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Reimagining the Executive Search Experience for Everyone Involved

By OpenComp


Executives significantly influence how quickly companies thrive or fail — so much so that independent surveys from Stanford and Harvard, each of nearly 900 VCs, revealed that execs contribute more to a startup’s success or failure more than product itself.

In this episode, Caitlin talks to Kate Bullis of SEBA Executive Search, known in Silicon Valley and beyond as a go-to executive search firm. Kate leads the marketing and revenue practice, and together, we dive into common misconceptions that disrupt the executive search process and how to redesign a mecca-like experience for all parties involved… whether you’re hiring an external firm or leading the search internally.

Join us as we discuss:

  • The difference between executive search and executive fetch
  • How executive search firms can design the best executive candidate experiences
  • Four guiding principles to always keep in mind



CAITLIN ALLEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the high growth matters podcast sponsored by open comp. I am one of your co hosts, the VP of Marketing at open club, Caitlin Allen. And today we are going to talk to an expert in something that many of us care about. As you all know, executives significantly influence how quickly companies can thrive or fail. So much so that independent surveys from both Stanford and Harvard, each of nearly 900, venture capitalists have revealed that executives contribute more to a startup success or failure than even the product itself. So in this conversation, I am talking to Kate bolus of SIBO executive search, which many know in Silicon Valley and beyond as the go to executive search firm, and Kate leads the marketing and revenue practice. And together, we're going to dive into many things, including common misconceptions, that disrupts the executive search process, and how to design a mecha like experience for all parties involved, whether you're hiring an external firm, or leading the search internally. Kate, thank you so much for being here.

KATE BULLIS: Thank you so much for having me. It's a joy it is.

CAITLIN ALLEN: So let's kick it off with a question we asked everybody, we'd love to hear one or two things that most of your clients or coworkers don't know about you.

KATE BULLIS: I don't know about most, but many of my clients don't know that. I'm an A, I'm an identical twin. And so that's always an interesting little, oh, something interesting to talk about. There's someone who looks almost exactly like me on the opposite coast. So if you bump into her in New York, she won't be insulted if you call her Kate. And I would say professionally. Some something that I haven't shared with many clients is the reason I'm in executive search. If I were not recruiting in the area of marketing and go to market, I probably wouldn't be recruiting at all. I was in the business of executive search for a good three to five years before I discovered, go to market as a function as a real joy to me, and a passion area. And I never looked back from that point. It is literally what I eat, breathe, and sleep. Recruiting is just what I do to bring it all together with business. So on, I would say those are two things about me that many don't know.

CAITLIN ALLEN: I love it. Thank you. I actually hadn't heard either of those anecdotes, so great to be learning alongside of our audience. So Kate, as you know, we are here talking to HR leaders. And we're here to talk about executive search. First how our listeners can vet executive search firms, and also how they can effectively assess the candidates themselves. But maybe we can start with the why which you will already kicked us off on but why is it important topic to you? And why is it an important topic to our listeners?

KATE BULLIS: Well, I think executive executive search in the process. I'll start with your listeners, if I may. It has to be important. First and foremost, just because I mean, this is such an old term, but it couldn't be more real in front and center than it is today. And that is the war for talent is real. And if we look at some of the statistics and the quotes that you even mentioned at the top of this conversation from Harvard and, and others, The Economist names poor hiring as the number one business problem. We if we can say that more important than financing more important than your product is your people. If this is the number one determiner of success, what could be more important than not just your talent, but your leaders and that's executive That's executive search. So I can't imagine something more important not just to HR professionals, but to CEOs. Number one, for me, I would say it's an important subject to talk about process. Because, frankly, I think executive search as an industry has a mysterious connotation, there's that there's some mystery surrounding the process in some regard. And there shouldn't be. And I also think that there's also a misconception, in my opinion, that the executive search process should be engineered in such a way that there is a certain playbook every time and I just argue that all day so we can get into that. But I can't wait important to me.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Thank you. I find that topics are often clarified by contrast. And so in our prep call, there was something in my heart that was overjoyed when you observed that the term is executive search and not executive fetch, indicating that there is a common misconception or, or possibly even a group of them. So it would love to dive into what is that common misconception? Because it gets what is the definition of executive search? And I'd also love to hear tangentially Yeah, how that common misconception shows up in questions that you might get

