It's Lonely At the Top

I had dinner with several CEO's of the top staffing firms in the industry last night.  Captive audience, we sponsored the dinner at our 2008 Staffing Industry Analysts' Executive Forum.  So far, the Forum has been very excited filled with insights and perspectives I never had or thought to have, including last night's dinner.

I really spent most of my time talking to four CEO's.  I apologize to the rest of you who were there, who I didn't really get a chance to speak with.  We spoke about the lack of female CEO's in the staffing world - more to come about that; the upcoming elections (from the staffing perspective, I think Hillary has the advantage); wine cellars (green board is required, as well as bins that hold multiple bottles, rather than individual bottles); corporate anthropology - a little more about that, kind of related to female CEO's, marketing - candidates and corporations (I personally think marketing to candidates is much harder) - a tiny bit more about that and finally - CEO's are lonely - I'll conclude with that.

Female CEO's - or the lack there of, in the staffing world.

Here is what I learned from the CEO's (all of these companies have revenue's in excess of $100 million, two were in excess of $1 billion) with whom I spoke (one was female - okay, she was ONLY the President of the company).  Overall, the three men and one woman I spoke with think they are doing pretty well with women in their organizations.  They think they are doing far worse with 'people of color.'  I hate the phrase 'people of color' do we live in a rainbow?  The 'people of color' are not the 'fat old white men' who are running corporate America - that's my perspective.  But then again, that's what we are talking about here.  Why aren't women running these large staffing companies?  They all agreed the staffing business is a largely female dominated industry.  We women are caretakers, and we seem to dominate businesses where people need taking care of - is that a cliche or really a truism?  I am not entirely sure.  I am digressing again.  So here is what I learned - women are you listening?  If you want to run a staffing company, and you aren't the founder of the company, it is better if you come in from the outside, and if you came from another discipline in the business.  Meaning, it seems that you will fair better if you didn't come up from the 'desk.'  It seems like, if you ran a division of a corporation, not even a service corporation, or you ran sales and you found your way into the staffing business, you have more of a chance of running the show.

The men with whom I spoke were very proud that they have female President's or executive V.P's working for them.  They felt that the tide will turn for women in this industry - they predict more women will be running these companies in the next 5 years, and that these companies would be equally successful regardless of gender.  I am glad to know, and hope this prediction becomes true.  Another piece of advice from these folks - take risks.  And that is a true statement regardless of gender or skin color.  Go into the boss' office with a proposal and go for it - you are the people who they remember.  And when it comes time for a new assignment, it is you who show up on the top of their list.

Corporate Anthropology

How corporations become themselves has always been an interesting water cooler subject for me.  I personally believe it is the informal organizations, within organizations that get things done.  And if one is seeking change in an organization, one has to tap into the informal structure and informal lines of communication and get the message embedded.  Here are a couple of examples:

  1. I have an acquaintance who has worked 'on the line' for General Motors for 30 years.  She will be retiring in a couple of months.  With all due respect to the fine folks who run the lines at GM, here is how she told me things really get done.  If things are not going well for someone on the line, the informal organization moves the person to 'chassis.'  Apparently, chassis is the dreaded job.  It is hard to use the restroom, except for certain times, the job is very physically demanding and it is dirty.  The supervisors move people around, through their own network and people are rewarded or disciplined based on the informal organization.
  2. My own personal experience with this was when I worked for a small division of ADP, the informal organization either worked for you, or didn't.  Many people who worked at this division had worked for the company for many years - 15 or more.  If you really wanted to get something done, or something changed you really had to know a couple of those people.  They really made or broke projects.  They would drag their feet or get on board depending upon their level of participation, buy in or ownership. 

