Blood, Sweat, and Garlic: Four Lessons about Executive Recruiting that I Learned on the Police Beat

newspaper stackThough at this point in my life I have been making a living as a restaurant-industry executive recruiter longer than anything else, I had another career before this one that has turned out to be a great segue: newspaper journalism.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was fortunate to start my post-college career at what may be one of the few remaining small-town daily papers with a spirit of bulldog-like tenacity in producing rigorous and responsible journalism.

This goes back to the ancient days of 2000, when Google was still a novelty and mass newspaper closings and job cuts weren’t of huge concern (143 American newspapers closed in 2009 alone). The editor-in-chief, who was bulldog-like in appearance and demeanor, ensured that his young and collegial five-person writing staff held the local officials in Gilroy, CA, accountable.

We diligently reported on any whiff of corruption as well as all of the general daily goings-on of the town. This being The Gilroy Dispatch, the yearly highlight was the three-day reporting marathon during the Gilroy Garlic Festival, in which we reported every conceivable angle of garlic news. At one point or another, I covered every beat but sports. My main responsibility was the crime beat, which threw me into the town’s surprisingly dark underbelly.

Garlic reporting aside, some might find it unusual to go from journalism to recruiting restaurant and foodservice executives, but I quickly discovered that my “nose for news” developed at the paper was naturally put into use in recruiting.

Here are the four fundamentals learned in the news room that I’ve relied on to serve my recruiting clients and candidates:

  • Pick up the phone. While my boss at the paper was a crusty editor who was extremely hard to please, the ultimate master was the deadline. The daily deadline was a relentless beast that left no time for doing anything whatsoever but going straight to the horse’s mouth to find out whatever was needed for a story.

I often had under an hour to get the mayor, the chief of police or any other citizen of the town on the phone to answer probing questions. I found that just as a reporter learns to cultivate a roster of good sources reachable at a moment’s notice to provide the inside scoop and the hottest leads, a good executive recruiter builds relationships and has no hesitation to call anyone.

Now I still have to expediently reach some pretty busy people on the phone, though the questions are much different; i.e.: “tell me about where you are in your career…”

  • Shut up and listen. In news reporting, I learned that asking a question, “zipping it,” and then taking copious notes was the way the get a good quote or key information for a story.

Sticking to this simple strategy of listening has helped me to understand the nuances of what my recruiting clients are looking for and what issues are most important to the candidates when they are contemplating a job change. Silence is golden; especially after you’ve asked a good question.

  • Focus on the facts and take what you hear with a grain of salt. In journalism, the consequences of getting your facts wrong are severe and mortifying. The error is duplicated in print thousands of times and distributed all over town, which is embarrassing for the reporter and potentially damaging for others.

Good reporters learn to gather specific, objective details rather than vague estimations and assumptions. In recruiting, an ear for the details and dedication to gathering and presenting thorough, accurate information to my clients and candidates helps to get everyone on the same page and get the job done right.

  • Even on the worst day of recruiting, at least everyone is safe and healthy. My assignment to the police beat entailed going straight to the scene of all kinds of terrible events, from murder, arson, and abuse to deadly accidents, even though it completely freaked me out. My days always started by contacting the fire station and sheriff and making an in-person visit to the police station to see if anything newsworthy had happened the night before. My role was to write detailed reports on the tragedy du jour, adhering to the editor’s mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Even on my very last day on the police beat, a young man lost his life in the early morning hours speeding through a red light and not seeing the tractor trailer that was making a left turn in front of him.

I know his tiny sports car was crushed like a tin can because I had to go to the scene and interview the emergency workers involved about what happened. Then I had to locate his closest relative, his sister, to tell me the details of his life. Through her tears, she was actually appreciative that I was there to talk to her and record some good things about her brother’s life.

Now, in the unique perch that executive search gives me to the corporate world, I know there are occasional stresses to navigate. I have seen deals go south. I regularly talk to good candidates who are out on the street. My heart pains for them. I’ve seen and heard about the metaphorical backstabbing that can happen in the C-suite and middle management. I’ve witnessed frightfully bruised egos.

While this can be awful for the people involved, it does not compare to the trauma I saw on the police beat. I remind myself sometimes when things get challenging, and I see that people may have to lose some paychecks and opportunities, at least there’s no literal blood on the pavement.

The instincts I honed in a fast-paced news room got into my blood.

To sum it up, what I have taken from  journalism into executive search is to pick up the phone, shut up and listen, focus on the facts, and remember at the end of the day that no matter what happens in our careers, there are more important things in life to be grateful for.

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