The Boutique Search Firm Advantage

Clients often ask search firms how they are different from others.  There are many angles from which to view a given firm’s differentiation – geographic focus, industry sector specialization, and functional focus, to name a few.  However, one of the brightest comparisons can be made between the size of the firm, and the impact size has on the level of service, quality, reach, and methodology a firm deploys on behalf of their clients.  When prospective clients try to draw comparisons between large, globally branded firms and smaller boutiques, some differences are obvious.  Other differences can be more subtle.  Below is a compilation of some of these differences between large firms and boutiques.

Benefits of using a boutique executive search firm:

  • When working with a boutique firm you can be assured the principal search partner/ consultant you engage to conduct your search will remain intimately involved in its execution and will be personally accountable for its successful completion. All too often with large firms, the execution of searches are relegated to junior members of the team, in what’s referred to in the industry as “leverage.”  Boutique firm search partners have spent a career as character assessors, and hiring a boutique firm ensures a search process that focuses the partner’s expertise on not just winning the search, but interviewing and assessing the candidates recruited for it.
  • Large firms often have an ‘off-limits’ list which contains those companies that they cannot recruit from because they are current or recent clients. Boutique firms typically have few, if any, ‘off-limits’ or client conflict situations.
  • Larger firms have far greater overhead which ultimately is translated into focusing their efforts on the assignments with the largest fees, often working less diligently on those smaller client company searches with lower fees and lower probability of repeat business.
  • In boutique firms, consultants take on less of a search load.  This often results in faster search completions. The average presentation of qualified candidates generally happens within four to eight weeks, with completion of a successful search typically 30 days faster.
  • Many boutique firms have made investments to become members of domestic and/or international executive search alliances that leverage partners’ geographic specialization, neutralizing one of the perceived competitive advantages of larger firms and the perceived “reach” those larger firms have into specific geographic pools of talent.
  • Cost of client abandonment for boutique firms is much higher than for large firms. Boutiques don’t have the big marketing engine, and rely more heavily on referrals.
  • Boutique firms focus more on original research to supplement their pre-existing database, versus larger firms that often rely heavily on their internal database for candidate targeting and outreach.
  • More often, boutique firms have a sole focus on executive search.  Larger firms have committed to diversification of service offerings, starting up competing and often conflicting ancillary offerings (assessment, onboarding, leadership development, succession planning, etc.).
  • When a large firm’s Consultant/Partner represents that they have significant experience in a given industry and/or functional area, only a very small portion of it may have been done by that Consultant.  Almost no original research is conducted.  The in-house database is used almost exclusively for every search. The result is that the quality of their searches, in most cases, is probably not better, and often inferior, to that of the small firm.

The Nuances Can Be Staggering

We look forward to discussing the boutique advantages with you.


This article is courtesy of David Magy, Principal, Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates, 2018

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Attracting/Hiring in a Tight Job Market

Many of you know that I am a data junkie. Each morning I have a routine that includes looking at 3 newspapers (on-line, of course), oil and gas futures, Conference Board reports and stock futures. I tweet (follow me: @David_Magy) about the economy, especially the job market and its related numbers.

Today’s job market is one of the best I have seen in my years of matching people and jobs. 9 years in corporate HR, 7 in the career transition/outplacement field and 21+ in executive search has give me a LONG perspective.

A few numbers from today speak to the market:

  1. National Unemployment: 4.1% (it was at 4.7% one year ago; it was at 10% in October, 2009)
  2. State Unemployment: 3.1% (it was 4% one year ago; it was 7.9% in October, 2009)
  3. Twin Cities Unemployment: 2.4% (it was 3.6% one year ago; it was 7.4% in October, 2009)

I took an Economics class from Walter Heller, President Kennedy’s Economic Adviser, while I was a student at the University of Minnesota. He taught us that full employment was between 3% – 5% unemployment. (More recently, full employment is considered between 4% – 6%.) Regardless of which range you chose, we are there. Add baby-boomer retirement and an expanding economy, you have a tight market.

