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Episode 179: Relauncher Advice From a Former Top Executive Search Professional, with David Boehmer

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Episode Description

David Boehmer is the founder of career management advisory firm Banff Advisors. Prior to launching Banff Advisors, David headed up the Global Financial Services Practice for Heidrick & Struggles. David returned to the U.S. in 2017 after three years in the London office where he also led the Financial Services Practice in Europe and Africa, as well as senior client engagements across the sector. With his deep background in executive search, David gives us the "insiders" view, including what actually happens in executive searches and how best to position yourself to be considered.

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Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:00:00] Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today we welcome David Boehmer, founder of career management advisory firm, Banff Advisors. Prior to launching Banff Advisors, David headed up the global financial services practice for Heidrick & Struggles.

David returned to the US in 2017 after three years in the London office, where he also led the financial services practice in Europe and Africa, as well as senior client engagements across the sector, including banking, payments, asset management, and FinTech. With his deep background in executive search, David gives us the insider's view, including what actually happens in executive searches and how best to position yourself to be considered. David, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

David Boehmer: [00:01:11] Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to be here today.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:01:13] Well, we're excited to speak with you and let's start with a discussion about the executive search industry, which many find mysterious.

Can you tell us a little bit about it? What types of companies are in the industry? How do they work and how do they make their money?

David Boehmer: [00:01:29] Yeah, for sure. And it's a great question to start with because it's important so that people understand motivations and quite frankly, where people spend their time, where they make their money to your point.

So the first way to sort of slice the industry is between what's called contingency and retain search. Contingency firms are paid when a placement is made. They tend to do junior to mid-level work and companies as employers often hire many recruiters at once for the same role, sort of a first one back wins the prize.

Those types of firms tend to feel more often like they are" working for you" because actually trying to place you, they're trying to find a place for you. It's how they get paid. That said they tend to be quite reactive. That is they tend to be less influential in shaping the role, shaping the minds of the hiring manager.

It's more reactive to the need.

On the other side, you've got retain search firms, which are often some of the big firms that you read about, and these are paid a retainer and they're paid whether there's a place or not. Searches that go to retainer tend to be more senior, often CEO board C-suite, they're often confidential or highly sensitive, and the process-rigor advice that those consultants give is almost as important as landing the candidate itself.

They tend to be more process and research heavy and take more time on those elements. So it's much more than let me just find you a warm body. And so for a candidate or as an executive or job seeker, it's harder to get the attention of retain search consultants, unless they have something live or relevant. You often will feel you're being ignored and no one answers me. It's that they've got 10, 15, 20 searches going on at once they're trying to work through with the client. You know, when I was in that seat, I received five, six cold calls a day, about 10 emails a day, another 10 LinkedIn a day. If I took each of those and took time with each of them, I actually could never win a search, which means I'd never be useful to any of those people.

So that's retain and contingency. You then have another way to split the big firms, which we often call the SHREKs: Spencer, Heidrick, Russell, Egon, Korn Ferry, as your SHREKs. I didn't get that until I moved to London. And then the boutique firms, and often boutique firms are people that worked at one of the SHREKs that spun off to do their own thing.

Then even within the big firms or boutiques, you have areas of specialization. And I think that's important to really understand. We'll talk about that probably later. Just because you know someone or a consultant at a Heidrick or a Spencer does not mean that Heidrick and Spencer know you, that is, we tend to have this sort of franchise within larger firms. People tend to focus on specific areas, specific functions. And so don't make assumptions that everyone knows you. Or even that if you know Bob or Jim or Sue or Sally at a firm that they're the right person for you to have a relationship with.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:04:12] Very helpful. Thank you. And you just mentioned the SHREKs and then the boutiques, the specialist companies. Are there certain firms that have particularly great reputations? What makes the SHREKs or the top boutiques the best ones? Is it their clients? Is it the way they approach the search? Is it the way they find the candidates? How does that part work?

David Boehmer: [00:04:44] Yeah, it really is. And I was on the management committee of Heidrick before we worked on this a lot. It's in the end, as much as you want to build a brand as a firm in certain firms, certainly have certain cultures and types of people, et cetera. But in the end, what distinguishes one from the rest is really the individual consultant. There are certain partners, certain consultants at the boutiques at the big firms who are well known and exceptional in their specific areas.

And so, where one of the firms might be amazing for one type of candidate with a certain kind of background, that doesn't mean that's the right place for another, that is in terms of the types of searches they tend to do. So it really comes down with the individual and on the individual level, what does good look like?

