Choices: ExecuNet & NETSHARE

Interesting subject to tackle. I was inspired to work on this “choice” dilemma twice in three days—On a Friday, one of my CFO readers asked me about the various senior executive subscription groups. On Sunday, we had a guest minister whose sermon was about choices. Interesting segue here–Since many executives seem to approach job hunting like the “brand equity” of their religious or denominational choice (“Please don’t talk to me about another way–I’m not going to listen. My way is the only true way”) this might be a bit like (attempting to) convince a Catholic to become a Methodist. Or Baptist to LDS. Or …enough of that.

My CFO reader (really smart guy–USMA grad and MBA/CPA) asked me about one of the online senior executive membership groups–a noisy latecomer to the scene (obnoxiously noisy and very late), that has been spending a lot of money on advertising and sales promotion (sounds good; sounds too-good-to-be-true good)–and the Linked-In discussion about them going on online. It seems Linked-In is overflowing with senior executive complaints about this site–They are getting pounded and accused of all sorts of nefarious activity–and an investigative reporter has determined a number of the posted positions are non-existent. Bogus. Made-up.

You probably have enough hints from this to figure out who this is, so I’m not going to climb into the sty to roll around with them. (As Sen. McCain famously quoted Sen. Dole–“Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it.” In 30+ years in the search, senior executive coaching, writing, and data publishing businesses, I’ve seen plenty of dirty little piggies come and go. One of my “favorites” was an outfit that called itself “Dunn’s National Directories”–note the double “N”– and was simultaneously ripping off D&B/Dun & Bradstreet by playing on their good name/reputation and me, as they regularly stole from our carefully-researched, constructed, and maintained headhunter database. Sure enough, complaints caught up with them and they thankfully eventually faded away–painfully, I hope).

Here’s what I told my CFO/CPA reader–Rather than pile on this outfit (they seem to be doing an adequate job of finishing themselves off without any help or encouragement from me), I would rather send you and your colleagues to the reputable, enduring senior executive membership (paid subscription) groups I know and recommend: ExecuNet and NETSHARE. (I have no financial interest in doing this and no connection with either group, other than considering them valued colleagues, and as a resource that will—at least potentially will–shorten your struggle).

You do not need to choose between them–Join both. (More on that in a minute).

My experience with both groups (ExecuNet of Norwalk, CT and NETSHARE of Novato, CA–See and goes back about twenty years, probably longer than that (actual date lost; sorry), when both groups started as “paper” networking groups for senior executives. There actually was another similar outfit– The Search Bulletin –that was contemporaneous, but faded away after a few years (Nancy Schretter was a nice person, but didn’t keep up. TSB was actually folded into NETSHARE. Sort of).

The original networking idea of the groups was inspired, IMHO (but morphed into something different later–shows you how useful my opinion is). Here is how the original idea worked–Imagine we could assemble a group of 100 or more job hunting senior executives–smart, busy, all diligently digging out and looking for vacant senior executive positions that could be interesting to them. In the course of any senior executive’s job campaign, the “discard pile”–think Gin Rummy–is important and builds up. Every executive locates vacancies that are not appropriate or useful–positions that are too heavy, too light, wrong industry, wrong place, company they do not relish, and so forth.

The “great idea” was that the discards went into “the pot,” to be revealed to the members of the group. One executive’s “discard” could be exactly the position another member was looking for. The strategy worked, more or less. Members were good at chasing the intel that came from the group (they loved that part), but they held onto their own leads too long and were reluctant to part with them until they were “stale” (“Doesn’t share well” probably showed up on many second grade report cards). Since they were hungry for the leads the group could provide, there had to be a better way, so NETSHARE/ExecuNet changed the strategy. “Morphed” it, as I said above.

Both groups beefed up the research part–They hired a number of research assistants who worked the phones, reaching out to search firms and coaxing them to list their assignments to be reported to the membership. Over time, the referrals from members–many of which were rumors, stale (old and/or completed) searches, or just inaccurate–were replaced by real listings from retainer search firms, timely and accurate. This worked better for everyone–members, NETSHARE/ExecuNet, and the search firms.

