Gerry Roche, Heidrick & Struggles’ Main Man Since the 1960s, Shares his Philosophy on What Makes a Great Search Consultant

Gerry Roche is it at dinner with his friends. Not a fan of small talk, he doesn’t want to discuss golf scores, the weather, grandchildren or real estate (“20 minutes of that is ok, but that’s it!”). He wants to get to know the people sitting at his dinner table, beyond their incidentals; he wants to know what really makes them tick.

“What do you want to have on your tombstone?” he says, to the surprise of everyone sitting around the table. He proceeds to chair a conversation about epitaphs, but before he gets a chance to say his own, his wife interjects: “I don’t know what my husband is going to say, but I’ll tell you what it should be. 'I’ve got to make a call.'" The guests around the table laugh, as does Gerry. She follows with a comment that makes him smile when he retells the story now: “I hope he gets an answer.”

But (as he would likely say himself), what is the point of this story? Well it gets to the core of why, after 50 years of filling some of the most high-profile and challenging positions on American boards, he is still working for Heidrick & Struggles. “I wish I didn’t love this job as much as I do,” he says. “I’m 82 years old and I should have retired long ago. But what is more fascinating than trying to understand the human condition? The human being is an ineffable figure.”

“I am still looking for a better job”

Gerry Roche, a past recipient of the AESC Lifetime Achievement Award, is an elder statesman of what is still a relatively young industry. But, as he tells it, his entry to retained search was accidental. Back in the early ‘60s, Roche was contacted by Gardner Heidrick, co-founder of Heidrick & Struggles, who was trying to fill a position for a client. Roche wasn’t interested but when he turned it down, Heidrick asked him to open a New York office for his growing search business, saying: “You couldn’t be in a better place to look for a new job than in one of my offices.”

So began a long and distinguished career at Heidrick & Struggles (despite his jokes that he is still looking for a better job), which included lengthy stints as President and CEO, Chairman, and Senior Chairman. Few have had a larger impact on our industry, or grabbed as many headlines from intrigued business journalists so it is remarkable that, by his own admission, he knew nothing about being a headhunter when he first started out. So what did Gardner Heidrick see in him and, years later, what does Roche look for in his industry peers?

“Number one: there is no substitute for integrity,” he says passionately. “If you don’t have that, I don’t care what else you have, go do something else. Number two: human sensitivity. You have got to read people. Number three: always take the long-term approach. Avoid short-term expediency because life is a long-term deal.”

Roche has a way of making some of the most complicated board searches sound easy, which is partly down to his own passion and enthusiasm, but he regularly returns to these three principles as the cornerstone of great search work. “Good recruiters are not stereotypes,” he says, “except for those traits. Tom Neff, my number one competitor – who I think the world of – is about as different from me as you can get.”

This article was originally published in the first issue of Search Magazine now renamed Executive Talent Magazine.