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House Hunters – The Ampersand October 2023

October 2, 2023

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Dear Friends and Colleagues,


If you know me at all or have been a regular reader of this newsletter, then you know how much I love a good analogy. For me, describing what a thing is like is inexplicably easier than describing the thing itself. The beauty of an analogy is that not only does it illustrate how two things are alike, but it does so with the ultimate goal of making a point out of this comparison. And as someone who often finds himself trying to make a point, I rely on the trusty analogy like an old friend. See?


For many years – the 20+ that I’ve been in the search business, in fact – I have used the analogy of running a search being like building a house. The kickoff with the client equating to the initial sit-down with the architect, discussing the vision and the ultimate definition of success. The position specification describing the role akin to the construction drawings, that graphic representation of the end goal against which progress is measured and both client and service provider are held accountable. Ultimately, the greatest similarity resides in how the process has many twists and turns, requires great communication and patience, and without fail, can usually get done right, or get done quickly – almost never both.


Having just completed a year-long renovation to our home of 20+ years I am forthwith tweaking my analogy. Search is not like building a house. Rather, it is like renovating one. For in search, as with a renovation, we are walking into something that’s already been built – a company, a leadership team, a Board of Directors – and we are tasked with making a modification to that existing structure; built by someone else at a different time and place; tearing down walls and ripping open the proverbial drywall to see what lies behind.


And although we came out the other side of our renovation process intact – marriage, finances, sanity – it is not something to be entered into lightly or without eyes wide open. A search, too, can test a marriage; the one between client and consultant. Here are a few of the lessons I learned during our home renovation process that I plan to bring to my daily toil and that are sure to make me run a better business and my team run better searches.


Be clear about what you want before you start


It is critical that you start with a clear vision of the end goal. We ask the client in every kickoff meeting, “what does success look like?” and we challenge our client to articulate that vision to us. Just as those construction drawings become the roadmap for every trade who pops in and out along the way, so too does the position spec become our North Star, the document against which we benchmark every candidate and the accountability we impose upon the client. No sooner would I say to my builder, “I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I’ll know when I see it” should our client send us out into the market without a clear vision for what they seek. When the client starts making ‘on site’ decisions and modifications to the original spec, when the windows – or the competencies sought — move, the desired candidate profile shifts mid-course, that is when things go sideways, delays creep in and costs go up.


The lesson: Take the time, up front, to truly determine what it is you want and stick to the plan. (The other lesson: we should think about borrowing the concept of change orders!).


Pitch with honesty around timelines and price


When we started the renovation process, over a year before the first nail was struck, we ran a mini RFP process. Parking for a moment how fun it was to be the client, the one assessing the bidders, compared to being the juggling monkey, it was fascinating to receive the bids and interview the three builders. One, the most expensive, was also the incumbent with whom we had worked previously on a smaller bathroom renovation. The second, the least expensive, provided a laughably optimistic timeline that would have seen the entire job completed in a wholly unachievable 60 days. The third, the builder we selected, was priced in the middle, honest about timelines, an independent father-son firm, with deep roots to the local community and who viewed the relationship as a partnership based on trust, communication, and full transparency.


They assured us their trades were all meticulous (which they have proven to be), they were honest about timelines (roughly a year), and transparent about billing, providing a cost plus fee structure that allowed us line-of-sight on every supplier invoice and their management fee on top. Like our fee structure, where the more expensive the hire, the bigger the fee, so too would their management fee float with our, at times, undisciplined decision making and resulting scope creep. But, as with our firm’s approach to search, at no point did they foist the more expensive option on us simply to increase their fee; to the contrary, they were very focused on bringing the project in on budget.


The lesson: You can get it done right or you can get it done fast. We choose right, and so should you. The other lesson? Incumbents can be unseated so take nothing for granted.


Trust the experts


Our firm has led over 1000 successful searches. We know what we’re doing. And while our client’s input is critical, particularly at the front end as we develop the position spec, and the back end when interviewing candidates, all the stuff that happens in the middle is really our domain. Similarly, those renovating my domain didn’t need me to drop by the site every day and ask why they were using this or that, so long as the house generally looked like the one in the drawing, I was happy.  