KATE BULLIS: questions that I might get from potential companies that want to conduct executive searches. You mean Yes, exactly. Got it. Okay. So fetch versus search. I think the best way for me to describe what I'm what I mean by that somewhat tongue in cheek is. conducting a search for an executive is a process and a journey. And it takes a village. And this is not the process that we deploy, when we seek to fill a position where there are applicants that come to us and apply. Executive Search is most often a process that we launch into the world, much like a marketing campaign, or a product launch. And all great marketers and revenue and go to market executives and CEOs know that pushing your product or your campaign into the world is not nearly as successful as creating a poll. And that is a great executive search. Fetch is what I do when my husband says, Could you go to the grocery store and get coffee, bread and sugar? That's fetch. We in the executive search profession, and those who conduct executive searches in the HR profession, know that our target audience, is that buyer out there, our buyer, is that great executive that we seek, how do we create a poll to that person for that person? This is not, you know, just, you know, throw a bunch of information out there and see what sticks. This is got to be a combination of art and science. And it's got to be a village process, not a go get it and let me know when you've got five of them. And I'll be ready to interview. That's kind of what I mean by search and fetch. Now to answer your question about questions. So when I talk to a potential company about conducting a search, I can pretty quickly understand their expectations by listening to those those questions, if the questions have to do more with the process than they do with, with the market? If those questions have to do with metrics along the way more than they do with results, and if they don't ask questions around things like communication, and storytelling, and my ability to represent them in the market, how will I determine what the great candidate will be? How will I know? If they're not asking me those questions? It's not that they don't know how to run a great search. It's that I know that I'm going to have to do some work to make sure that we're on the same page and well aligned to conduct this search well together.

CAITLIN ALLEN: It's almost as if there's a common misconception at a What is the core of a good fit? Why a good fit works? Executive compensation is so important.

KATE BULLIS: Yeah, I, that is so so a good fit, you're referring to not my fit with a client, but with the executives fit in terms of the placement is that? Okay? So that fit starts long before the search. That fit starts long before you find the candidate that fit starts day one with internal alignment inside the company itself, all of the stakeholders involved in that process of hiring, they must be aligned, and they must have clarity on what is needed, what are the goals, and then we're going to back into what the right fit is going to be them. All of that needs to be shared with me. I need to glean that information and make sure that when I have it and it's in it's aligned, that when I go out into the market, I'm not just seeking that great fit. I'm compelling it. I don't want to search, I want to compel. And that is what I mean, when I say don't push and fetch, we want to pull right? I can't tell a really compelling story about what this situation is. If all I have is a list of qualifications, that's a job. Nobody wants a job. Everybody wants a career. And at the executive level, that's all it is. So if I don't really have the whole situation, and I don't know the story behind this company, and the story behind this moment, and the reason why these things are necessary for the go forward for this company, I'm not well equipped to conduct your search, much less fetch anything.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Sure, sure. That makes a lot of sense. It I love that there's a mutual qualification going on in that process where you're getting to know clients or potential clients, I should say, and they're, they're getting to understand you.

KATE BULLIS: Absolutely, you know, that's it's another thing. Fetch suggests the, the assumption that the company hands over a list of qualifications, and I go off, and three weeks later, I present a slate, and we make a hire and call it a day, I wish searches for that easy. The reality is, as I said, Before, in taking a village, I need to know that you're in this with me, I need to know that this is going to be a mutual process that we're going to, I'm going to present to you executives that you feel are qualified based on what was discussed. But I also will hope that you will trust me to not just show you what you expected to see, but maybe even show you some different ways to skin a cat. at the executive level, we are talking about not whether a person can do the job, we're talking about how, how will they do the job that makes them best qualified for your position, not just the same position down the street. But your company's role in this executive position? The how is all the difference? And I can't figure out whether or not a person is right for that. How if you don't have clarity and alignment internally. And I also need you to trust me that there's probably more than one way to get to that how, what is the goal of the business in the next 18 to 36 months? What are some priorities for this executive, we can agree on what the qualifiers would likely be in order for this person to achieve those goals. But I also would hope that my client will trust me to present more than just what those people look like. That is great executive search, there's good and then there's great. I want to give my clients options.