Why should a search firm do this (list a position)? Several easy-to-understand reasons attracted many, many retainer search firms–Exposure to a select group of proven, motivated, available senior executives, reducing the search firm’s candidate acquisition costs. The caliber of member executives (who paid real $ to be members of the group) was considerably higher than the control group of non-members (as a search consultant, I will vouch for this, with qualifications. Coming). Maybe the best of all: speed in obtaining qualified executive candidates to consider for their searches. Over the years, both groups have developed relationships (many of which are exclusive) with many retainer executive search firms, who faithfully list their assignments.

Why should an executive spend his/her hard-earned money to join these groups, especially at a time–between positions–when cash ebb is greater than cash flow and every dollar counts? Again, there are several simple, easy-to-understand–and compelling–reasons–

The qualitative factor. Both NETSHARE and ExecuNet are self-policing and are quick to administer the “death penalty” to scamming/problematic search firms. (Again, I can speak from experience here. You would not want to bring all headhunters home to meet your parents or date your brother/sister. Recall that I have published directories of search firms for over 30 years. That’s a large community of people. The larger any group, the more likely the spread of ethics, ability, and professionalism. Even with plenty of problematic people, the good outnumber the bad. There are simply too many good ones to tolerate the problems and associate with trouble-makers. Long ago, we instituted an “Ayatollah Rule.” I am the Ayatollah and I will execute any headhunter for crimes like asking for listing or processing fees, resume revision fees, multi-level schemes, and so forth–These “headhunters” seem to slither out of the woodwork in every recession, as the weaker consultants struggle with admitting they should go back to the paint department at The Home Depot. Our ExecuNet/NETSHARE colleagues have executed plenty, too. While Dave/Kathy/Ken don’t attach a “Good Housekeeping Seal” to any headhunter, you should be aware of this qualitative factor–far from absolute, but useful to know).

Next (and this is important), ExecuNet/NETSHARE have endured. Using my best University of Chicago MBA market focus (“Market Theory” is a very big deal at the UofC, as any grad will confirm), the market has evaluated and proven the utility of these groups through the fees paid by thousands of senior executives–your predecessors and contemporaries–and the years they have provided this service. The other way to look at it is from the other side of the coin: If the two groups were not providing sufficient economic “rents,” the market would have scrubbed them out of business long ago. (You can use this technique when working with search consultants, too. Tenure in the business–longer means something–is a useful indicator they have been doing something right. While being fresh to the business is not a reason to disqualify a search consultant, it’s enough for you to spool up your “Spidey Sense”).

“Self-selection.” Imagine the students who apply to the most exclusive universities (the Ivies, the military academies, and the various other highly-selective institutions you know). They apply because they believe they have at least a good enough chance of being admitted (by virtue of their GPA, SAT/ACT scores, community service record, whatever) that they take the time and spend the money to fill out an application, write an essay, be interviewed, pay the fee, and so forth. Many, many more–the vast majority of students who didn’t apply–chose not to do so because they knew they had little or no chance of admission. There is an element of this process of “self-selection”–an important element–which headhunters have figured out, too. ExecuNet/NETSHARE members (considered as a group) value themselves highly enough (and higher than those who did not spend the money and join, again, considered as a group) that this is a useful filter to search consultants. (I speak with some authority on this. As a search consultant, I have successfully completed multiple retainer searches with executives I have located through both groups. In all cases where that happened, I located multiple candidates through other sources–freelance research, my networking efforts, postings at appropriate business schools, relationships with the top outplacement firms, …and, whatever else I could think of at the time. If you believe that membership in a certain group can carry a useful imprimatur with it, then you have identified why this is important. For the search consultant, there is an important downside risk to these postings I will address in a minute).

