Do you know what Donna knows?


I was watching an episode of the TV legal drama Suits last night (S8, Ep 11), and one of the storylines briefly took us into the world of executive search, yes it’s a TV drama but the messages were very real. The storyline involved a client CEO and Donna, the sassy, confident and quick-witted fixer at the law firm. The CEO needed to hire a new General Counsel, and Donna being the well-connected person she is, offered to get him the best candidates New York has offer. 

The CEO did initially reply: “I’ve already got Korn Ferry working on that. No offence Donna but they’re the best headhunters in the world, what can you do that they can’t?” 

Nice plug for Korn Ferry, and forward wind, Donna goes back with 4 candidates and the dialogue continues:

Donna: “These are the top 3 candidates in the city. You are not gonna find a more qualified lawyer anywhere. But you should hire this one.”

CEO: “I’m sorry, but you want me to pass on these superheroes for a guy who graduated middle of his class from SUNY buffalo? Did you check to see whether my nana’s available?”

Donna: “Thomas, he didn’t go to Harvard and he graduated the middle of his class for the same reason. He was working full time to put himself through school, and if you give him a shot he will go to the end of the earth for you. And on top of that you’re going to love him, he’s just like you.”

Ok I know this is a TV drama, but based on my executive search experience some very real messages resonated with me that are worth highlighting.

The best qualified candidate on paper, is not always the best person for the role.

Of the points I’ll make, this is the most important one.  Donna demonstrated she truly understood her candidates and she knew “what good looks like” in a candidate for the role, but given her deep legal sector experience, network and knowledge of the candidates she was confident to highlight the paper underdog. She understood he was more than capable of doing the role, but even more than that, she had identified someone with immense talent, whom needed “a break”, and given that his motivations would drive him to go to the end of the earth for the company. This is so true to life, it’s important that your search partner looks beyond every CV, to understand the person and their motivations behind what’s on paper, in order to identify the best talent. In addition, Donna showed an appreciation for the chemistry need between the hiring manager and candidate, but as any Suits fans know, it would be hard for anyone to beat Donna’s intuition!

Big name companies are not necessarily the best, and many companies can do what they can do, sometimes better.  

As in any industry there are always bigger well-known company brands, and smaller lesser known brands, but big certainly doesn’t necessarily mean best, and Donna wasn’t phased by the big brand name already on the case. When you combine deep niche market expertise with best practise executive search process, it’s an extremely powerful combination. Executive search is a professional service, and a service which is so human driven that it’s only as good as the people executing it. Like many other niche search firm owners out there, I know that my team and I have what it takes to produce the strongest possible short lists, much quicker and cost effectively than many of the bigger blue chip search firms.

Niche industry experience is king.

Donna is not a headhunter, but rather ex secretary at a law firm whom is now COO, but she has a career of being ingrained and well networked in the NYC legal scene. I’ve been headhunting globally for technology, data and research providers to the capital markets and investment industry for over 20 years, building a deep understanding of the companies, business drivers and talent pool within this niche market that would rival any other international executive search professional. I still remember the first time I won a mandate from a private equity company for one of their portfolio companies after a search firm selection process. When I asked what swayed their decision in our favour, they said it was because we showed a much deeper understanding of the particular investment technology market sector and its talent pool, leading to a very clear plan on how we would execute. 

The CEO in Suits thought he had hired the best Executive Search firm in the world, but ultimately he was shown that there are alternatives, and nothing can be closer to the truth in the real world. 

So next time you’re looking to engage an executive search firm, don’t just think of the big blue chip names, there are many niche search firms out there that are equally, or dare I say, even more capable for your business, delivering the strongest possible short lists, quickly and cost effectively.

Contact us to learn how how our FinTech Executive Search expertise can help you.

About the author. Shawn Rutter is the Founder of Excelsior Search, a market-leading, niche search company, specializing in international executive search and recruitment solutions for financial technology (fintech), data, and research providers to the global capital markets and investment industry. With experience delivering search assignments across the Americas, EMEA and APAC, he founded Excelsior in 1999, having previously worked as an Army Officer and for the international search firm MRI.  Shawn invites you to connect on LinkedIn