Today's complex business world requires executives with a sophisticated mix of skills. That means U.S. corporations are looking to fill their top jobs with managers who have international and government experience, "intrapreneuring" ability and the capacity to wield a well-honed hatchet.
Executive recruiters, or headhunters, say they are being sent after quarry much different from the kinds of executives sought by corporations 10 or 15 years ago.
The differences are largely the result of radical changes in the U.S. business environment of today, compared to the past. Companies, even small ones, find that they must compete internationally, so they are on the hunt for executives with experience in international markets. Many are under constant pressure to keep costs pared to the bone: "So many companies are downsizing that they are looking for senior managers who can make the hard decisions," says Alan Stern, head of Haskell & Stern Associates, a New York management recruiting firm.
In a corporate world where the only alternative to a hostile takeover is often a management-led buyout, executives with proven entrepreneurial experience also come at a premium. That does not necessarily mean that the executive must have run a small company. Says Stern: "The entrepreneur can be a person who's worked for General Electric but developed a small division for them." (That process is popularly known as "intrapreneuring.")
Recruiters say that demand for senior executives in general has been on an upsurge. In the second quarter of 1987, recruiting of senior managers reached its second-highest point of the last three years, according to a survey of 750 companies by Korn/Ferry International, a leading executive search firm. The strongest demand came from the financial services sector, still riding the surf created by a five-year bull market. This sector accounted for 32% of all executive vacancies, Korn/Ferry says, up from 22% a year ago.
"Banking, investment banking and insurance so dominate the search market," says David F. Smith, a managing director at Korn/Ferry, "that you can't talk about anything else until you take that into account."
Thus, although demand for finance professionals still tops the market, many headhunters say they find an incipient trend toward seeking senior managers (those earning more than $100,000 and generally carrying the title of executive vice president and above) from among the ranks of marketing specialists.
This may be a continuation of a cycle in American business, visible in the automobile industry among others, that began decades ago with top managers coming from the engineering and operations side. After that, during the long consolidation phase of U.S. heavy industry, finance professionals rose to the top.
Today, it may be that the harsh competitive environment of the business world, particularly in engineering-oriented industries such as computers and aerospace, gives marketing specialists an extra cachet. "In high tech, someone with a business-development background is highly regarded," says William Mangum of the Los Angeles-based management consulting firm Thomas-Mangum Co.
In Korn/Ferry's survey, marketing/sales was the second most highly desired specialty, accounting for 16% of all vacancies in the second quarter, compared to 19% for finance professionals.
The criteria listed by corporations for executive candidates tend to reflect the global complexity of today's business world, headhunters say. Stern cites the case of John W. Amerman, the new chairman of Mattel Inc., as an example of an executive whose international experience got him the top job.
"He was a senior executive at Mattel but wasn't on the board, so the directors didn't have much experience with him," says Stern, whose firm was called in by Mattel to assist with the search for a chairman to replace Arthur S. Spear, who retired in 1986.
Amerman's biggest selling point, Stern says, was his record in building Mattel's international division. "The division was hugely successful," he points out.
Indeed, the international division has been one of Mattel's few enduring bright spots. When Amerman took it over after 15 years at the pharmaceutical maker Warner-Lambert, Mattel sold toys in just seven overseas countries. Under his management that grew to 22; the international unit now contributes half of Mattel's sales and, with domestic profits slumping, more than that share of its net income.
Just as companies look for executives with international experience, they are also favoring people familiar with the workings of the U.S. government. Deregulation may be the order of the day, but Stern says that hardly means that companies have less contact with Washington.
"Under Reagan," he says, "more and more businesses are running to the government and asking for help" in a wide range of areas. "Today it's imperative in certain industries to get favorable treatment on taxes, trade quotas and so forth."
Companies today are seeking managers with a greater range of skills than ever before. One indication of that, Mangum says, is the eagerness of his clients to find executives who have worked for several companies over his or her career rather than sticking it out with one.
"The corporation is not as stable as it used to be," Mangum says, "and there's a recognition that there is nowhere the kind of corporate loyalty you found in the past."
Moreover, companies like executives who have been successful in a number of differing environments. "Ten or 15 years ago, if I brought in someone who had moved three or four times, he would be regarded very cautiously," Mangum says. "Today, if I bring in someone for interviews who has had no movement, my client is likely to ask why he's stayed at one company for 15 years."