Good often is time and seek, it's a kind of industry, the longer you're in this space, the better and the more networked and the busier you are. People that tend to have process, that really think holistically about what the map of town looks like. And then, people that have built a brand through all this, there are sort of those that are known as the CEO whisperers, or the board whisperers or the FinTech expert or whatever it might be. You really tend to build a brand in a specific area. I'd say for an individual and your listeners here, some consultants really do take the time to get to know candidates without having to search for them, sort of that proactive get to know them.

It's a good thing. It sounds like a good thing, but actually if someone's doing that non-stop and never winning searches, they're not useful for you. So I think being aware, there's this constant balance of spending time winning searches and executing those as well as trying to get to know people proactively.

And it's a tough balance.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:06:20] Got it. So let's talk about this, the relauncher piece and executive search, because traditionally relaunchers have rarely been featured on a slate of candidates presented to an employer by an executive search firm. They have in the past been regarded as too risky. So, I'm wondering whether you see that changing and if so, how?

David Boehmer: [00:06:48] Absolutely. I think, so first of all, it is a tough avenue. I'm not going to lie about that. And it is a tough avenue because generally it's a risk averse industry at the top. You're going to do what your clients want you to do. And most clients don't pay to take big risks for them and they pay to know and get the safe choices.

Now, let me give you a couple of buts. Gaps. You mentioned gaps. When I started the industry 20 years ago, if anyone even took a month between jobs, it was critiqued and judged. Sabbaticals weren't a thing. There was a thing that crazy Euro's, Australians and Canadians did. This whole notion of taking time and taking gaps and the acceptance strange enough really started to change, I'd say, after the financial crisis. And, what I advise people who have whatever reason to have a gap, they've taken time to be with family, whatever reason they go to travel is, own it.

I think it's much more accepted and not viewed as a mark as it once might have. So I think certainly there's an evolution in terms of how gaps are perceived by both search consultants, as well as hiring managers that do help here.

The other thing to be mindful of is, executive search does tend to do on the retain side, does tend to do more senior searches. And so, I think it is important that you're speaking to the search people that do the right searches for you. And so whether you're a relauncher or not, you have to be speaking to the right firm that has the right level of work. That hasn't changed.

And, the more senior you go, the less risk averse someone is. You're doing a CEO search. You want someone who's done it and done it recently and has been successful. The more junior you get, the more willing firms are to take risks. So I think that's something to be aware of as well. The piece to me, that's the greatest chance and I'm sure we'll spend more time talking about this, because the thing I think makes the biggest difference is vouching.

The thing that makes the biggest difference for a search firm and the perception of risk is if I talked to Larry or Jim or Elizabeth, and she says, “This person's amazing.Trust me, David, they're great.” I'm going to introduce them. You know, we all pretend we're great at interviewers and I'm sure we're great interviewers and we're fine at assessing. In the end, I'm going to feel most confident about presenting someone and putting my name on them. Because someone I trust has said, "They're good."

By the way, there's a whole negative side of that relative to biases and perceptions, et cetera. But getting into that critical "they're good" list with the right people. That is going to absolutely make the biggest difference in terms of swaying a search firm's willingness to put you forward and willingness to put their name on you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:09:17] Right. So just a couple of comments. So in your discussion about gaps, the whole reason that we work at iRelaunch with companies to create return to work programs, and why many of them traditionally, and still are, structured as what we call returnships where there's an internship, is because there was risk attached, perceived risk attached to hire a relauncher.

But as time has gone by more companies have these programs, they've been running longer. The conversion rates of people who are in the programs to getting hired when the programs complete are high and consistent. So we're starting to see some of that risk-averse stance go away, on the part of employers, but it has been a process and it's occurred in a timeframe of over a decade.

So, we see it from that perspective and I would totally expect the executive search business, and especially as you're saying, as it gets more senior, to be slower on the uptake than some of the companies that we work with that have these programs.

David Boehmer: [00:10:35] I agree, and I'm not sure that the intermediate gatekeepers, the search firms, the recruiters, et cetera, are as aware of some of those successes.

So even advice I'd give you and your colleagues is, how to make sure that filters down to the search firms that they recognize these things are going on, and actually the conversion's great and people are doing well. I certainly didn't know that actually until the last several months since I started working with organizations and groups and recognizing that.