5 Tips for Hiring the Talent You Need In a Tight Labor Market

A recent article from, 5 Tips for Hiring the Talent You Need In a Tight Labor Market, gives 5 key pieces of information for thinking about adding to staff in this competitive market. While you can look at the article, here is the quick version:

  1. Recognize that you aren’t the only game in town. When we call candidates about an executive search we are conducting (and we are always retained on an exclusive basis by our clients), we are commonly told that they have been approached by other organizations about other similar (not the same) roles.
  2. Speed up the process. We have many ‘quotes’ in our search firm. One of our favorites (stated as recently as yesterday when taking on a new search) is, “Calendars Kill Candidates.”
  3. There are no unicorns. Stop looking. There are great candidates out there. This article points out that there may not be one who meets every single requirement and that is paid below the hiring range. While compromising is never right, looking at the total picture of a candidate (skills and cultural fit) will be key.
  4. Hire for fit. Train for skills. The article points to a common HR adage: “We hire for their technical skills and fire them for their interpersonal skills.”
  5. Scale back credential inflation. A person with exceptional experience who may not have the MBA you desire will take their exceptional experience and make it work – either for you or a competitor.

The Conference Board reported the biggest concern of CEO’s: Attracting and retaining talent (Conference Board – 1/18/18; see Global Survey of C-Suite). The advice – create a strategy to bring on the best – comprehensively and quickly.

This article is courtesy of David Magy, Principal, Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates, 2018

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A Great Article To Start 2016

Happy New Year!  It’s the last day of 2015 – time for one more Blog to end the year and, most importantly, give people a great start to 2016.

13 Things You Should Never Say On Your First Day At Work

This article appeared earlier this week in the (Minneapolis) StarTribune.  The author, Rachel Gillett, gives the reader simple and easy-to-understand advice for people embarking on a new job/career journey.  (I have chosen to just list the 13 items; additional detail can be found in her article – see  Let me end 2015 with Rachel’s list:

  1. “At my last company . . . . . ” or “In my last job . . . . . “
  2. When do I get a raise?
  3. By the way, I have to leave early on Fridays.
  4. Who should I meet and who should I avoid around here?
  5. That’s not how I learned how to do it.
  6. What’s the holiday party like?  Do we get bonuses or a ham or something?
  7. What d’ya have to do around here to get an upgrade on this company phone?
  8. That makes no sense.
  9. My prior boss was clueless.
  10. I’d like to invite you all to my church this Sunday.
  11. In my opinion . . . . .
  12. What’s the employee discount like?
  13. Hey Donna, working hard or hardly working?

Simple but critical advice – with a simple goal of getting you off to a great start.

Let me wish you all a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year!

This article is courtesy of David Magy, Principal, Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates, December 31, 2015

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Google Is A Powerful Tool

Tell The Truth

We have written about people who do not tell the truth about their credentials in the past. We find that between 10% – 15% of all candidates fabricate a degree on their resume. It is easy to catch . . . . . we verify everyone. When we catch someone (remember, at least 1 out of 10 times), we often hear that no one has checked for years. The underlying message from the candidate is that they have the experience . . . . . so why does the degree really matter?

Back to ‘Tell The Truth’

Recently, the University of Minnesota’a Athletic Director resigned. In looking backwards in the case, it appears that a great deal of his background was never fully vetted. The question becomes, can we find the truth out about people?

Rick Underberg (of Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates) was recently interviewed for an article in MINNPOST (see During the interview he stated, “It’s striking the lack of vetting that happens sometimes, in particular in higher [education] roles.” It isn’t just higher education; it’s all industries and functional areas.

Use the Resources Available To You

You don’t need to hire a background checking organization – although it is not a bad idea, especially for high-visibility and public-facing positions. You do need to use what is available for checking, however. Start with a simple Google search . . . . . and look beyond page #1 for results. We find the best information is on pages #2 through #4. Try it yourself . . . . . or Google yourself. You may need to find a computer that does NOT know you – your results are received based on your past search history.

Get a Signed Release

Sometimes the simple mention of a release gets the results you seek. While we still have the education verification issue mentioned above (after receiving the release), this topic does open a conversation. It may save you time; it may also save your client or organization major issues.

