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Career tip from Hortum: Achieve more, schmooze less

High-profile consultant says candidates need to earn reputation in others’ eyes; offer examples when interviewing, but don’t talk too much

May 1, 2015
By William Ehart


Leslie Hortum—one of the most prominent nonprofit executive recruiters—might not have time to meet you. But the head of Spencer Stuart’s Washington office is all ears when someone else says you’re an up-and-comer.

“I wish I had a nickel for everybody who has said, ‘Can we just have a cup of coffee so I can tell you about my career? Can we have lunch or a drink?’

“There’s no way I can meet all the people who want to be on my radar,” she told CEO Update from her office in the Willard Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The best answer for them is just keep doing a great job so when I’m doing a search and I call someone from the Committee of 100 or one of my friends who runs another association and I say ‘Who are the five best future leaders in the association community,’ they all say, ‘Have you talked to so-and-so? He’s great.’

“I want your name to be out there because you are giving back, because you are engaged, and because you are doing a super job for your members,” she said.

Another way to meet Hortum might be to join charitable endeavors she supports, such as So Others Might Eat, which provides meals for poor and homeless people in Washington, D.C. Hortum is vice chair of the group’s corporate advisory board.

But again, establishing your career reputation comes first.

“If all you do is schmoozing and networking, that’s not really going to be helpful, so you have to find that balance,” she said.

Decades of experience
Hortum is a 15-year veteran of executive search, having been recruited into the industry by Korn Ferry, where she spent three years. Prior to that Hortum had logged 20 years in association management, including senior roles at the American Trucking Associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As senior vice president of federation development at the Chamber, Hortum helped revitalize the group’s Association Committee of 100, which at the time was little more than a social and networking group, she said.

“We worked hard to develop a more robust agenda and to bring in speakers and make it not just a networking thing but also a learning and business opportunity, and that’s what it has become. It’s grown much further than anything I could have done,” she said.

Have you helped a recruiter today?
Search consultants—Hortum included—all say that assisting them with a search for which you are not a candidate can do wonders for your own career. Keeping abreast of executive openings—such as those in CEO Update—may have benefits beyond your own immediate job search.

“It’s really helpful when somebody emails me and says, ‘I see you’re doing the search for such-and-such group, and I may not be the person but you ought to look at so-and-so.’ You’re helping me solve a problem and I love that,” Hortum said.

When you are involved in a Hortum-led search but don’t get the job, seek feedback from her.

“For most of the candidates, the search that they’re going through with me for the first time is a dress rehearsal, because only one gets hired. So I get to see people in action, see how they play, hear what the search committee says about them, how they present themselves.

“They should follow up with me and say, ‘Gee, I’m disappointed, I want to know why, where I fell short, what I can do differently or better next time,’” she said.

“Part of my job is to give people pretty honest feedback, especially if I like them and want to use them as a candidate in another search.

“A great question we often ask is, ‘What have you learned, how has your management style changed, how have you evolved as a leader?’ If you didn’t have a great answer the first time, you better have one the second time, because I’m going to ask you again.”

Don’t blow smoke
A key interviewing skill—obvious as it sounds—is to answer questions with specific examples of your accomplishments and keep answers concise and to the point.

“Too many people sound like they’re blowing smoke,” Hortum said. “If you haven’t done it, say, ‘I actually don’t have experience in that regard, but I see you’re also very interested in other experiences, so here are the three other boxes I check very well.’

“A common mistake is that people talk too much. They just go on and on and they don’t answer the question they’re really being asked.

“If you’re reading the room and you feel like you haven’t quite hit the chord, say, ‘Have I answered the question or were you trying to get at something else?’ Engage with them, ask them, but don’t just keep talking to fill the air,” she said.