So that would be my advice, make sure that filters to the search firms to your point, because they're a little later on it. And I mentioned owning it, it's interesting, it's not what I do write resumes, but I look at resumes all the time and more often than not, and I think I never really took real note of until recently, if someone left to spend time with family or spend time, for whatever reasons they left, often they didn't put that in their resume.

It was sort of a hidden thing. You had to do the math on the dates to figure out there's a gap there. And then it led to someone asking a question that led to feeling almost that you were admitting something. My personal advice is, own it. I mean own it and put it on your resume.

And I know we've spoke about that before too, but it is certainly still, I think people almost sort of hide it and it gets to the point of, I have to admit that I took this time doing something different and certainly is not time off. Own it. And I think people are interesting for the interesting stories. And all these gaps, all these, whatever the gap might be, has a story to it.

I find personally when I interview people, the stories that people bring to the table make them who they are. So my personal advice is just own it and put it out there rather than having this strange, or I have to do the math on your years and ask you what you did. Just be up front with it.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:12:13] Yeah, I totally agree with you. And it's a great point. I'm glad you're also saying we should let the search firms know more about these conversion rates, because at iRelaunch, we work with the Society of Women Engineers on a very big multi-company return to work initiative and we've got 33 companies involved so far, and we track a lot of data.

Hundreds of people who go through each of these companies as well, 23 of them so far have launched their own return to work programs. And the conversion rate is 86%. The Wall Street firms that we work with, which, most of the major Wall Street Firms have a return to work program and so do the related financial services companies and rating agencies.

And we're seeing there also conversion rates on average of over 80%. So the record is consistent and strong and we'll have to work on making sure the search firms know about that. So, I'm going to put that down as something for iRelaunch to work on. David, can you walk us through a couple of success stories that you've been involved with directly of relaunchers returning after a career break?

David Boehmer: [00:13:34] Sure. I think the first admission is we're working on it, right? There's a lot of working on it. There's a lot of figuring out what actually sways decisions, experimenting, playing different things. Where we've had success, and I've had success with helping people, and we tend to split this into phases, but the first phase is really the front end that is, rebuilding a brand story and narrative.

Getting that part right. So there's been a great deal of success and just helping turn, how someone speaks about what they've done, how they speak about what they can do, want to do, what they're good at, how do we start reposition their brand when they're in the room, repositioning their brand when a not in the room, which is more often than not, we're making decisions on them based on a quick click on a LinkedIn profile.

There's been actually I think, quite a bit of success of reshaping that. Where we're still working on it and playing with the different avenues is that next step, right? So you've got this brand, you've got the package. Now, what and where does the networking occur? The search firms we've just talked about, it's still a tougher slog because they're not motivated. They're not incented quite frankly, to be presenting often unorthodox candidates. The return to work programs you mentioned, I think certainly so far have been where the sidewalk’s moving, right?

There's an institutional sort of set up there, it makes a great deal of sense. Think that when I've seen the greatest opportunity to really sway decision makers' willingness to present someone back, I put their name on someone. It's, I call it vouches, we can call them referencing, but it's someone that they know that they respect who says, "Jim, Harry, Sue is fantastic. They're good."

And then I know that has all kinds of other mentioned bias issues with it, but the truth is that is the biggest thing. I can write a 10 page assessment. I can interview for hours. Maybe my client reads it, maybe not, but in the end if I say, "This person thinks they're good," and there's a mutual sort of respect and credibility there, that's the part that sways it.

And so where we've spent a great deal of time along with the return programs along with really working on the narrative bit, is really building out that whole vouching network either from existing networks and going back to those, like cracking the head open of who you spend time with, who sees you in action to creating opportunities, to serve as advisors, to be seen in action and to build that whole population of people that will vouch for you, and then ensuring that they know they're allowed to give your name, they know how to describe you, they know how to to describe what you want.

If you meet someone and they like you, that's a drop pass. That's a tie. That's not a win, that person, that vouch that we're talking about needs to have your packet. They need to have three bullets, one bullet of who you are that hits all your beats.

The second bullet of what you're good for, that hits all the beats. And the third one is what do you want to do? That is not some general sort of broad in the sky description. It's very specific that someone can act on.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:16:22] Wow. So David, you're talking about something that we recommend for people when they are looking for a role directly at a particular company, they apply, then they find someone inside the company, or they find someone who knows someone, and that person vouches or gives a recommendation. Their resume gets elevated and the process goes from there. So are you saying something slightly different? They almost have to be coached or told how to talk about it. And so when you're asking someone to give you a reference, you need to almost give them like a script or something?

