Trust in the Search Business: the Bowdoin Group

The Bowdoin Group is a mid-sized executive recruiting firm based in New England. Sean Walker is a partner at Bowdoin, and heads their Information and Media Division. We met over seafood at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central a few months ago.

I’ve always felt that executive search is one of those “perfect” trusted advisor businesses – like pharmaceutical reps, wealth managers and client managers in accountancies. Perfect in potential, that is; perfection is not the norm in any of those businesses, and far from it in some.

Sean and Bowdoin look like exceptions: they “get it,” and practice the principles of trust, as you’ll see.


Charlie Green: Sean, you just lost a big sale; you’re disappointed, but clearly not upset. What’s up with that?

Sean Walker: It’s not about the transaction, it’s about the relationship. We’ve got three other projects working in that organization, and they like us. This one just wasn’t right for them, hence not for us either.

Charlie: So how do you think about this business?

Sean: We don’t think of it as skills-based, and we don’t think of it as project-based. We have to have domain expertise – industry knowledge, networks and so on – but we equally well have to work the relationship. The most important thing we do – and often the hardest – is to approach this business strategically.

Charlie: Can you say more about what that means to Bowdoin?

Sean: It means some of what you write about; you never do a deal or a job or a project – you develop an ongoing relationship, which contains jobs along the way.

When we fail, it’s almost always because we started to follow our own agenda, falling in love with the results, the process. When we get it right is when we remember to listen and learn; to be a human capital advisor, helping them to build their organization.

And the funny thing is, the more you focus on the strategy, the better the tactical results happen to get.

Charlie: How do you deal with the fact that many clients are seeking you out as transactors, looking for a candidate, measuring your lead lists?

Sean: Some clients are like that, some are not, and some can evolve along with us. The client we just lost that project for is a great client – their sales guy wants us to partner with them to create a new organization.

And clients, just like us, can learn to behave more strategically. People can be very short-sighted, but if you take the time to understand the person you’ve got on the other end of the line, if you can get some one to be intimate and speak to you about their fears, you can solve not only the immediate issue in front of them, but you can understand both them and the company better. Then you can get to the core. And then it flows.

Charlie: You said it’s hard to keep focused; what are some of the pitfalls, or temptations, along the way?

Sean:  Oh gee, let’s see. Goals and targets, if you’re not careful. Clients that want to treat you transactionally, price-haggle, are short-term focused. An industry that, more often than not, thinks opportunistically–hopping from opportunity to opportunity.

Charlie: Where does trust fit here?

Sean: It’s all around. It’s the business, if you do it right. The fact that people let you in and give you that trust, it makes it all worthwhile.

Charlie: What do you say to those who say, “Yeah, that’s nice, but you’ve got to make money.”

Sean: They are so missing the point. This way of doing business is 100% more profitable – and it can make your job much easier. Because once you’ve proven yourself, the business comes back to you–you’re not always jumping from opening to opening.

If you take the time up front, it pays off all along the line, across multiple decision-makers. When we fall of the strategic trust wagon, that’s when our profitability goes wrong.

Charlie: Sean, it’s been a pleasure. Good luck, but I bet you don’t need it.

Sean: Thanks Charlie, it’s been a pleasure likewise.


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