Let me end as we began:  Tell The Truth

This article is courtesy of David Magy, Principal, Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates, November 2015

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Employee Engagement

Get engaged!

Analyses of employee engagement in America are enough to rattle anyone who is managing staff or trying to strengthen a bottom line.

Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” survey concluded that just 30 percent of American workers feel engaged in their jobs; while Deloitte’s “Worker Passion Report” concluded that just 11 percent of the workforce possess the attributes of a passionate employee. Gallup and other research agencies point to unengaged workers as sources of lower productivity, reduced customer satisfaction, and lower product quality and corporate profits. Gallup estimated that “actively disengaged” workers alone cost the U.S. between $450 billion and $550 billion in lost productivity each year.

With so much at stake, employee engagement is clearly an issue that needs to become a bigger priority in many organizations. But how do you resolve such a big issue?

Foster great managers 

If frontline supervisors and middle-level managers cannot inspire, support and effectively manage the bulk of a company’s staff, there is little that company leaders can do to create a highly engaged and productive workforce.

Hire supervisors and managers with great care, ensuring they possess essential management skills and not just subject-matter knowledge. Provide those individuals with ample training and feedback on management skills, and rate their performance, in part, on the level of engagement and productivity among their employees.

Show gratitude

Employees understandably want to be recognized for their contributions. Frequently and enthusiastically expressing gratitude for great work will both reinforce desired behaviors and motivate employees.

And remember, there are numerous low-cost ways to express gratitude. Gift cards, employee outings, public recognition, thank you notes from managers, new professional opportunities, a bonus day off, or other modest measures can effectively convey a company’s gratitude.

Take small steps

At Fulton Financial Corporation in Lancaster, PA, a string of such small measures successfully supported employee engagement and productivity through an especially challenging period. A three-year effort to replace company’s core system required extraordinary efforts from employees. Fulton responded by expanding employee communications and rewards. It treated employees to parties, wellness programs, luncheons, breakfasts and special events, including a pig roast, barbecues and meals served by managers. Collectively, those efforts helped Fulton complete a daunting project while sustaining high employee engagement.

The list of things any organization can do to boost employee engagement is extensive, and includes expanding training, promoting social interactions and re-assessing work processes. And considering the evidence about America’s problem with employee engagement, it’s more than likely worth the effort.

This article is courtesy of Alan J. Kaplan, Founder & CEO, Kaplan Partners, November 2015

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Workplace Culture

Finding value in bad reviews

Sometimes the smartest thing a business leader can do is embrace the bearer of bad news.

At Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI), CEO Paul Graziani had endeavored to make his company a great place to work. Company executives had freed employees to take time off to attend children’s concerts or other events. They encouraged employees to contribute to a “super set of ideas” for building the work culture, and reacted to employees’ preferences and needs.

Located in an area with few restaurants, AGI contracted a caterer to prepare free breakfast, lunch and dinner for all employees every work day, and even encouraged employees to fill take-out boxes with supper for their families.

Gradually, the roster of onsite conveniences grew to include car detailing, oil changes, haircuts, a fitness center, a kids’ play room, annual flu shots, massages and even holiday gift wrapping services. Those initiatives, however, didn’t instantly turn AGI into the coolest employer on the block.

Looking back, Graziani says one of the smartest things the company did was start taking ‘best company to work for’ surveys. Results from the early surveys were not complimentary.

Graziani admits that he was surprised “and frankly a bit mad” when one survey showed employees felt they were not sufficiently informed about company activities. Since its early days, AGI had held Storytime – a weekly, all-hands lunch that included 20-30 minutes of employees relating the coolest or most important developments from the previous week. The survey, however, revealed that employees needed more structured communication, especially as the company grew.

AGI executives listened to what employees were saying about the company’s shortcomings and used those responses as a roadmap to make improvements. They instituted quarterly Town Hall meetings to provide thorough overviews of company operations. They also retained perks and practices – even costly ones – that generated clear benefits for the company, such as the catering.

“Getting everybody together in our cafeteria for breakfast, lunch and dinner, exchanging ideas and discussing what is going on in various departments is very valuable to our company,” Graziani said.