How does that work?

David Boehmer: [00:17:02] I've asked what are mistakes that relaunchers or job seekers make, and it's going to sound more negative than I applied, but it's relying on hope. And what I mean by that, I'm not saying be lacking hope, but is hoping that people understand what you do.

Hoping that they connect non-obvious dots, hoping that they know they can give your name to someone. It's incredibly human nature to not give someone else's name away. You have to be explicit. So you need to be explicit that that person, those people who've seen you in action, that they know they're allowed to give your name.

One. Two, you have to be explicit and hand them the keys to who you are and the way to articulate you, because you hope that they can do that well when you're not in the room. It's a lost battle right off the bat. And then the question of what do you want to do? Everyone cringes.

It's the worst question to be asked. It's miserable because you don't know, or you have 20 things you want to do. You need to still have an answer to that. You might have 10 answers in your pocket, and you've got to figure out which one to pull out for that situation. But those two things you have to have a tight answer to.

And so, when thinking about those vouches, those key vouches, one way to think about it is not only who you see in action, but who's getting calls from recruiters and search firms, because maybe they're more obvious they haven't had a gap, or they've made some moves with recruiters, or they tend to just to be a branded name, or there's someone who's doing what you'd love to be doing.

Those are the people you need to reach out to. Make sure they know they have permission to give your name, make sure they know exactly how to articulate you in quick bullets. Because when the search firm calls them and they're not interested in that opportunity, the second thing that search firm’s going to ask them is, "Would you recommend them?"

When I was in a prior life in search, 70% of my searches, if not more were solved, not because I called someone directly, but because I called someone who suggested someone to me, because my confidence in that person was always greater because of that vouch that I received.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:18:55] Excellent advice in general, as well as for the executive search context.

So thank you. Can you talk to us about how this can happen with a relauncher when they've taken a really long career break? You mentioned putting yourself, creating opportunities for you to be an advisor. So are you saying there's a longer process here and if you had a long career break, you have to have some sort of a current or newer experiences to create those references, or would you say, in your former role, be interested in hearing a reference from someone's boss from 14 years ago? How do you look at that?

David Boehmer: [00:19:44] I would take a meeting with someone because that person's now a CEO, they're important. They say, "Hey, you have to meet those individuals". I would take the meeting, even someone from 14 years ago if it's the right person, the right credibility, the recruiter or the search consultant will meet the person at their request, and spend time with them. That's fine. That's one piece of it. That's again, back to me, that's a draw. That's not a win, but okay. That's step one. So I think it's very useful, you'll at least get in the door with that.

What you were likely not to achieve with that, I think per your point, is the search consultant comfortable and confident that, did they have the right read, the more current read that they can actually put their name on you? So I think in that avenue again, you're hoping that someone will be able to assess you, not everyone's great at assessment, they do this for a living.

So while you're getting the doors open with that 14 year ago reference vouch, I think it's important to also have and figure out creatively, who's more current. Maybe it's not for profit situations you're involved in, it was organizational as a group, whatever it might be, who now who still has some credibility has seen you in action?

Even if you think it's a small thing, it doesn't matter. Just someone that can say to that intermediary, "Nope, they're good. They work hard. They're smart to put them in any, whatever it might be." You just need to... it's the Santa Claus list, are you on the good list or the bad list? You can get on the good list because once you're on the good list, you're good, and they're gonna introduce you.

And I think the other piece is there is a bit of a game here and there's a long game. People put their heads down and think, I work hard for 20 years and good things will come to me. That's not how it works. You need to be constantly relationship building.

And so, as you're starting to come back as you're relaunching, you're getting to know some of the search firms, find out if there's a way you can help them. Maybe you can introduce them to some people that they would find useful. Maybe you are a source because through your personal connections, whatever, you have ideas of things for them. Maybe you can serve as an advisor, as a mentor, as a coach, to some of whatever it might be.

Find ways to be seen in action. Clearly, it's an obvious statement. People are going to be more comfortable if they've seen you in action.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:21:50] So if you're volunteering on a nonprofit board or you're very active in that organization for a period of time, and you're working with other people who are getting paid, then that would be perfectly legitimate.

David Boehmer: [00:22:11] Absolutely. And, obviously, usually people are gonna choose nonprofit organizations and boards will be part of it because they're passionate about the cause or passionate about what the organization does. I'd say another way to think about it is, who else is on that board? If there are people on that board who are connected and maybe they're current execs in certain environments that you would love to be in.

