Silicon Foundry’s expanding network of Corporate Members are driving transformation at some of the world’s most respected global brands — from leaders in mobility, mining and telecom, to beauty, retail, energy, financial services and beyond.
Monica Bua and Lynn Wu are senior partners at Morgan Samuels, a leading executive search firm, where they lead searches across emerging products & technology, consumer goods & retail, business services, and hospitality & leisure, among other industries.
The two of you have been working for 15-plus years in recruiting. What’s your favorite aspect of the job? What do you like about it?
Lynn: I absolutely love what I do. It’s really thrilling finding the perfect candidate for a client and knowing that you’ve found the right match for the role. It is very rewarding when clients call us to share with us the specific impacts our placements have had on their businesses. We’re in a hugely impactful industry because executive talent can make or break a company’s success. It’s gratifying to see our clients grow and succeed and to know that we had a role to play in that success.
Monica: Yes, the impact is huge — both for candidates and clients, in terms of helping executives define their careers, and companies shift strategies or experience major growth because of a placement. The exposure we have to top global boards and CEOs is extremely invigorating. I am also constantly wowed by our team. They are ninjas and relentless and really do recruit the best talent on the planet.
How did you both end up in executive search and at Morgan Samuels in particular?
Lynn: I was an industrial engineering major at Stanford and after graduating, ended up at a technical recruiting firm focused on placing software engineers in Silicon Valley. I really loved it and did well during the dot com boom — and then the bubble burst in 2001. I then spent some time in the temporary staffing side of the business at Robert Half before deciding to get my MBA at UCLA. After graduating, I worked at Morgan Stanley in wealth management for a couple of years, but it wasn’t my passion. I had always loved recruiting, so I ended up in executive search and joined Morgan Samuels. What drew me to the company was the exceptional people. I was incredibly impressed with everyone I met with and the collaborative and team-oriented atmosphere. The firm’s dedication to excellence and quality, and the value we have for constantly refining and improving what we do really makes this a special place. It’s why I’m still here over a decade later.
Monica: Similar to Lynn, I got swept up into the dot com heyday in the late 90s. I was set to get my PhD in cognitive psychology, but took a left turn and joined Trilogy, an enterprise software company recruiting engineers. When the economy came to a screeching halt in 2001, instead of going back to get my PhD, I decided to do my MBA. After UCLA Anderson, I joined Morgan Samuels. The rest is history.
The two of you have worked together for over a decade, which seems unique in an industry where there is a lot of hopping from firm to firm.
Monica: Lynn and I have been working together for over a decade, starting as consultants and working our way up to the partner ranks. When I joined the firm in 2004, we didn’t have a Technology practice, so we built the Emerging Products practice from scratch. It’s kind of been “my baby,” and we’ve been able to craft it according to the demands of the market.
We’ve experimented a lot in terms of what vetting tools work in an industry that’s constantly changing, as well as how to assess candidates and predict success in emerging product categories. We have designed a set of proprietary tools that get at the future state of the organization. It’s powerful to work with executive teams and shift their thinking from a list of executive qualifications vs. what the future objectives are of their company and aligning that with talent.
You’d be surprised how many times even the most talented CEOs and executives have a disconnect on wants vs. needs. Guiding this process and creating alignment is strategic and extremely challenging but gratifying.
Doing the hard work upfront has allowed us to have one of the lowest cycle times in the industry. In the Tech practice we place candidates in 65 days (the industry average is around 180 days.) Half of our placements are women which I’m very proud of.
Lynn: It would be extremely hard to replicate what we’ve built at Morgan Samuels. The team is beyond impressive in terms of rigor, and the results-oriented nature of the firm in addition to its collaborative, team-oriented environment are important to me.
I lead our Consumer practice and I co-lead our Technology and Healthcare practices. One of the unique aspects of Morgan Samuels, and probably why we’ve never become the size of our competitors, is that our partners focus so much on execution. This is pretty unique at the partner level in executive search. We have partners across the board at our firm that are actively recruiting and interviewing — day in and day out — and focused on landing the best possible human being for our clients. We have 30 people at our firm and on every assignment, we have a team of five to six people solely focused on execution: in some cases, for example, two partners, a principal, two consultants, and a dedicated researcher.
Are there any other aspects of Morgan Samuels that are important to you that differentiate the firm?
Lynn: As Monica mentioned we have a very high diversity placement rate. In our tech practice, 50% of our placements are women. We are proud of our level of follow-up as well. Candidates are always impressed when we circle back with them to close the loop, regardless of the outcome. We also conduct quality surveys with both clients and candidates at the end of our searches to get feedback on what we’re doing well in addition to areas of improvement.
Internally, we’re constantly looking at ways to innovate and improve ourselves and do Kaizen events twice a year. Our process ten years ago was very different from what it looks like now because it’s constantly changing and evolving, and we take into account feedback that we hear from the market. We’re not afraid to shake things up and push the envelope. We are very metrics-driven, so we track our results closely and are constantly striving for continuous improvement as a company.
