Dedicated to quality of life
There’s a buzz around Witt/Kieffer, a feel-good factor that keeps getting better. In the last three-years they have grown revenue by 54%, filled more than 94% of their searches and watched their quality scores keep rising. What’s more impressive is that they’ve delivered these results without aggressive expansion, new sector coverage or audacious international growth. Charles W.B. Wardell, III (Chuck to anyone who knows him), who joined Witt/Kieffer in 2011 as President and CEO, explains: “When I submitted my business plan to the board it was about doing more for our existing clients. Over the last three years we’ve had the same customers with the same executives. I didn’t buy anything and didn’t go out and hire any ‘rainmakers’.”
When he joined Witt/Kieffer, Wardell’s resume was already very impressive: a decorated military veteran with extensive corporate experience including stints at American Express and MasterCard, more than ten years at Korn/Ferry and a recipient of the AESC’s Gardner Heidrick Award in 2008 for his outstanding contribution to the executive search industry. But interviewing as a candidate for Witt/Kieffer proved to be a formative experience on his future leadership style, a perspective he considers himself very fortunate to have been afforded. “In a major firm a senior job comes up probably every 15 years and they generally appoint from within,” he says. “For various reasons Witt decided not to this time. After a reasonable career I found myself on the other end of the search process.”
Interviewing as a candidate put Wardell in a reflective mood. One of his first actions as President and CEO was to write to candidates who had come second or third in recent Witt/Kieffer searches, all 2,600 of them. “If you’re not careful, for every candidate you place you can lose two or three other great people,” he says.
The feedback was encouraging – Witt/Kieffer had a 92% positive reaction – but the research, coupled with his own experience, showed him where the firm could refine. “I made a lot of adjustments based on my own experience,” he says. “Whether that’s calling candidates back at a specific time to give them updates, ensuring that if someone has travelled a long way for a meeting it happens on time, or talking up front about qualifications and expectations because, no matter how well-written they are, job descriptions don’t always represent reality.”
In the context of Witt/Kieffer’s strong performance over the last three years, it is worth noting that Wardell has pursued subtle tweaks not wholesale changes, a tightening of screws rather than significant overhauling. Part of this is due to the strength of culture and sense of heritage apparent when he joined Witt/Kieffer. “For over 45 years our firm has been dedicated to improving the quality of life,” Wardell says. “We only have practices that enhance the quality of life [healthcare, education, not-for-profit]. So you have to design your firm according to the culture that you’re operating in. In my world, I’m not interested in the big, elbows-out $4 million producers so I don’t hire them.”
It is important to Wardell that Witt/Kieffer operates with integrity; regardless of whether you are a partner or a researcher, talking to a client, a candidate or a member of your team, you have to adhere to certain standards. He accepts that, more than anyone else, he must set an example. One such illustration is the creation of a community service fund, intended to donate money and resources to good causes that are meaningful to Witt/Kieffer’s clients. “You can say what you want but over a long period of time the firm takes over the culture of the people running it,” he explains. “I believe in quality of life internally. I’ve set the business up this way because I want people to be able to go home, to enjoy their families and to be at soccer games. I don’t take every nickel out of the place, but invest in my people. It shows in how we treat our clients.”
Wardell is quietly confident: modest, yet proud. He doesn’t often acknowledge his intelligent observations with any kind of fanfare, almost slipping them under the conversational radar for you to reflect on later. But it is clear that he is gratified with the culture he has fostered at Witt/Kieffer – he explains that in the last three years no search consultant has left Witt/Kieffer unless they have been asked to leave: “It feels like every search firm in the world has called us, but we haven’t lost anyone.”