They're going to see you in action in that boardroom. They're going to say, "Oh shoot. She does, he does actually a really great job." So I think you can be even strategic. And I know that's often not the purpose of not-for-profit. You always want to be passionate about the cause and what you're trying to do.

But if you're thinking about your career and thinking selfishly, which you're allowed to do here, is be strategic about who else is on that board and what that does for you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:22:50] Right, right. Totally agree with that. So let me just turn the tables a little bit and ask you about how to get into the executive search industry as an employee, what if a relauncher wants to relaunch into executive search?

What makes them an attractive candidate to work at one of these companies or the boutique firms?

David Boehmer: [00:23:13] Yeah, sure. I think something to be mindful of is there's many levels and titles, et cetera, et cetera. But if you really sum it down, you're going to have the revenue generators, and then those that support the revenue generators.

And so the partners and consultants are getting hired in, generally, you're only going to get hired in if the perception is you can bring revenue right away, you can bring searches in relationships, et cetera, probably because you've done search before or because you're so well networked and a who's who that people would just trust you.

That's going to be, I think a tougher level for relaunchers to come in. Then the next level is those that support the partners. And by the way, I grew up as a researcher, I started as a researcher. I moved up through every rank, the organization, and that's doing research. Then it's starting to make phone calls, trying to get to know the candidates and the clients, the network. You sort of build and grow. I would think, unless someone really does come in with the ability to drive revenue right away, these great relationships, et cetera. I think it's a wonderful business to start at. Firms call it different things, associate, engagement manager, analyst, whatever it might be, work for a partner who knows how to develop talent, learn the craft, build credibility within rebuilding a network, and then you can move up quite a bit.

And the thing to be mindful of, some of the search firms do a great job of promoting from within and some don't. So being cognizant of who does that, who does that well, and then within that, some partners are really well-known for mentoring and bringing people up while others don't. But, I think it's the kind of industry, once you are at the partner consultant level, you can work from anywhere, you set your own hours, right? It's a service business. So you are a little bit responsive to clients and that can be odd hours at times. But generally, you kind of run your own show. So I think it's a wonderful business for the right people with the right mentality. You enjoy people, you like figuring people out, but it is a situation where I would advise starting at the non-revenue level, learning the craft, building credibility, because it's less likely you're going to get pulled in on the revenue generating partner side.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:25:07] Right. Great advice. David, we're finishing up right now and I want to end by asking you the question that we ask all of our podcasts guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something we've already talked about today.

David Boehmer: [00:25:24] I'll nail this down again. I know I've said it already, but it's a part that I think we get afraid to ask for things, it's be explicit. You have to be explicit. Don't assume things. Don't hope things, give someone permission to give your name, be explicit. You can give my name for searches, go for it.

Have your narrative tight. So you're handing the reader or the listener answers to their checklists. What do I mean by that? Anyone looking at LinkedIn, by your resume, has a checklist they're looking to answer. It's either literally a piece of paper on their desk or it's in their head. And if they can't find answers to that checklist quickly, they're going to swipe you to the next LinkedIn, right? Or swipe to the next resume, whatever it might be.

And so how you design your resume, your bio's, your narrative, how you speak about it. Think about what industry are you in? What functions are you in? What have you done? Achieved? And that's kind of it. It's usually three or four things, and make sure that's pretty explicit.

Don't hope they can go find it within the bio somewhere. So handle the checklist, be tight on the answer of what you want to do, even if you have no clue, even if you have no clue, fake it. Right? Have 10 answers in your pocket. Figure out what the right one is in that moment. You've got to give them something, you've got to give them a clue.

And then leverage those vouches. We talked about it again. If you don't have them find them and convert them, that's going to be the difference. I hate to say it. It's probably not how you interview that will ultimately get you the job. It'll get you in the room. The big difference is someone that really vouches for you will back you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:26:48] Terrific advice, David, thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us how people can find out more about your work?

David Boehmer: [00:26:56] Sure. We built a bit of a platform called, it's a blog site, called It's talent, T A L E N T, dash, beta, B E T A dot com, where we have a number of different contributors that are giving a little bit of the inside game inside thought. Some of the things I mentioned today are written, there are various posts and we'll keep that going.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Very good. Thank you so much.

David Boehmer: My pleasure. Real, real fun today.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break.

I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to And if you liked this podcast, be sure to rate it on Apple podcasts and your favorite podcast platform, and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media.

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