And, an inadvertent by-product of this muddy adventure was a fresh glow to my skin for a few weeks after the contest!
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: The hiring winds are picking up here in Austin. More recently, I have been working with start-ups in medical technology and robotics as they have been building out their respective organizations. That is challenging and fun work!
Additionally, I’ve outlined my next novel. In this book, Sal Scruci will continue his leadership development adventure. A reluctant, and unlikely, hero, Sal builds a successful executive search practice by developing his people and making common-sense business decisions. He also has to contend with demanding investors, cranky directors and prima donna consultants. All the while, Sal keeps his focus: It’s about the money.