CAITLIN ALLEN: One thing that's coming to mind too is your your speaking caters, how you have articulated the fact that how someone does a job is effectively how they fit a company. And and you've also alluded to the process being something that is probably slightly different for for different candidates, which indicates to me your focus on the candidate experience. How what characterizes a good candidate experience from your standpoint and then as our listeners think about vetting potential firms to work with what what questions can they ask or other things can they do to understand whether they're, if they're, if their potential partner is a firm that's focused on that, that that very artful and unique experience for a candidate.

KATE BULLIS: This is such an important subject. I mean, we have to, we have to face it. The today's in today's market, the talent out there, they're the buyer. And so they are, they're the ones that are very much in control. They're all getting multiple calls a day. 2021 and 2022 have been the most active hiring years of my career. And so when I say war for talent is real. I mean, I was I was doing executive search in the high 90s. This is this is as intense, if not more. And so we have to recognize that that candidate experience is not just going to better ensure the right hire, and a more an a quicker hire. We also have to think about the experience as far as our brand representation. If a candidate doesn't have a good experience, and by the way, there's always more than one of them, right? How many people do I touch on my clients behalf in order to make one placement, easily 50 usually more than 50 data points 50 brand touch in the market with pretty important executive level people who have power, influence and networks. So who you work with, as an executive search firm should be an extension of you. And the brand experience you would want any of your partners, any of your customers, any of your employees to enjoy. So this is why the candidate experience is so imperative. It's not just because we want to be known as the nice company. When you want to know and and and do what we want our brand, our CEO, our CMO would want us to do on the company's behalf out there in the market, to the most the most important commodity talent, right? So that's why that's important. But to go to your original question. What what what do I recommend a company ask in order to know whether or not a search firm is thinking about the candidate experience? I would ask questions like, for example, I get questions all the time. Who can I get some of your references? Kate? Can you name two or three CEOs that I can talk to that have that you've worked with? That would speak to what it's like to work with you? Of course. But I don't I don't often get the question. And can I also speak to several candidates? Can I also speak to people that you haven't even placed? Who would speak to what the process is like to speak to? What was it like to work with you? What about when you do talk to my references? Did you ask them not just how did the search go? But what was it like what it candidates say about the process? Did candidates feel like they were communicated to they understood what was happening, that the conversation that they had with the executive search firm, felt completely natural, and absolutely along with everything they heard once they got involved in the interview process with the company itself. These are some of the things that make for a great process and a great experience for the for the candidate communication regularly and with a lot of very valuable information, things that the candidate doesn't have to be asking all the time. Well, can I get this information? Can I get that information? If I can't answer a lot of questions, I didn't do my due diligence enough up front. So those are some I want to be an extension of my client. I don't want to be a vendor to my client.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Two things are coming to mind one I feel like your answers there. Do a very effective job of adding diversity of voice to the executive search process. It's a different kind of diversity but I love that that gives the microphone to too many all involved should I say and and then additionally and completely a different topic but I can tell you're in the marketing and revenue practice based upon some of your word choice, like brand touches. It's something I'm following. Executive compensation matters.

KATE BULLIS: i But I will say thank you for bringing up that word diversity and end The voices that sometimes don't receive the microphone in the process, but should have to, frankly, when I conduct a chief marketing officer search, I don't just ask to have a sit down with the CEO, or one or two members of the board, I want to do a sit down with the chief revenue officer with the head of product, I want to talk to the head of HR, I want to talk to anyone that I would consider to be and who the CMO would consider to be a major stakeholder. Regardless of whether they're involved in the interview process, to me, if I don't surround sound, that person the hire that we want to make and get input from every side, I am not doing the search to justice. And I'm not going to be able to go to market with the full situation and story. What I learned on those recorded on ones is critical. Because I go back to the CEO, I'm going to say, before we go to market, you should know that we might not have alignment on this and this, let's make sure we have that alignment before we go out there and look for that beautiful new person. And so that's an invaluable part of the process. And having all those villagers in the in the process, and how they're invested to absolutely. And that's a and now they're dedicated to the right hire, they're going to put their time in. Because search process again, I can bring the horse to water, but I can't make it drink. If if the company doesn't really wrap their arms around that beautiful, talented person, and give them their own inputs their time, and then give me that feedback. So I can feed it. So it does take that village. And that's not my job. It's our job.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Absolutely. I feel like I'm hearing three or four guiding principles in what you're saying, Kate, and maybe I can get a gut check them with you. I'm hearing the importance of alignment and knowing priorities across the entire executive hiring committee beyond the CEO and board into product into HR into sales and revenue. So that's one thing too, as I hear the importance of a how fit, meaning how someone does their job, is it a fit for the organization's motive motive operating there values, things along those lines. And then I've also heard a consistent theme of the importance of communication as well. What have I missed?

