You And Your Posse

Headhunter Kelvin Thompson talks about how — and why — to sell yourself as a team player.

Who he is: Senior partner, head of innovation, Heidrick & Struggles
His mission: To help companies find new ways to build leadership teams.

What's the state of the hiring market?

In the past three to six months, there have been more organizations looking for people to help them drive new business, new revenue, new opportunities. It's a shift in emphasis toward people who really understand how to do these things as opposed to just operational-style management.

What can you do to show you're that kind of person?

The danger is to talk about the great things your firm did without talking about what decisions you made. You have to understand and clearly articulate what you did as an individual to bring together the right team or what you did as a member in the right team. Then link what you've done to the achievements of the firm. It doesn't have to be just top-line revenue. It could be establishing the architecture that allowed the business to expand. But set up a clear cause and effect. You really have to drill that through. Everyone's nervous about hiring the person leading the ship who had nothing to do with the running of it.

This is linked to what's happening in the market. Instead of it all being about the CEO, CFO, or CIO, it's about how to effectively create an executive leadership team. We try to help clients create high-performance leadership teams rather than just find a high-performance executive.

Because the trend is to defer to the team, how do you take credit for your work?

We're not looking for Archimedes (although if we do find him, it's gold dust). Just answer, What was your contribution in that team? There's always the individual with the 75 great ideas. Every organization needs them. But if you're the one who sifts through all those ideas and forms the right team and drives the execution of it? Each of these is of equal value.

You have to be honest with yourself about where your strengths lie. Don't focus on the fact that you don't have certain strengths and have to pretend that you do. That's the one thing that will distract you from getting the roles you're really good at.

How do you overcome concerns about industry expertise when trying to get a job outside of the field you're in?

If you're the number-one company in your space, why would you want someone from a firm below you? You look for someone who's done it for a number-one company in another market. Companies have thousands of people with knowledge of the industry. They need people who can take the firm to the next level — leap into new markets, expand from 2,000 employees to 5,000. You might not see those skills in your vertical market. That's what I'd tell them.

Any books you'd recommend?

Topgrading, by Bradford D. Smart (Prentice Hall Press, 1999). It actually completely denigrates the executive-search industry. Putting that aside, though, I recommend it to clients, and it has been useful even for my own career. I also tell people they need to get their lives balanced, so I suggest John R. O'Neil's Paradox of Success (Putnam, 1993). If you reach the top of the hill and then realize you're lonely and barren, it's miserable.

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