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The Hunt for Digital Talent

Landing the right executive for a fast-paced e-commerce business often requires a slowdown in the search process

Demand for experienced e-commerce executives is greater than ever. As a result, both multi-channel and pure-play digital businesses are facing new challenges in their attempts to recruit and hire senior-level e-commerce talent. We talked recently with Gene Manheim, a Managing Director of Herbert Mines Associates, the leading executive search firm specializing in C-suite, senior-level and corporate board placement, about the most effective ways to recruit talent. Gene’s practice focuses on senior-level searches for retail, fashion and consumer companies. He also leads the firm’s e-commerce/digital practice.

Q. What types of executives are now most in demand at E-commerce companies?

A. It varies. Some companies want someone with a lot of experience, who is versed in all things digital. Others care more about expertise in a product category, and if that person comes with e-commerce experience that’s a plus, but not a must. We also look for a very successful track record and whether the individual is able to function well in the fast-paced e-commerce environment. He or she must be very hands-on, results-driven and a team builder, and be able to make good, quick decisions without always having 100% of the information on which to base them.

Q. How do you approach candidates who are not necessarily looking for a new opportunity?

A. We approach them very thoughtfully, and take it a little slower in the early stages. Instead of calling people and asking if they are interested in a particular opportunity, I will say, “Are you interested in seeing if you are interested?” The goal is to capture attention, to explain the exciting nature of the role and how it’s going to impact the whole company, and get them, as the dialogue progresses, to seriously consider the opportunity. We want to give candidates the room to think things through without feeling like they are being pressured. Often what’s most important to someone successfully embedded in a company — the person I refer to as “happy, well paid and not looking”— is whether the new opportunity is going to be compelling enough to get him or her to leave a good current position and company.

Q. How do you counsel companies to interact with a candidate?

A. We counsel our clients not to move too fast when they first meet someone, and to be cognizant of the fact that the candidates in the early going are exploring the opportunity, so it’s really a two-way exploration. For example, in a first meeting it is not a good idea to start drilling a candidate about his or her resume and desire to join the company, when the candidate may not have made that decision yet. We also tell clients to not be insulted if after the first meeting the candidate doesn’t seem to be champing at the bit for the position. We will say “This was like a first date. They have a job, a family, a home a thousand miles away. This is a big step for them. So don’t extinguish the possibility that this could be right simply because they are not yet as excited as you would like them to be.” We also urge companies to help us be more creative in pursuing talented candidates. In one case, a candidate being pursued by a publicly-traded company declined interest, so we asked if he’d be willing to have lunch with a member of the Board of Directors who would travel to his city. He agreed and at the end of the lunch, the candidate said it wouldn’t hurt to have another conversation. He’s now their CEO.

Q. Has the battle over digital talent changed compensation packages?

A. Some companies will step up and be as aggressive as they can be to get someone to join, but most aren’t going to turn their compensation models upside down. If a candidate were to sit with arms folded and ask for a doubling of base, 100% bonus and 2% of the company, the client company would just move on to other candidates.

Q. Has the recession made job candidates less willing to switch employers or relocate?

A. Absolutely. The DNA of the candidate pool has changed. Five years ago, people would get more excited when they heard about a new opportunity: “I’ll sell my house, my spouse will find a new job” was not an overly optimistic reaction. Now they hesitate more. They are valuing the job they have more. They’re afraid of the last-in, first-out phenomenon—that they could move to a great job, but suddenly there could be a scaling back of the work force even at the senior levels, with the new person at greater risk. Plus you have more pessimism about finding employment in the new city for a trailing spouse.

Q. Has the housing market been a stumbling block for recruitment?

A. The housing market has definitely thrown a wrench into the process. People immediately question whether they can relocate if they have a house to sell. They question how long will it take and whether they’ll take a financial hit which they can’t afford to do. But a company might give a signing bonus to cushion the blow. It’s open for discussion.

Q. With all the reasons to hesitate, how do you get people to make a move?

A. Our interaction with a candidate is different today. We have to understand that the issues I mentioned — last in/first out concerns, housing, trailing spouse — are creating more anxiety than they did five years ago. This makes the more nuanced approach we previously discussed all the more relevant when contacting potential candidates. What we’re asking them to consider is more of a big event and potentially complex than it would have been pre-recession. We try to be more sensitive to the candidate’s situation, to respect their concern. And, we explain that we believe if they investigate the opportunity, they will find it very compelling.

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