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Hugged an executive today? Get squeezin'

If not, you risk losing your top talent to another company's embrace, recruiters say

Wallace Immen
The Globe and Mail
March 30, 2005

Talented executives can expect some hearty "bear hugs" from their employers this year, top recruiters predict.

As a battle to attract and keep top talent heats up, not only in Canada but around the world, organizations are realizing that "if you want to keep key executives, you've got to make sure you are figuratively hugging them," or they will succumb to the embrace of a competitor who is offering more, says W. Carl Lovas, president of Lovas Stanley/Ray & Berndtson Inc. in Toronto, one of the largest executive recruiters in Canada.

In what is known as bear hugging, organizations and leaders of teams identify the members of their teams who are critical to their success and acknowledge their value with perks such as stock plans, promotions, special projects and training.

"These are people you absolutely don't want to lose. You put your arms around them and do everything you can to maintain their interest in the organization and build the relationship between you and them," Mr. Lovas says.

Retaining talent has emerged as the priority over the past year, which has seen a seller's market emerge for executives, says Peter Felix, president of the Association of Executive Search Consultants, a New York-based organization of 1,200 recruiting firms in 42 countries.

Mr. Felix says employers are competing to fill executive jobs that had gone unfilled in three years of uncertainty that followed the "tech wreck" in the stock market in 2000 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

They are all looking for executives whose talents have an impact on the organization and the bottom line and the emphasis is on identifying these so-called "A players" and keeping them loyal.

And loyalty depends on more than generous salaries and bonuses, Mr. Felix says. Bear hugs on the increase include letting people know they have been identified on a fast track for promotion, giving them mentoring, increased opportunity and responsibility and greater recognition.

The bear hug starts by getting to know the people in the organization and finding out what is important to each of them, Mr. Lovas says. It's important to hit their hot buttons regularly.

Some of these can be simple things like who gets the best office, the plum assignment, the most supportive client or even the best parking spot, Mr. Lovas adds. Depending on the organization, it may take the form of personal development such as the option to take time off for more education or a special project to gain experience.

But bear hugging also requires subtlety, Mr. Lovas notes. "It is important when you are treating someone specially that you do it in a manner that it doesn't offend anyone else in the organization. What you don't want to do is retain one person and disenfranchise five others so that they leave."

Mr. Lovas adds that what drives most executives to start looking for a new career is not that they dislike the organization, but that they don't feel challenged or don't have a good relationship with their boss. "If there is a good relationship, you have a much better chance of retaining that person," he says.

And what if you are an executive who doesn't feel hugged enough? Mr. Lovas says that if you clearly excel at what you do, that will be recognized, but it is important to make sure that you keep a high profile and remind your employer of your talent and importance.

But he warns that threatening to leave your employer unless you get more hugs may backfire. You want to be recognized as important and in risk of being lured away without being seen as a malcontent.

"What you've got to do is look at your career as a product, and market it appropriately both within the organization and with the profession outside." If you do, you'll create recognition that will stimulate demand for your talent, Mr. Lovas says.

Talented executives have more power in negotiating their job and moving to a new one than ever before, Mr. Felix adds. People are much more willing to move because the concept of brand loyalty has faded and there is a global competition for talent. "Companies no longer own people, people own themselves and their careers," Mr. Felix says.

Mr. Lovas says that technical and financial positions are particularly in demand at the moment, but most employers are also currently actively hiring executives, including government, non-profit organizations and churches. His company handled 20 per cent more executive recruiting assignments in 2004 than it did in 2003.

"9-11 created a sense of uncertainty unlike anything ever seen in any previous downturn," Mr. Lovas says. Businesses were suddenly planning quarter by quarter and letting executive jobs go unfilled because "if another plane flew into another building, all your plans and hopes for the next four quarters would go out the window," Mr. Lovas says.

But while uncertainty remains, "we've become acclimatized to it" and the demand for executive hiring has rekindled again, and a pent-up demand has sparked a war for talent that really kicked off last year and is continuing, he says.

Executive tips

It's more important than ever for executives to keep a high profile and to be seen as a key to their team's success, say executive recruiters Carl Lovas, president of Lovas Stanley/Ray & Berndtson Inc. in Toronto and Peter Felix, president of the Association of Executive Search Consultants.

Here are their recommendations:

  • 1. Stay aware of changes in your profession. Executives can expect to move through six or more jobs on their way to the top.
  • 2. Make sure you are active in your professional organization.
  • 3. Raise your visibility outside your own organization both professionally and in the community.
  • 4. Get published or be interviewed in professional journals.
  • 5. Do public speaking at industry functions.
  • 6. Make sure you are known by recruiters.
  • 7. When you are contacted, be helpful, even if you are not interested in a new job.
  • 8. Establish a relationship with the recruiter by offering your recommendations.
  • 9. Keep up a relationship with the recruiter with occasional calls or e-mails when you hear some news in your business. It will get you a warm reception when you need a referral for a career change.
  • 10. Be open to a posting anywhere in the world. While 48 per cent of the world's executive recruiting is still for jobs in North America, 38 per cent is in Europe and Asia's share is 12 per cent and growing fast.

© 2005 Ray & Berndtson



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