(L-R) HUGH ROTH, DAN SEARBY, AND GREG BARBER AT ELLIOT’S 2017 “BREAK BREAD” EVENT
Dan Searby, Senior Vice President, has executive search experience including clients in consumer products/services, foodservice manufacturers, restaurants and retail. Before joining The Elliot Group, Dan built and led a specialized CPG, restaurant and foodservice manufacturer practice at a leading New York City-based executive search firm and consumer search boutique. He also had fifteen years of experience working with national chains at Coca-Cola.
You began your career in sales and marketing for a major Fortune 500 company. Why did you make the move to a boutique executive search firm?
A guy named Joe Cugine was the reason. Seriously, in 2005 I was an Elliot candidate for a PepsiCo search and Joe, who was then running Pepsi’s foodservice division, in his very direct manner, asked me why the heck I would consider working for Pepsi after 15 years with Coca-Cola? I decided he was right and that very same afternoon accepted a job in executive search, the other career path I’d been exploring. Executive search offered the opportunity to stay in the food and beverage industry and where my existing industry relationships and consultative, problem solving and client management skills would be highly transferrable. Executive search represents high stakes work where our candidates and clients are making life changing and company changing decisions and putting enormous trust in us. It’s work that really matters.
Name one industry trend from the last five years that you see as having the most impact.
Private equity ownership has transformed the corporate landscape and particularly the restaurant industry. With this has come a recruiting trend of cross-pollinating talent from other industries and a premium on finding candidates with strategic and consumer acumen who make data driven decisions. Candidates have to show more of a sense of urgency and ability to drive change. This is a fast-paced world where if you drive enterprise value you will directly taste the fruits of your labor. Most folks who go into private equity want to stay in this ecosystem and not return to the lumbering, big-corporate world. The new career opportunity metric is not the size of the company or your headcount, but the wealth creation potential.
What are qualities you look for in a candidate?
Humility and humor are a good starting point. Candidates should also be buyers and not just sellers. They need to be able to articulate what is most important to them near term and longer term and then critically assess how the specific opportunity at hand lines up against their personal career objectives.
The best candidates are “happy and not looking, but willing to listen.” Often, folks feel they need to respond to our pitches with either a “yes” or “no” but these are not binary decisions. Hopefully, we will get a chance to share information and provide candidates with more data points so they ultimately make a more informed decision on whether to first commit to the process and ultimately whether the career move makes sense. They should trust that we will be both highly discrete and also judicious in the time commitments they are asked to make. This requires that they make a small initial time investment in the process to gather these decision-determinant data points. I also firmly believe that having these more in-depth discussions usually provides for personal development and growth for most candidates.
What advice would you give to a junior level executive looking to make the move to a senior role?
First, read a lot, especially the Wall Street Journal, to develop a general management perspective beyond your functional area.
Secondly, have very clear near-term and long-term career objectives. One of my former managers said the toughest thing is knowing what the heck it is you want to do. After that, you can build a plan. This requires being somewhat assertive with one’s current manager in having a developmental plan that provides growth opportunities in your current role but also a willingness to take intelligent risks and make outside career moves when internal growth opportunities do not exist. Executives can stay too long in one company and “platform out,” though this is more of an issue in large, CPG companies than in hospitality or retail.
I would also recommend every upwardly aspirational executive read the book Who, by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. It has become a “go to” playbook for private equity in terms of qualifying and hiring “A” talent, which they define as going into every job with a clear sense of the business deliverables and having a strong results orientation and ability to quantify the results delivered. They are also looking for individuals who proactively manage their careers and make good career decisions versus being blown around by the winds of corporate change.
Finally, when you go for it, there will inevitably be failures. We talk to a lot of executives who are between jobs and I have shared that this feels like “going through the desert” but that it is in these periods of adversity that produce moments of grace and ultimately personal growth. Going through the desert is a humbling, faith-building experience and can often be a blessing.
What is your most memorable search?
I had the opportunity to do a good bit of search work for one of the early and leading players in the fast-casual restaurant segment. The CEO was a progressive thinker and highly demanding client and the Chief People Officer became and remains a very dear friend. Her nickname within her organization was “Mother Bread” and I learned a great deal from her. One wonderful metaphor she used is that “the best interviews are like dances,” where each person takes turns leading while both move in synch to the same music.
The company had a culture that promoted warmth, idealism and also a high level of strategic and analytical rigor. The CEO liked to say he wanted executives who could seamlessly toggle from 30,000 feet to sea level and dig into consumer and operational detail. We did a Chief Marketing Officer search for this client that had gone on longer than most and the spec called for a candidate from outside the restaurant industry who had both CPG and multi-unit retail experience. We had a finalist who was headed toward an offer when there was a “stop the presses!” moment with a new entry and 11th hour discovery of the ideal candidate. This candidate was an undergrad religion major who went on to get his MBA at a very “quant” business school, a unique right brain/left brain combination with its mix of humanism and analytics. He had worked in a leading specialty retailer and he and the CEO hit if off fabulously. I still remember the references from his peers, former boss and especially his former direct reports which validated what a talented and beloved marketing team leader and strong fit he was for our client. The many, many stars came into alignment and he had a long and impactful run at the company. It is incredibly satisfying when these “aspirational recruits” do come together.
We are a founder led company whose culture reflects Alice Elliot’s passion for the industries we serve and the importance of cultivating deep and meaningful relationships – which still counts for a lot in the hospitality industry – and operating with a high level of urgency in a hands-on manner. These values and personal qualities are not optional if you want to work at Elliot. We also have very deep understanding of the talent pool and first hand operating knowledge of the industries we serve and every aspect of our searches are executed by a team of consultants and not handed off to junior associates to do the leg work, which is what the big search firms do. Usually this boutique approach is nimbler, there is a higher level of quality control and ultimately is more effective from both a candidate and client perspective.
Candidates should also be buyers and not just sellers.