So the CEO's had a slightly different perspective on this.  They thought 1.  CEO's think more about corporate anthropology then those of us who are not CEO's realize. 2.  They also believe that corporate structure and VP's and above yield a lot of power.  Well, I don't agree with item one and I am sure they do believe number two.  Because if they didn't it would put the entire notion of corporate structure to shame.  Now they did say, they do want to put the power in the hands of the people, and they do want their managers to make decisions about their businesses.  Because they did admit, that they aren't managing what happens at the branches or in the divisions directly.  So again, here is a take away - take risks.  The CEO's with whom I spoke, want your ideas, they want you to do what you feel is right - but they don't want their time wasted.  So come up with an idea, pitch it and execute!  If you make a mistake, admit it, correct it and move on.

Marketing

I run marketing for Staffing Industry Analysts, so that is my bias, thought I would admit it before I went on.  It is hard to differentiate yourself in the staffing world.  And I don't want to give away someone's new marketing plan, but let me give you some advice if you don't know this already.  You need viral marketing and you need to figure out how to do it on the Internet.  Now staffing companies have been using forms of viral marketing for years - you know, you give someone some type bonus for referring friends.  That is great, but it needs to go to the next level. 

Again, in my opinion, candidate marketing is way harder in this business than corporate marketing.  All of you know how to reach your target corporations, and all of you do a really great job of that.  You target, you call, write, visit, propose, seminar, mail, email, advertise, tradeshow them to death.  It all works, you have sales forces built around those models and you are successful reaching your targets.  But how do you reach the candidates?  Recruiting candidates is always a big topic at all of Staffing Industry Analysts' conferences, but I contend, most of you don't have great marketing plans for reaching these candidates. 

So here are a couple of ideas.  Identify where candidate pool is coming from.  Are they graduating from high school, in college, new college graduates?  Are they returning to the job marketing, recently laid off, or serial 'free agents'?  Who is your target market?  Are you using the techniques that each of these targets frequent?  Have you looked at what is going on with Facebook and Myspace for those in the first category?  If you want those folks, you need to be in their Facebook and in 'theirspace.'  For the recently laid off, or serial 'free' agents are you aware of what is going on with LinkedIn (Bill Gates just signed up for LinkedIn, and is posing questions to generate more traffic) or Plaxo.  One of the CEO's with whom I had dinner told me he has over 1000 employees who are linked to him through LinkedIn.  He told me that it is unlikely that he receives email from them through his corporate email, but he receives many through LinkedIn.  (I realize that we are not talking internal here, but I think you get the parallel.)  Can you create alumni groups on these sites for your candidates/employees?  Can you get your candidates/employees to talk about their experiences with your firm on these sites?  And yes, you will have to deal with some bad experiences - but see my comments above - take risks.  Can you tap into the 'mom' groups on these sites to reach into them for returning to the job market folks?  Think creatively, and your candidate pool might open up and you might expand your viral marketing base for not a lot of money, but great return.

And finally   "It's lonely at the top."

These CEO's don't have anyone to talk to - I know I am not getting a lot of sympathy from many of you, but I did put myself in their chair for a few minutes.  Really, I was just fantasizing about what it would be like to have a seven figure compensation package.  Back to the topic.  They told me they don't have anyone to talk to because they feel compromised.  Friends or former friends as the case may be, have tried to use their relationship with the CEO to sell goods or services into the company and have used the CEO's name as a way to get in the door.  They can't really put their feet up on the desk and throw around ideas or say they don't know.  Some of them use their board for that purpose, but for those who don't have the right chemistry with the board, that probably doesn't work.  CEO's are often isolated from the truth, because us managers aren't giving them the truth, we are telling them what we think they want to hear - here's a tip, tell them the truth.

They seem to rely on a small circle of people with whom they have worked with in the company for a period of years.  But for those CEO's who are new to the company, that really isn't an option, they don't know anyone.  So they are lonely.  They talk to their spouses.  Generally, the spouse is seen as someone who gives them good advice, but most spouses aren't around the business all the time, and let's face it; the spouses only have the CEO's perspective.  So my advice to the lonely CEO - come to Staffing Industry Analysts' conferences.  Meet other lonely CEO's, talk, drink, have a cigar and talk about your businesses and be lonely no longer!

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