Landing an executive role in partnerships - missteps to avoid from an executive talent recruiter
Tips from the frontlines
Today’s post features an interview filled with advice from an executive talent expert about how to land your next big job.
But it starts with how I recently landed mine.
Last week I started a new senior role at a mission-driven company during a critical growth stage. I’m leading a new team focused on building out an ecosystem of partners. I could not be more excited.
I landed this role thanks in part to the team at True Search, a retained executive search firm that focuses on venture-backed and private equity-backed growth companies. Throughout the interview process Jordana Brondo, a principal at True Search, served as a sherpa between Bonterra and me. She helped Bonterra find me and coached me through my interviews with Bonterra’s C-Suite.
For me, what set Jordana apart is that she spent most of the last twenty-five years as an operator in early stage and high-growth companies. She held senior roles in Revenue, Strategic Alliances and Business Development. Jordana knew Bonterra’s needs for this role and she really understood my perspective as a candidate.
In our conversation below, Jordana peppers her answers with real-world examples and specific advice for job seekers. Her guidance is useful for those at any stage of their career or job search.
Some of the topics we cover below …
How to set yourself apart as a candidate?
How to handle a career setback during the interview process?
How to think about career development in BD / partnerships?
Do resumes matter at the executive level? What about Linkedin?
How to harness executive search firms?
How do top tier executive talent distinguish themselves?
Can you share what sets certain candidates apart during an executive search process? How do executives distinguish themselves aside from just having a background that fits well with a specific role?
JB: At the executive level, one thing that jumps out to me is when a leader has a very clear vision of not only what they want to do, but who they are and where they thrive - and they can provide supporting statistics: % of pipeline driven, number of partners signed from start to finish during employment, direct contribution to sales revenue, and/or the specific values of contracts signed, as examples.
If you are trying to enter into the [job] market and trying to be a jack-of-all-trades or appeal to everyone, that is clear and there's not a lot of strength and reliability in those types of candidates.
For example, we were hiring for a sales leader and the client wanted this candidate to come in at a global CRO level, but they wanted this role to be in front of clients, speaking to their customers and closing deals. That is very different from a client who wants a CRO who is more operational and can execute a strategy from behind the scenes and push their sales teams to execute.
The best executives know what type of executive they are. We had a couple candidates drop out of processes because it was very clear to them that what the company wanted was not the right fit for their skillset. Being able to know that about yourself and qualify what a company is looking for makes for a more seamless process and saves time across the board.
How to deal with a career setback during the interview process?
Can you share a time when you saw a candidate deal with the career setback, whether that is being layered or being laid off? How have you seen a candidate manage a setback like that effectively?
JB: Sometimes candidates have a departure from a company and I think at the executive level they're more tentative to say “I was laid off” or “it wasn't a good fit with the manager and here's why.” It’s important to say “here's what I learned from it.” It's pretty easy to tell when candidates are uncomfortable about their departure from a company in the way they will hide or protect information.
Not only will the recruiting firm realize that but the interview panel will as well. I think spinning it into a positive or highlighting what the candidate learned from the experience is always the better way to go.
I can give you a very recent example. I recently spoke with a candidate who had a 15 year run at a very, very senior level at Amazon. He was overseeing billions of dollars in P&L and significant growth in users. And he had taken a leap to join a Series A startup as a CCO. That role didn’t work out and he left after 10 months. After I spoke with him I could tell how bright and valuable he would be wherever he decided to go next. I shared his profile not only with others at True but to some of my VC partners. He had a clear story and an impressive record even though his most recent role was a 10 month stint.
How to think about skills development in BD / Partnerships?
How would you recommend leaders in BD and partnerships think about skills development? What skills set apart those pursuing executive roles?
JB: Hiring managers and hiring companies are usually very specific about the skill sets and experience that they're looking for as it pertains to partnerships. I would say that relationships and a track-record of building and executing against relationships is really important in partnerships and BD. I think being able to demonstrate as a partnerships leader one’s breadth throughout the ecosystem and growth in very nuanced environments and complicated contracts are key. Hiring for these roles you need to have the perfect balance of strategy and execution and an understanding of how to operate politically in a company with a lot of different stakeholders and how to gain buy-in across those stakeholders. Those softer skills are almost more important than the hard skills or with the specific relationships that you bring.