The lesson: you hire builders to build, and advisors to advise.


Trust the process


If you watch those home improvement shows like House Hunters you are led to believe that everything happens in a very sequential, linear fashion. In fact, many of the stages of a renovation appear to happen ‘out of order.’ You have to trust the process and know that things are happening in a certain order for a reason. Similarly, in our work we often say that ‘we won’t let the process tail wag the results dog’; if a superb candidate appears on day three of the search, we won’t spend the next six weeks engineering a short-list around that candidate simply to show how hard we worked.


The lesson: As the client it’s your absolute prerogative to ask questions but you’ve hired an expert for a reason; let them do their work.



Get out in front of bad news quickly


Things are not going to go as planned. Accept it. In a renovation, unexpected discoveries and complications are the rule, not the exception. In a search, maybe the story doesn’t quite resonate with the market in the way the client had hoped. Perhaps the finalist candidate turns down a great offer, despite all efforts to the contrary. We are serial over-communicators, picking up the phone and relaying feedback to our clients, not always what they want to hear but what they need to hear.


The lesson: Resist the urge to ascribe blame or dwell upon what went wrong and instead focus on the solution and the way forward.


Be thankful and acknowledge good work; it will motivate the crew


I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like being told they are doing a good job. It costs nothing and it takes no time, yet it can motivate like nothing else. Relatively early on I sent the following note to the dad of the father-son owned and operated construction firm:


I hope you are doing well. I just wanted to pass along how impressed we have been with your crew. Nick is a superstar and the boys he has working for him on site are equally professional and talented guys. Back-office support from the entire team has just been a first-class experience. Though the pricing got away from us a little bit, much of that is self-inflicted. We are very excited about the progress, and we believe the finished product will be truly special.


I just wanted to pass along my thanks to the team and let you know that they are representing the brand really well. 





I received this reply:


Hey Adam


Thanks so much for the note, we have a fantastic team it is so nice to get positive feedback.  I am very proud of our team and will make sure I give them this feedback.  FYI, they feel the same way about you guys’ best customer ever they say.


The lesson: Be praiseful and be a good client. A relationship between a client and a supplier need not be adversarial. To the contrary, it can be quite enjoyable resulting in long-lasting friendships. Communicating positive feedback when warranted also allows for easier difficult conversations which will inevitably arise and, when they do, will be responded to with greater care and a stronger motivation to please, than had the positive feedback not been provided before things went sideways.


Know that many things get solved without the client ever knowing it


In any client-supplier relationship, the old adage applies. Be like a duck. Calm on the surface but always paddling like the dickens underneath. Service providers are constantly solving problems for their clients, finding workarounds, troubleshooting and MacGyvering solutions to problems you didn’t even know existed. In our world, the client gets a tidy Friday afternoon update report, concisely summarizing the events of the week that was. In no way does that report accurately capture all the frantic effort that went into the weeks’ toil.


The lesson: Be a duck.


It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish


Ever had a great meal at a restaurant, with superb food and service, only to have to wait an exceedingly long time to receive the bill? That delay likely dropped the tip a point or two and almost certainly diminished the overall experience. In a home renovation, and in a search, the closer you get to the end, the more the little things matter. The precision and patience with which those closing details are handled can make or break the client experience.


The Lesson: Finish strong.


Know it will be worth it in the end


I never could have, nor would have, undertaken a project as multifaceted as a home renovation by myself. Not only am I not handy, but the scale and complexity of the job simply did not allow for it. Same goes with a search. There’s more to it than meets the eye; the judgement, skill, and perseverance required to do the job flawlessly. In the end, our renovation experience not only made me a better house, but it made me a better business owner, and search professional, too. The patience and customer focus, the ability to troubleshoot, not lose your cool, to understand problems arise, and get solved, to know we’re all just trying to do our best, make a living, maintain a reputation, and go home to our families.


The Lesson: Running a search is like renovating a house.