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Humphrey looks for essential traits

Be passionate about what you do, check your ego at the door and articulate a clear approach to challenges, veteran consultant advises.

April 18, 2014
By William Ehart


When Elizabeth Humphrey interviews a CEO candidate, she is looking for two primary qualities: humility and passion.

The managing principal at Arlington, Va., executive search firm The McCormick Group says humility is a major part of being a good leader.

“” she told CEO Update. “If you look across the board at people who are effective, whether we call them true leaders or not, those are things that really rise.”

Humphrey listens closely to ensure that people don’t have outsize egos.
“Usually from the way they talk,” she said. “It’s never an ‘I,’ it’s more of a ‘we.’

“That doesn’t mean, especially with a CEO, that you don’t want people who have taken that step and been able to lead that charge, but you want them to be able to reflect on how they’ve gotten someplace because of the people they’ve surrounded themselves with,” she said.

Humphrey, 42, has always been passionate about her causes—from handing out peanuts for Jimmy Carter to working in presidential personnel for the Clinton administration—and she looks for the same in job candidates.

Judging passion sometimes takes intuition.

“If someone’s done their homework, they’ll draw some real life examples around an issue,” she said. “It doesn’t always have to be warm and fuzzy. It can be a policy issue. You can generally hear it and feel it in a conversation.”

Offer clear solutions

Other traits Humphrey values include confidence and clarity—knowing how to get things done.
“As executive recruiters, a lot of time people assume we’re job coaches and we’re there to help tell them what they should be doing, which is exhausting because we’re not,” she said.

“I like people to come to me with a clear idea of what they want to do and how they’re going to accomplish that. That’s very important, because that makes them more appealing to my clients.”

Intuition is a vital trait for a recruiter, one that Humphrey said she possesses.

“That’s a skill that has been honed over the years. I’ve learned to listen to my gut a lot more than in the past. I always tell people the most important thing a recruiter brings to the table is the ability to connect the dots and be able to read people, and I don’t think everybody can do that,” she said.

Humphrey and colleague Susy Howard built McCormick’s nonprofit practice early in Humphrey’s tenure with the firm, which began in 2001. Previously, she had been doing placements in human resources and law.

“We absolutely felt there was a market out there for us [in nonprofits],” Humphrey said. “It’s been very lucrative.”

Humphrey said that her firm benefits from being relatively small and family-owned, so it is able to devote more attention to each search.

“Here at The McCormick Group we do spend a lot of time, I would say more so than other search firms, with candidates across the board,” she said. “There’s a place for every [recruiting firm], but I certainly like the size of our company, the more boutique feel, because I do feel our relationships grow a little more.”

All in the family

Recruiting is a family affair for Humphrey—her husband, Ivan Adler, also is a principal at The McCormick Group. “We met at [the firm] and look at us now,” Humphrey said.

As much as she loves her profession, Humphrey concedes she has a hard time leaving it at the office—conversations at home often turn to the search business, if not baseball or politics.

Humphrey’s family has roots in Democratic Party politics: Her mother and father were active in get-out-the-vote efforts in her native Atlanta, and her dad worked in the Carter administration.

But Adler “is quite the opposite. He is from the other side,” Humphrey quipped. The baseball field has become common ground for the couple: She has adopted her husband’s fervor for the Boston Red Sox.

Humphrey is almost stumped when asked what she would do if she could do anything else in her career.

“I think everyone wants to be a philanthropist, right? I would love to be able to give out money to good causes. But you have to have deep pockets.

“I truly love what I do. I’m not sure what I’d rather be doing—sitting on a beach somewhere doing this?

“That would be a dream job for me—running some sort of search firm in Bermuda,” she said.