Most businesses begin with spreadsheets, market analyses and strategic plans. Salveson Stetson Group (SSG) began with a five-page questionnaire, completed individually by Sally Stetson and me, asking questions like – Why do you want to start this business?
What do you think you bring to the partnership? What are you most worried about?
Sally and I knew the business would only succeed if our partnership succeeded. And the partnership would only succeed if we had shared values and goals. No marketing plan or strategy will overcome partners working for different purposes and reasons. Once we knew we were aligned, we started to build the business plan for SSG.
It would take a lot more than a blog post to recount what I learned along the way and why SSG achieved some level of success – including being named a Best Executive Recruiting Firm by Forbes for five years. But here are a few things that come to mind that I believe were critical to our success over the past 25 years:
- Know what business you are in and stick to it. One of the hardest things about starting a business is saying no. The first search we were offered came through a good friend, who called to say he might have an assignment for us. I asked about the salary, and it was low. So, I told him it would not meet our minimum fee. He asked whether we had any business, and I said no. But I explained that if we took a search below the level we were targeting, we would struggle to become the firm we wanted to be – a firm known for helping organizations find their most senior executive leaders.
- The success or failure of the business is tied directly to the people you bring into the firm. And once you bring them in, you must give them reasons to stay and invest in your mutual success. Someone much smarter than me said this, and I believe it completely, “If you want your employees to treat your clients well, you better treat your employees like clients.”
- Be humble and open-minded. When your name is on the door, there is a risk you might think you are clever and exceptional. We learned early on to get excellent advisors and listen to them. We also learned the people best able to improve our firm and how we did business were our colleagues at the forefront, actively doing the work.
- Embrace a philosophy of optimism and abundance. There is enough business to go around. Be sure not to over-manage people because when your team shares your values and vision for the future, you will achieve mutual success. Similarly, when you can align with your client’s goals, you can accept some risk to enhance the partnership versus trying to squeeze every dollar out of every search fee. Be generous and involved in the community. Don’t worry about whether that involvement will bring in business.
- Reputation is everything. Everything you do – inside and outside of the business – creates your reputation. Do good work even when it is hard and treat everyone with respect. Take accountability and do the right thing even when no one is looking.
But the most important thing I learned is this – pick a great partner. Find someone who is strong where you are weak and who is kind enough to accept your idiosyncrasies. Your partner must be someone you trust completely and who you can be honest with – no matter how painful or uncomfortable. By far, the best decision I ever made in my entire business career was to partner with Sally Stetson. I know with complete certainty that none of the successes we have enjoyed throughout the past 25 years would have happened without her. And for that, I am grateful beyond words.