Ultimately, those decisions earned AGI a host of ‘best place to work’ awards and helped AGI maintain an employee turnover rate of 3-7 percent in an industry that averages 21 percent turnover.

This article is courtesy of Alan J. Kaplan, Founder & CEO, Kaplan Partners, October 2015

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A Law School Assignment: Reach out to a “Trusted Service Provider”

I was recently contacted by an adult friend of mine who is in law school.  He is taking a Professional Responsibility class and was instructed to reach out to a non-law related “Trusted Service Provider” and ask a few questions.  I was honored to get the call.  The result – some information you should know about us (Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates) as well as the Retained Executive Search field.

Beyond competency, what skills would you suggest to cultivate a reputation for trustworthiness?

  • Responsiveness (if that a skill?):  no one ever calls us with an easy assignment or a long timeframe.  When we get a call about a new assignment, we often have just a few hours to get back to our client to get started.  (Without a fast call, they could call another trusted advisor.
  • Follow-through (is that a skill?):  searches take 90 to 150 days to complete (if all goes well).  The follow-through I reference is the ongoing communication with the client during the life of the search.  They want updates – and frequently.
  • Creativity:  if search was easy, they would not call us.  They expect us to look in places for candidates that they would never think of.  (A common saying at my office: “That is why they call it search.”  The inference – it is not ‘fetch.’)

In your experience what are some things you do with intention to protect your reputation? 

  • Ethics:  there is no common ethical stance that search firms take OR have to take.  An example of a common ethics topic in search is Off-Limits.  How long is an employer we work with Off-Limits to us (where we cannot go in and take people from a client where we recently placed people)?  Some firms have no such policy.  Some firms have a one year timeframe.  Some only have a timeframe for the office location they work with – a specific location even if the company is global in scope.  We are very upfront on this topic – and are proud of a two-year complete (all locations) policy.  The candidate we place – Off-Limits for as long as they are employed by our client.
  • Blog – while often it is only one/month, we put out information that our clients seem to enjoy.  (We are a bit more frequent with our Tweets.)

What are some things that you feel could destroy your reputation? 

  • Firms in our field get in trouble for two things:

o   Stealing people when there is an ‘assumed’ off-limits understanding.  (Most firms never put this in writing – we do).

o   Taking on an assignment where the firm has no expertise.  (We know that we are the wrong firm for certain types of positions.  We let our clients know this up-front and often help them find another service provider to assist them.)

These are areas we want to further discuss with you.

Please ask us – we will also continue to address these items in future posts.

This article is courtesy of David Magy, Principal, Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates, September 2015

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The Servant’s Advantage

Servant Leadership

It may not be the hottest topic in business, but Servant Leadership is generating benefits for many companies.

Robert Greenleaf, an HR professional with AT&T, brought the concept into the business mainstream when he published “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf observed that the most effective leaders within AT&T and elsewhere were those who focused on serving, developing and empowering other people.

J.W. Marriott, Sr., founder of Maryland-based Marriott International, insisted that servant leadership gave Marriott a vital competitive advantage: “Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your customers.” Marriott Sr. created a culture based on teamwork, employee training, internal promotions and “a caring workplace.” He even held regular sessions in hotel lobbies where he met with employees one-on-one and talked them through personal problems.

George Bernstein, President and CEO of Nobel Learning Communities in West Chester, PA, exercises a similar approach to business: “We have always had the philosophy that if you take care of the students, the parents and the teachers, you don’t have to worry about the stockholders … because they will get great returns.”

Bernstein structured the company to provide robust support, professional development and autonomy to teachers and principals. Nobel’s headquarters focuses on lightening teachers’ and principals’ workload by centralizing administrative operations, marketing, recruiting, internal communications, and other tasks.

Nobel conducts regular training and communications with teaching staff to update them on company goals and conditions, learn more about their challenges and aspirations, and lay plans to improve resources and services at Nobel schools. The company also grants principals and teachers autonomy to conduct their jobs in the best ways they can.

Servant leaders say their approach yields concrete business benefits. For example, while employee turnover in American preschools averages 55-60 percent a year, turnover at Nobel Learning Communities’ preschools is just 30 percent.