Extending Your Reach. This is probably the most obvious of all reasons to join NETSHARE and ExecuNet (Kathy and Dave: Note that I have been carefully splitting the baby down the middle–fair is fair–by reversing the name order as we go. I love both of you equally). You could mail to all known retainer search firms (depending on who is counting, there are about 2000 or so of them) at considerable expense, and with a lot of waste. Or, you can capture a large share of them with a N/E membership (I’m going to use the shorthand after this to save the electrons). How large a share and does answering a posting have equal impact with a personal letter? You’ll have to ask Dave or Kathy about that; I don’t know. (If you are one of those unfortunate but believing souls (techno-geeks?) who are certain your inclusion in the search firm’s or the BlueSteps database carries the same impact as answering an E/N posting or a personal letter, God Bless You). Simply put, search firms control a large share of all available senior executive positions (again, the percentage of the total available is debatable. Good dissertation subject, if you are in the market for unplowed ground), so–find as many of them as you are able. In my individual senior executive coaching strategy, we do not choose–My individual clients mail to all appropriate retainer firms AND become E/N members–covering all bases. (Sidebar: An important reason search firms list their assignments with N/E is that by doing so, the search firm extends its reach, and is able to consider candidates their other sources and methods would not have turned up.)

Real-time filter. Anyone contacting search firms (by any means) learns quickly about timing–Your contact can be early, on-time, or too late. A major advantage of N/E membership is what I’ll call the “real-time” factor–They post their current search(es), you answer the posting when you see it. You are on-time, not early or late. No waste with this approach.

Exclusivity. The search assignments may not be listed anywhere else. Many search firms do not post their positions anywhere else. They post on N/E because the groups have worked hard to build goodwill with search firms, but delivering solid candidates.

Impact. N/E deliver better candidates than other sites. I have detected this, other search consultants have confirmed this to me, and both ExecuNet and NETSHARE are quick to point this out to search firms. Why are the candidates better? I suspect that executives willing to invest their own money in their futures (not trying to run a job campaign for “free”) represent a higher caliber class of people.

The business model. Because E/N are subscriber/member-supported, there is no need to play funny games with subscriber IDs, which many (most?) of the “free” sites have elected to do (selling subscriber data to anyone who can pay for it –never done by NETSHARE/ExecuNet).

Summarizing the considerable advantages: By joining ExecuNet and NETSHARE, you are associating with good people who provide a useful service, with a qualitative component, that has been market-tested and has endured over the years. By joining the groups, you elevate yourself in an important way above the senior executive community generally. You extend your reach dramatically and economically. You cause yourself to be considered for current retainer searches, and don’t waste time, money, or psychic energy chasing dead, stale, or bogus search assignments. Your ID is safe and protected.

There is an important downside to these memberships. This one actually gets me in trouble with the principals from time-to-time (I have actually been to the woodshed twice with Dave Opton, who has kept me around sort like a pit-bull watchdog, I guess. At least my upside is greater than my downside. I have been sufficiently chastened/corrected that I am perpetually on my best behavior with your colleagues who respond to my postings–even when I become so irritated I can’t see straight). I am going to explain this with a search “war story” to illustrate what can happen.

I was working on one of my favorite retainer searches of all time–VP Marketing for Sirius Satellite Radio, during their original staff-up. (Sirius was one of my largest search clients–I did something like 25 retainer searches for them in the late ’90s and a copy of the largest retainer I ever earned is framed and on my office wall). I had a great freelance researcher assisting me on the search, plus I had all my networking hooks out, and I posted the position on both NETSHARE and ExecuNet. I was very, very busy, with literally hundreds of resumes of candidates to look at for the position.

The specs (search specifications) were pretty straightforward–I was looking for extensive marketing experience in media (especially “new” media), or consumer electronics (ideally, some of each), new product introduction background, an MBA (top-tier preferred), and so forth. You could probably imagine the specs without my help. Resumes were flowing in, especially from E/N. Many of these were from great marketing executives who were certain they would make a wonderful CMO for Sirius, but who did not meet the specs, even remotely.

I recall one letter that went something like this–“I am applying for the Sirius VP Marketing position. I do not have a background in media or consumer electronics and do not have an MBA, but I have one of the toughest marketing positions you could ever imagine–I am a PSA/Passenger Service Agent for USAirways in Boston. I am certain I will be an outstanding VP Marketing for Sirius Satellite Radio.”

What would you do? At the time, I was literally swamped with candidates, so I ignored the letter. Bad move. I have since learned to answer all N/E inquiries–gently and politely, but definitively. (That can be tough when I get hundreds of them, but Mr. Opton “convinced” me I should do this). This was one determined individual, who started following up and following up. And, following up. In about the fifth f/u letter, he threw me a little hand grenade with the pin pulled–“I cannot believe you have been so unprofessional that you have chosen to ignore letters from the best possible candidate for this key position. What is the matter with you? I will probably communicate your lack of professionalism with the Sirius Chairman/CEO.” I guess his experience with happy, contented USAirways passengers had taught him how to apply this little bit of persuasion.