Exactly what is the most important qualifier is difficult to pinpoint. But you should aim to demonstrate, even as an upcomer, your ability to gain leverage and buy-in and execute deals that either hadn't been thought of before or were very, very complex in nature.
How important is the size of a leaders team in BD / partnerships? With some roles, team headcount is viewed as a signal of executive talent but in BD/partnerships many companies intentionally keep their BD / partnerships team lean. How important is managing a large team in the BD / partnership executive searches you conduct?
JB: In the talent placements that I've led for executive leaders in BD, team size has never tripped anyone up. It’s been more about demonstrating how they've operated across a matrixed environment within the different divisions of the company and the buy-in and trust that they have secured from other executives. That is way more telling of their ability to operate at the senior level than how many direct reports they have managed. As a BD leader, the nature of the job is far more complex than just managing a team of a certain size. Having the ability to have a clear vision, having a strategy for getting buy-in across the organization and executing against that strategy and closing those deals tends to be way more important in hiring.
Do resumes matter at the executive level? What about LinkedIn?
Do resumes still matter or do people just basically go off of Linkedin and then like go right to a conversation to understand more from your linkedin.
JB: It just depends on the company. Some companies will want resumes to support. Both of my sisters are career recruiters and they say that resumes are completely obsolete. I don't see that from my position, but Linkedin is definitely the most important. If you are active in market, you should have an updated resume as well.
When it comes to LinkedIn, is there anything that candidates should avoid?
JB: It’s important to concisely show a body of work at each stop, whether in terms of revenue coverage or team size led or advancement throughout the company. Using keywords and quick blurbs is very helpful. Some people go above and beyond to paste their full resume and recruiters won't spend that much time going through all the specific details.
Also, if we see a ton of advisory roles and we have to really dig to find what the experience is, that can be a turn off to hiring managers because these people appear to want to be more of advisors than operators.
How does the C-Suite’s view Partnerships these days?
How do you see attitudes towards BD and partnerships changing among the C-suite?
JB: When times get tougher, there's a little bit less of an appetite for indirect revenue driving roles. That being said, some companies have a lot of co-sell and resell as a fundamental part of their strategy overall. So it really just does depend on the company. I think in my own experience, I've seen partnerships have way more value for earlier stage companies who are building out those ecosystems and then as they grow or go public it's under more scrutiny.
At True, we hire for revenue contribution partnership roles and we like to see a percentage of revenue growth in past roles. We ask our clients “how will this position be goaled”? For example, we will tell candidates “this company has 5% revenue contribution from channels and they want it to be at 30% in two years.” We also ask our clients to define if the role they are hiring for will be goaled on MBOs or on revenue contribution or some combination. I think it’s important that candidates carefully consider size and stage of the company. The goals and scrutiny of partnerships teams typically increases in later stage pre-IPO companies as they approach an IPO.
What are the biggest mistakes candidates during interviews?
What are what common mistakes that you think candidates make and don’t realize or should be more mindful of?
JB: First off, any type of misrepresentation [in your experience or accomplishments] is the biggest faux pas you can possibly make in an interview process. I’ve seen candidates in partnerships who say, for example, that they have worked with and done deals with GSIs (global system integrators) when it’s very clear that they have not.
Aside from misrepresenting information, can you share a memorable faux pas you saw a candidate make?
We had the perfect candidate at the finish line in terms of experience. I mean, this was really a needle in a haystack in terms of experience that the company was looking for. Now, we knew that the candidate was a step-up candidate and we had called that out to our client.
However, the candidate ended up becoming very emotional on a phone call where a client was asking questions about their background. It was very clear that this candidate didn’t have the right level of seniority that this company needed for this role.
If I had advice for people who are wanting to accelerate through their organization, even if not through a promotion or title, it would be to show leadership through how you behave internally and how you have created buy-in as a partnership executive with a high-degree of emotional leadership.
What about women and D.E.I. candidates?
Do you see things that you wish women would do more or differently that would be to their advantage?
JB: First off, from the client perspective, there is huge demand for D.E.I. (diversity, equity and inclusion) hires, which is tremendously encouraging.
But across the board, for men and women, the same things matter - crispness of answers, follow through, a track record of success.