At MolsonCoors, servant leadership efforts generated improvements in workplace safety. Since 2008, time lost to workplace injuries has dropped 17 percent and the cost of workers compensation claims has fallen 23 percent.

Chances are you already are practicing some servant leadership techniques in your company. Expanding on those practices – including active listening, employee empowerment and strengthening support structures – could improve employee morale, productivity, customer satisfaction and your bottom line.

This article is courtesy of Alan J. Kaplan, Founder & CEO, Kaplan Partners, September 2015

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Balancing Act

Work Life Balance

American employers increasingly need to support healthy work-life balance among their employees. Beyond the mountain of evidence that an overworked, overstressed employee is less productive and more likely to quit, there is also a growing trend among job candidates to assess a company based on the work-life balance it supports. But how can you achieve this elusive balance inside your company?

Flex the clock

Flexible work schedules have become a core component of work-life balance initiatives, and a highly valued practice among today’s workers. More companies are offering compressed work weeks, job-sharing, shift-swapping, telecommuting, and time off for family needs or volunteer work. Many companies have replaced vacation and sick time with a bank of paid time off (PTO). The practice gives employees greater freedom to manage their time. By limiting the amount of PTO that can be carried over from one year to the next, employers also ensure that individuals take sufficient time off to be rested and remain productive.

Some companies have taken flex time to new levels. For example, one accounting firm realized that many employees’ work was heavily concentrated around tax season. So, the firm offered those employees the option to work a compressed, 11-month year.

Improve time management

Mike Steinerd, Director of Recruiting at Indeed, stressed that good time management is vital to achieving balance. “Work-life balance is often dependent on efficiency and professionalism,” he said. “When management and employees are dedicated to their jobs and work hard during business hours, it gives them the flexibility to maintain a healthy personal life.”

Many companies fuel that efficiency by offering time-management training, streamlining business processes, avoiding extended or unproductive meetings, and even declaring periodic ‘no meeting’ days. When S.C. Johnson tested the concept of no-meeting days, two-thirds of participants said their productivity rose on those days and 16% said their work hours also decreased.

Despite all the pressures facing companies today, it is possible to foster healthy work-life balance—and the benefits to the company can be impressive. After all, a contented, motivated, productive worker is key to all of our success.

This article is courtesy of Alan J. Kaplan, Founder & CEO, Kaplan Partners, August 2015

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Do you know someone who can help us with a search?

We need to get out there more!

I was recently at a lunch meeting and was asked if I knew of a firm that could conduct a head of IT search. The person I was having lunch with is a past client – we had successfully conducted three searches for her previous organization in three different functional areas, but none in IT. My response was to ask if she knew an HR leader (name was provided by me) at another client. The answer was ‘yes’; I suggested a call to that person to ask who did their recent head of IT role. The answer of course was: Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates.

Multi-Specialty Firm

When we started our firm – August 1, 1996, we had no retained search experience. We did have substantial experience matching people and jobs. Our first searches in 1996 and 1997 – sales, finance and HR areas. We have broadened from there – working across multiple industries (including the not-for-profit area) and functions. And we have worked across multiple levels – from the C-suite to hard-to-fill, high-level individual contributor roles. Categories include:

  • Executive/Leadership Positions
  • Finance and Accounting
  • Human Resources
  • Operations, IT and Engineering
  • Marketing and Sales

Do we want to specialize?

During varying phases and economic cycles, we have asked this of ourselves. The answer has been and continues to be NO. We enjoy the diversity of what we do – by industry, function and geography. At another recent meeting, I was asked about our geographical reach. The answer – we have conducted searches across the country and Canada (with one search in Mexico as well). And we seem to be good at finding people to relocate into what are sometimes referred to as remote locations (places where people respond with, “where?”).

Research and Ethics

Having a great research staff – a must as a multi-specialty firm. We need to gain access to functional and industry leaders quickly. Being multi-specialty also assures diversity in our clients – and rarely causes off-limits issues. (Specialty firms and their off limits challenges will a topic of a future blog entry.)

Do you know someone that can help you? We can – and likely have the experience to hit the ground running.

This article is courtesy of David Magy, Principal, Abeln, Magy, Underberg & Associates, July 2015

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