KATE BULLIS: Bang on, on everything you said, I think the one thing that we might not have talked about is the importance that I've, I've determined over the years of knowing what you want, but also being open minded to how that can be achieved. And so what I mean by that is, I value a client, who's clear on what the goals for the business are and how those goals translate into qualifications and priorities of the winning candidate, I value that I seek that I tried to guide that conversation if I have to if it isn't already very clear from the start at the top of the search, absolutely. But at the same time, I also hope that my client keeps an open mind, what know what we want, but open minded to different ways, as I said earlier to skin that cat. So in the world of marketing, where I spend most of my time, we can all agree that in this particular cmo search that we're about to launch, it's likely that the right fit will look something like this x, y, and z. And I'm going to do all I can to bring you executives that actually match those things. But again, I hope that you'll trust me to show you other ways too, because there's never enough talent. There's never enough and and fetch is like, again, that's the groceries fetches for the store. There is no perfect there is no ideal on legs, there are just humans on legs. And so, we have to do our best to keep an open mind because the way to get to the goal can be achieved in different ways. So that would be the only other thing a great search process is clear and yet open minded.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Thank you that really is quite helpful and I can I can imagine different scenarios where that could be applied quite simply quite easily. Maybe we can get into process with with obviously the the understanding that process is not something that is 100% repeatable across candidates But what does your process look like? And what are common disruption points where maybe you've brought the horse to water and they don't drink.

KATE BULLIS: So, um, I started to share a bit of our process, right out of the gates, they're launching the search, for us is not just an intake of qualifications being sought. It is I'm listening for the story of your company. I'm listening for the story of this need, frankly, to sum it up. And one question, why are we here? Why are we conducting this search? What has happened until now? And what has to happen? From now, until 36 months from now? Right? That will tell us everything we need to know, both qualitative and quantitative. And it'll help me to understand the culture and be able to paint a picture about what will fit not just what will work. So that those that 360, I was telling you the surround sound of the ocean, that's the beginning of the process and having those stakeholder conversations, writing a position description that doesn't just list qualifications, but is specific on what does success look like? What are the outcomes that need to be, that are measures of success, and by when, and what's the priority? Again, we live in a world of ideals when it comes to position descriptions, but we must write it to know what the goals are right. And then the process from there is, let's begin conversations in the market. And that's what they are conversations, I think we can't forget that the candidate is one of the people in this village. So it's not just myself, and all those stakeholders in the client company. It's the candidate pool and the market itself. Let's make sure that we're engaging the market, that we're that market, those terrific, talented people may or may not be interested. But those conversations are valuable, if we let them be. So let's learn from them, and iterate if necessary. And then let's start to really make sure that a great process will include the client commitment, the company's commitment to cadence and feedback, and a process that communicates with the candidate not just internally and with the search firm. So those are a little those are some of the things about you know, our process, I do a weekly conversation with my client, every week, updating that company, on what we've heard, what we've done, and where we are, who we're presenting, who we're not presenting, and why. So that's just that's a, that's a commitment that we both have to make. And then finally, I would just say, it's, it's got to be things that, that, that go astray, can happen anywhere. And so that when I say go astray, I mean, the you know, the, the client company doesn't make itself available for interviews, or when they do interview, they take forever to bring feedback to the table, we lose talent. Because I will tell you that every terrific executive right now, if they're talking to you, they are absolutely talking to somebody else. And if they weren't, when you approach them, they will after they start talking to you. And they'll even be thinking about whether or not they should be staying in their own companies. And so always remember that the company that the executive is currently with is also a possibility, they can just walk away at any time and stay put. So I think that really big, big opportunities for fall down have to do with lack of communication and commitment between the search firm and the company. And lack of communication and commitment between the company and the candidate. And we are always trying to bring greatness together great executive with a great company. But we all have to be in it together. We have to put it down, that we are committed to this process, not to searching but to finding let's commit to the fight.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Once your clients get into that interview process, Kate, I imagine there are lots of good questions to ask, but are there a few you have found in your career really unlock whether connection is possible whether camaraderie and effectiveness is possible that that may be stand out in your mind.