Here’s a recent example - we had a pretty strict mandate on one of my searches to hire a female executive and we had a lot of strong candidates. But at the end of the day, we met a brilliant candidate who was a D.E.I candidate and I could just tell it was an intellectual match made in heaven. And he ended up being hired even though there was a strong focus throughout the six-month search on hiring a female. I would say that should give people confidence that if they know who they are, if they know what they want, if they know what they've accomplished and are able to articulate that, then it doesn't matter whether you're a D.E.I candidate, or a woman or a man. What matters most is how the candidates present themselves.
How to understand and harness executive search firms?
What is important for senior BD / partnerships leaders to understand about executive search firms?
JB: Retained search is very different from firms working on a contingency basis. A lot of candidates are inundated with recruiters reaching out who are working on a contingency basis, meaning they are likely working alongside a lot of different search firms to produce candidates. With contingency, the search firm that produces the candidate who is ultimately hired is the one who earns a fee. In retained, it is a much more targeted process where the retained search firms identify and highly-vet candidates before they are introduced to clients; in contingency, it is much more of a volume game.
What advice do you have for someone who receives inbound from you, coming from a retained search firm?
JB: Know who the top retained executive search firms are and build relationships with those firms. A 2022 industry newsletter ranking of the largest executive search firms in the Americas listed estimated revenues of 50 firms, with top five being: Korn Ferry, Russell Reynolds Associates, Spencer Stuart, Heidrick & Struggles, and Egon Zehnder. Each of them had more than U.S. $450 million in estimated revenues, and more than 300 consultants. The top five are also sometimes known as "SHREK”. True Search has gained significant market share in recent years. That is tremendously important for an executive's career. A lot of times candidates won't respond and one of my final outreaches will be “regardless of if it's the right timing for you, we would love to have a conversation in order to tailor our outreach to you going forward.” True Search places thousands of executives and board members each year, so it is a good use of time for both parties; a conversation with us shouldn't be viewed as something that's limited to just a specific opportunity.
What do you wish more candidates would do to make your job easier in helping them find a role?
JB: It's very beneficial to your career to build relationships with the different retained recruiting firms. Treating True as a partner throughout the process has served candidates very well.
It’s a lot of basics - transparency, candor, enthusiasm, follow-through. It sounds simple but you would be surprised at how often candidates trip themselves up.
Candidates earn reputations when they're not truthful with True or we can tell the candidate may be shopping different offers around just to get the best one. We typically will advise clients not to go to offer with a candidate if we suspect that there is any kind of bad acting on the part of the candidate; there's a lot at stake for us if we misplace a candidate both in terms of workload and reputation overall..
Can you share an example to highlight the value of candidates building a relationship with a retained search firm?
JB: Right now you have a lot of executives who have had 10-year plus runs at Amazon or Google or Microsoft or Salesforce who are currently finding themselves in the job market and not knowing what to do at all. When I speak with these folks and they enter into the conversation with a level of humility and seek to understand what the landscape looks like, it is tremendously helpful for both of us.
Most times, I'll say, “I don't work on anything that's a fit for you right now but I will share your information then True and I would encourage you to keep reaching out to other recruiters.”
I think the other piece of advice I would have is about returning favors. Oftentimes at the end of a call a candidate will ask for my advice or ask for a bit of my time to understand the current market. And I love to do that because I love helping people build their careers. But the best candidates understand that my time is in demand too. And they offer to help me out by offering to make introductions and expand my network. That is very rare and it's tremendously valued.
Are there any myths you want to dispel about executive search firms?
JB: I think there's a misconception in the market that I [as a principal at True Search] have ownership over a specific candidate and will do whatever I can to lobby to get that candidate placed. With a retained search firm like True Search, we are working on behalf of the clients exclusively and nobody at True owns a specific candidate. It is really up to you as a candidate to build relationships and advocate for yourself across the retained search firms.
Some parting advice to candidates
Any additional advice for those seeking their next or first executive level role?
JB: Another piece of advice I’d share with candidates is don’t be discouraged if you're just not a fit for a company. There’s nothing personal about it. There are very specific qualifications that companies are looking for, for better or for worse. Sometimes for worse because some companies get very fixated on certain metrics or certain types of experience. So from a candidate perspective, don’t get discouraged if you’re just not a fit. There is an art and a science to this work. Put your best foot forward and know who you are. Have a solid story and understanding of your background and any missteps you might have had and what you learned from it. Those things will serve you well throughout your career.
If you found this interview helpful, please share it with a friend or colleague.