Can you talk a little bit about your clients, the types of roles that you typically fill, and searches that you execute? Any commonality across industries and types of roles?
Monica: Our Technology practice is the largest sector, so we are very heavily focused on partnering with companies that are at the bleeding edge and in a transformative place in their evolution. We also often work with B2C companies that are trying to become much more digital in their offerings or services.
Our strategy is to partner with a few clients and do deep and meaningful work with them. We can have a very wide market from a hands-off perspective and be able to pursue virtually any candidate out there without client restrictions. We build out entire C-suites and teams below them. From a functional perspective, we’re pretty balanced across Finance, Operations, Marketing, Sales, Technology and Digital leaders.
Have there been any sorts of trends that you’ve noticed around new types of roles you’re hiring for? Maybe more around innovation or digitization in firms?
Lynn: Definitely. I just came out of a conversation like that with a financial services company that doesn’t think of themselves as a financial services company but are branding themselves as a technology company and that’s how they want to be perceived by the market.
We’ve seen a lot of trends in the consumer industry as well, particularly around omni-channel and building an integrated customer experience across multiple platforms. Traditional brick-and-mortar or wholesale retailers are looking for leaders who bring digital capabilities to tie together in-store, mobile and online channels. How do you build something that is completely seamless in terms of the customer experience? That’s a huge trend that we’re seeing, and what your team is doing at Silicon Foundry is so interesting because it’s at the forefront of that trend. It’s been exciting to partner with those companies that are looking for digital leaders to take them to the next level.
Are you seeing changes in the types of candidates being placed? Any out of the norm backgrounds that have surprised you?
Lynn: Yes, absolutely. For example, an insurance company I spoke with recently does not want someone from their industry. They are looking for someone with a technology background because they are looking to distinguish themselves from peers in their market. There’s a trend of industries that have not previously been at the forefront of technology looking to make this evolution. It does often require them to hire more “outside-the-box” because executives within their industry aren’t always perceived as being on the cutting edge of what’s new and innovative. They want to be differentiated and unique in what they’re offering, and this usually requires someone outside the industry who can lend that new perspective.
So I imagine it must be pretty competitive, too. How are companies getting an edge in securing these high-quality candidates?
Monica: Yes, it’s extremely competitive right now in the market, probably one of the most competitive markets that I have seen. We’re seeing a lot of situations where candidates are receiving multiple offers. Companies that traditionally have been able to get away with moving slowly in the past are no longer successful. They’re losing candidates based on timing because they’re just not able to move quickly enough in their process to get these people onboard. We’ve been spending a lot of time with our clients helping them think through that process. We also spend a good amount of time helping our clients think through how they are positioning opportunities. What makes it compelling? Why should someone from one of the hot tech companies potentially join? What kind of impact could they make? What’s the visibility? That’s where having the right search partner who can communicate that story is extremely important. That can make or break in terms of attracting that top talent to the table. I think the other important point to mention is just because a candidate has an offer from Facebook, Amazon and Google, it doesn’t mean they are the right hire. In competitive markets where demand is higher than supply you really have to do reference checking and vetting of candidates to make sure you are hiring the real deal and not getting caught up in the chase.
How do you find the candidates or how do they find you? Maybe share a little bit more on the process of how you guys work your magic.
Lynn: Great question. Our business is highly relationship-based. I’ve done over 250 searches by this point in my career and over the years, I’ve built a strong network and kept in touch with candidates and clients. If the search is in a new area for us or we don’t have as deep of a network, we usually have subject matter experts who we can call and source for ideas. On top of that, we have a strong research function at our company.
Monica: I believe I am up to 300 searches by now. Our research function is as large as that of search firms ten times our size. An important differentiator for us is the ability to think critically and build a very tailored target list for a client. We have a systematic approach to canvassing the market and are thoughtful around who the top executives are that we should be reaching out to. Do we know this person? How can we get networked in if we don’t? We are tenacious in our approach to connecting with the best talent for a given search.
What tools do you use to get a good understanding of candidates and fit?
Lynn: We leverage Executive Assessment tools such as the Predictive Index, which has both a behavioral and cognitive component, and we have several certified PI practitioners on our team.
We’re not just assessing personality and drive but also, from a cognitive perspective, how they problem solve and how quick they are on their feet. The cognitive test can be a powerful predictor of likelihood of success in a new role.
We can also provide feedback from a fit perspective on how a particular candidate will mesh with a hiring manager. We have the hiring manager take the personality portion as well and we analyze candidate-manager strengths, weaknesses, and tips for working together prior to a hiring decision being made. These insights are also powerful from an on-boarding perspective after the candidate is hired.
Do you spend a lot of time with the client on the front end understanding the long-term vision of the company?
Monica: Absolutely. Intake meetings are critical for us to understand both the company vision and the position we’re looking to fill. We ask our clients about the key business objectives that they are looking for this person to accomplish in the first couple of years. From there, we think critically about what the appropriate requirements are for the role. The intake meetings are key, as we dig into a lot of detail around the company and culture so that we can understand who’s going to be the right fit and successful stepping into the role.