KATE BULLIS: So a question is by whom, for whom I'm sorry, just if you could give me

CAITLIN ALLEN: short the questions that the your clients would ask candidates or in the reverse, but I was asking more about the company for the potential employer asking the candidate to assess the fit of that executive for their team.

KATE BULLIS: Well, fit comes in two forms, in my mind, one is fit for the outcomes we seek and fit for the company we are. And by company we are I'm referring to culture. And so all of those questions that that uncover the answers to those two buckets, in my mind, start with either how or why not typically, what, but how or why, why in the past, I see on your resume that you have done, you know, X, Y, Z, you might be thinking that's probably pretty relevant to what we need to achieve here. Question, How did you do it? How did you achieve that? It's, it's, it's, it's often that we can find parallels between an executive and that which needs to be done in our own companies. But it isn't often that it's an exact thing. You know, you took a company from 50 million to 150 million in 18 months, and you did that exactly the way we need to be done. It needed to be done in our market, you know, it's never good. It's never going to happen. So there's got to be a leap of faith, right? But the leap of faith becomes more of a like a jump instead of a leap. If we get under the how, how does this person work? Is that something that's transferable? Here? Are those warnings that this person has? Has? Has it as acquired? applicable here? So how and why questions on both culture and achievements?

CAITLIN ALLEN: Wonderful, thank you. Wrapping up. It wouldn't be an I didn't prep you for this one. It just came to mind. So so feel free to punt if you'd like, but this wouldn't be a compensation or a podcast might open comp, if I didn't ask about compensation and any trends that you see in that category? Executive compensation is crucial.

KATE BULLIS: Yeah. So again, I'll speak compensation wise. Any any major trends? No, nothing wildly different. What I will say, over the last couple of years, we've absolutely seen when it comes to equity, far more common now for equity to vest on a quarterly or monthly basis, that used to be a big deal. It's not a big deal anymore. In fact, it's only a big deal if you don't do it now. So companies whose stock vest annually on a cliff bases, that is something that you will see as a It's not competitive. Another thing is combinations of RSUs ps use, I'm seeing interesting combos now more and more. It's not just there was a time when it used to be a combination RSUs and options. That's kind of the thing of the past. Now, even private companies are starting to offer straight RSUs. And I would say I don't know if that's really a trend yet. But I have started to see it more and more. I would say also that bonuses seem to be getting bigger. And I think it's it's a general truism that the bigger the company, the bigger the bonus, frankly, and so a VP in a series B startup is not going to enjoy a 50% bonus. But it's incredibly now it's like standard for the C suite to enjoy 60 and 70 plus percent bonuses enlarged in large companies.

CAITLIN ALLEN: That's interesting. Well, thank you. Last question. If you could ask our listeners or HR executive listeners to remember one thing from this very content rich podcast, what would it be?

KATE BULLIS: Aye. Aye, aye. Well, we fetch versus search. And I recognize that your brand is is is is gold, and and brand equals experience. And so if you conduct a search, thinking about your target market, as a customer, instead of a candidate Um, don't think about your searches just go get it. It's we have to compel our market to us. Let's create a compelling experience. Not go out there and fetch. If you think with that mindset, if you if you change your mindset to that, I promise you, everything we've talked about today and more, it comes easily comes easily back into it. And all the things that that align, great search partner choices, great candidate choices, involvement from your executive leadership, team, Cadence, communication, it all cascades from a great experience and the process of compelling versus searching.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Well, thank you that that contrast, again, perfect way to close this out. Okay, thank you. We are so grateful for your time and your expertise.

KATE BULLIS: I'm grateful to be here. Thank you for asking me Caitlin.

CAITLIN ALLEN: It's been a pleasure.

KATE BULLIS: You too. Bye

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