The art of 'C-level' headhunting

Feb 16, 2013 | South China Morning Post

May Tung worked for 22 years in the financial industry with leading banks such as JP Morgan before switching career with DHR International

By Enoch Yiu

Climbing the corporate ladder to reach the top rung of management in today's highly competitive environment requires a diverse set of skills that go beyond the basics of running a business, says May Tung, the managing director and head of financial services practice at headhunting firm DHR International in Asia.

Before joining DHR in 2005, Tung worked in the financial industry for 22 years with banks such as JP Morgan, Bank of America, Credit Suisse First Boston and Rabobank.

In 2003, she left banking to join the headhunting industry, first with Russell Reynolds Associates and two years later, with DHR, where her focus is on helping clients to reach "C-level" management or postings such as chief executive, chief operating officer or chief financial officer.

No surprise then, considering her banking background, that her client list is drawn mainly from upwardly mobile members of the banking, asset management and insurance sectors, as well as private equity firms and the public sector.

The South China Morning Post spoke to Tung and asked what qualities she would look for in prospective chief executives and how she identified promising candidates.

What are the qualities you look for in a prospective chief executive?

Ten years ago, clients would simply want someone who knew how to manage the day-to-day business. But in recent years clients have begun looking for more.

Besides knowing how to run the business, they want a candidate to have more diverse skills such as being able to establish team spirit among staff, implement changes in the company structure to make it run more efficiently, and to transform the business model when needed.

Companies also want their chief executives to have good relationships with regulators, government and others. As such, one needs to have versatile skills to be a chief executive.

How do you identify candidates to recommend to your clients?

We need to have a long talk with the client first. We need to know if they want to promote candidates internally or find an outsider to introduce fresh blood into the company. We also need to know what their key expansion areas are. For companies that want to expand substantially in Asia or China, we have to find someone who has knowledge about the region. So understanding what the clients want is the first step.

Then we find the candidates.

The most common approach is to consider the current deputies of the chief executives. Alternatively, we look for existing chief executives working in the same sector.

Sometimes cross-sector appointments can also be a benefit. For example, a bank that wants to expand into wealth management may like to hire someone from the insurance or asset management sector to head the department involved in investment.

How does life as a headhunter compare with being a banker?

As a banker, you have a whole team to back you up. You only need to focus on your area of business. But in a head-hunting firm, which has a smaller team, you have to roll up our sleeves to serve your clients. We have to meet them to understand what they want and then do the interviews for the potential candidates. This is a people's business.

What was your most interesting assignment?

There was an overseas client who wanted to establish an Asian presence. They were looking for a C-level type role requiring a professional with strong investment as well as operating experience. One of the asset classes under management was related to luxury brands.

As part of the due diligence on the candidates, I had to visit luxury brand malls in major cities. I had to shop on the job, to understand the business strategy in managing this asset class!

Is pay package the main reason for a chief executive to cross over to another company?

Not entirely. Besides the pay package, many candidates eye other factors and in many cases this may be quite personal, including whether the new job will require them to relocate their family. They may also need to check if their spouses or partners are willing to move, and they must consider their children's education opportunities.

Sometimes, we have very good candidates who are interested in the job, but then their partners are not willing to relocate. As a result, they did not accept the job.

What is the most sought-after skill in the market?

In terms of region, there are many companies that want to expand into Asia, particularly China. As such, there is great demand for C-level management candidates with Asian experience.

Those who can speak at least one Asian language would be at an advantage.

In the absence of direct Asian experience, those who have worked in emerging markets such as eastern Europe and Latin America would also have an advantage as they have experience in running a business in a growing emerging market.

In terms of industry, companies in the consumer sectors, health-care industries and wealth management are in expansionary mode.

How does your banking background help you to be a headhunter?

Besides having a network in the industry, equally important is possessing industry knowledge and understanding a client's business objectives.

Having been a line manager with bottom-line and managerial responsibilities, I am able to act as a true business partner for my clients, resulting in successful closure with "strong-fit" candidates.

Click here for the South China Morning Post article.