You might recall that I am a professional copywriter and that I make (some of) my living creating breakthrough letters to CEOs and search firms for senior executives. This was a wonderful opportunity to answer him with one of those creative, persuasive letters (but–as it turned out–not one of my best decisions). I tilted–creatively, I thought–but it was definitely a tilt. Here’s how I answered him–“Thanks for your diligent and professional follow-up. I have been very, very busy with this assignment and must tell you that I faced a very difficult decision. You were a very close second, and you did not get this one. On the other hand, I am working on two other assignments for which you are equally qualified–Professor of Brain Surgery at the Harvard Medical School and Director of Interplanetary Spaceship Design for NASA. If you are interested, please meet me in the Iraq Air First Class Lounge in Baghdad next Thursday at 10 a.m. for a personal interview.”

You would have thought I had kidnapped his twelve year old daughter on her way home from school. The stuff definitely hit the rotating blades with my (very juvenile–How’s that, Dave?) reply. He went ballistic or supersonic or whatever happens to a PSA when you hit the right (wrong) button. He evidently had a bit more time on his hands than I did and wrote interesting complaints (very professionally copying me) to the Attorneys General of Massachusetts and Florida, the Better Business Bureau, David Margolese (Chairman/CEO of Sirius), and Dave Opton of ExecuNet. And, maybe his mother, too. Dave was the only one who didn’t blow off his complaints about me (hence, my trip to the ExecuNet woodshed with Mr. Opton).

Here’s the very important moral of the story for you: Imagining you can do a job (even being certain you can do a job) is very different from meeting/exceeding the search specifications for the position. Please take those specs seriously and do not waste your time, the headhunter’s time, and the NETSHARE/ExecuNet goodwill by applying for positions where you are unqualified, even if you do not agree with the search specs. The downside for a search consultant in posting positions on E/N is the very real amount of time (it can be significant, because of the volume we–headhunters like me–receive) that must be spent–gently–dealing with executives who haven’t understood the difference. Answering these postings–and expecting something good to happen–requires a level of emotional and intellectual maturity commensurate with your C-level position (and that I did not show with my creative but foolish answer. Sorry; I won’t take that bait again). This downside causes me to pause–always–before I hit “send” to ExecuNet or NETSHARE with my search specs. As of today, I will still send them. Remember, I have filled multiple assignments through both groups and I value the potential of locating specification-meeting candidates more than I do taking the trouble of dealing with the unqualified (so far).

Other groups. Another anecdote for you. If you are a sales/marketing professional (is that an oxymoron? Sorry; it pops out from time-to-time. I’m one of those, so I’m allowed), you are probably aware of Advertising Age. This is the “bible” for us in the sales/marketing field and covers sales, new products, new services, who’s doing what, and so forth–lots more than just advertising. Now imagine a similar pub for DM (direct marketing) specialists. It’s DM News. I read and attempt to digest both. Recently, I was off to SF to conduct a senior executive job hunting seminar in cooperation with NETSHARE (thanks, Kathy), MENG/Marketing Executives Networking Group and WPS/The West Point Society. Reading the latest DM News on the way, something popped out at me. A regular feature is “New Databases & Lists”–very interesting and useful to anyone in the DM biz. Here was the amazing listing–“(Name of the outfit–you would recognize it). 42,624 names, addresses, email addresses of executives who have uploaded their resumes to this job hunting website. Useful for stockbrokers, moving companies, credit card offers, cash advance offers, insurance companies, identity protection companies (!), etc.” Before you ask the obvious question, I already did–ExecuNet and NETSHARE do not share their membership lists with anyone. What do the “others” do? Here’s a great example of precisely what they do. Caveat emptor.

The bottom line of all of this: Your membership in both groups is money well-spent. Your upside is immense. Do not choose between NETSHARE and ExecuNet; join both. As a senior executive candidate, forget about the others. Stay on the paved road and do not allow yourself to try a cross-country route. It’s not worth the considerable risk.