Hiring The Best Leaders with Jeanne Branthover

September, 2019

In the Media

Episode Summary:

A company of effective leaders is an effective company. Jeanne Branthover, one of the most influential people in the world when it comes to executive search, talks about hiring the best leaders to run your organization or company. Shes opens up about her unique background of how she was taught the importance of relationships and how women can do anything, including making a difference in the world. As she reveals the four secrets to winning a new job, she also highlights the importance of patience and having genuine empathy and transparency to success.

Hiring The Best Leaders with Jeanne Branthover

I’m honored to have Jeanne Branthover with me. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her in person when I was speaking to her company, DHR International. She is a cohead and managing partner for the New York office. She works closely with the partners and her global clients on senior-level searches, personally managing assignments. She is known for her hands-on approach where she consults with clients on succession planning, organizational change, precision hiring and talent management. She’s recruited across industries and functions, identifying boards and C-Suites and senior-level decision-makers. She is a leader in the firm’s CEO and Board Advanced Technology and Financial Services Practices. She specializes in placing women on boards and in senior leadership positions, as well as ensuring representation of diversity on every assignment and in all industries. She frequently appears on television to offer her expertise on current trends and human capital. She’s regularly quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Forbes. You can see why I’m so honored to have her with us. She’s been named one of the world’s Top 50 Most Influential Headhunters by Business Week. Jeanne, welcome.

Thank you so much. That is one entry into the program. Thank you.

It’s all true. I’ve seen you in action. I’ve seen your energy and your dynamo force. One of the things I like to ask my guests is can you tell us your own story of origin? You can go back to childhood, high school, college or whatever it was when you started to get a sense of, “This is what I want to do with my life,” or “This is what matters to me.”

My story is unique because there are a couple of things that are important. First of all, did I grow up knowing I was going to be an executive search? The answer is absolutely not. I didn’t even know what executive search was. Growing up, I had a very unique and special childhood having parents that were pretty awesome. My father was the first person in his family to graduate from law school, even get a college education. He was at the right time, right place. He met Morita, who started Sony. They became close friends. That’s where I learned for the first time about relationships. Morita asked my father to open up his own law firm and my father was Sony’s lawyer for my entire life. My mom was a fiercely prominent woman of her time. She was the first woman on the Board of Ed in the town that I grew up in Manhasset, Long Island. She was the person that made sure that segregation ended. I had a bodyguard somewhat during school because things were changing so rapidly and my mother was the person making it happen.

I had the woman leadership from my mom’s, looking at her and watching her, and then my dad was this big lawyer who believed that a woman could do anything. I was taught from a very young age that, “Whatever you want to do, Jeanne, you’re going to be able to do, just put your mind to it and you’ll be able to do it.” That combined with I’m very lucky that I’m naturally athletic. I played every sport. I was the captain of different things. I always wanted to be in charge. That combination became who I am. I was going to be a teacher. I love kids. I love teaching. I love educating. I love making people the best that they can be. I went to school for elementary ed, which seems odd with what I’ve become. If you can believe it, elementary ed probably taught me more than many things. It taught me how to hold hands. It taught me how to build relationships. It taught me patience. It taught me lesson planning down to the second and it made me the most organized person in the entire world.

I love what you’ve already said. It reminds me of that book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. This concept of your dad teaching you the value of relationships, which I know is a key success to your career. Your mom teaching you the impact of making a difference in the world, social impact, combined with your athletic background, teaching you teamwork. That is a recipe for success. For everyone who’s reading, even if you weren’t fortunate enough to have a background like that, you can still take a look at those three elements, relationships, social impact and teamwork. You can say to yourself, “What do I need to parent myself in? What do I need to teach my coworkers about one of these three areas?” I may not have had this great foundation in, but I need to study it or become friends with somebody or model that behavior. There’s been this concept of patience. I want to double click on that as you continue your story. I don’t know about you, Jeanne, but as a person with a sales background and a career, we are so challenged on being patient with, “Why isn’t this happening? Why isn’t the sales closed? Why hasn’t this person made a decision yet?” I’m fascinated that you learned patience with elementary children, please continue. What did you end up doing after getting your focus with elementary education?

I graduated in elementary ed and had every intention of teaching for the rest of my life. I graduated from the University of Maryland, which I loved Maryland. I loved my experience. I was a sorority girl, which was fabulous. I graduated and started teaching right away. I taught third and fourth grade. I taught back then in something called a POD System, which was all the classes together. It was chaotic but fun. I actually loved it. I was probably the only teacher that still had braces on, so kids loved me and it was an incredible experience. My husband wanted to move to New York and felt strongly that he wanted to live in the city. He thought that teaching was not utilizing the best of my skills other than that I loved it.

I was very lucky where my sister, who had been a headhunter, had fallen into executive search and said, “Jeanne, this is perfect for us.” Growing up with a dad who exposed us to high-level clients from a very young age. My mother would have Sony men to our house and I had to serve them. I learned that the word maybe means no. It was an incredible experience and it did teach us that we’re fearless as far as level of people, cultures and trying something new from a very young age. I then fell into head-hunting, which now people go to school for this and it’s much more of a focus of HR. Back then, I fell into it and loved it. This is a job that you know in a very short period of time if you’re going to be able to do it and also that it’s your passion.

I found out in three months that this was my thing. Building relationships, meeting new people and working hard to make them happy. It was just me. I am the luckiest person in the world that I found at 22 something that I love. After doing it for six months, the company that I was working for was a very large company and the head of the office sat me down and said, “Jeanne, you’re so good at this. We’re going to give your clients over to these other people and you get more clients.” I may be blonde, but I am not dumb. I sat down with my dad and I said, “Dad, I think that this is not a good thing for me. I think I should open up my own company.” I was 22 years old. I’ve been doing this for six months.

That’s the definition of fearless, Jeanne.

I borrowed $6,000. My mother was my secretary. My first space was at 49th in Madison in New York City. It had a card table, two phones, my mother and myself. My mother had her jewelry on. She was in the office. She didn’t know how to type. It was hysterical. She answered the phone and she was awesome. That’s how I started at the time Branthover Associates. I have to tell you a funny story that tells you as the years go by. During the ‘80s, partly the ‘80s and the ‘90s, it was very cool to have big parties for your clients. As I became more successful, my mother was my secretary for the first year. She’s happy that I replaced her with a real secretary and then she became my mother again. Years later, I was having one of these parties. I would have a holiday party at the King Cole Bar in New York City. My mom was at the party. The party was about 250 people and it was my clients and my candidates and it was a wonderful way to celebrate our relationship.

One of my clients from way back then said to my mother, “Weren’t you Jeanne’s first secretary? It’s amazing you stayed in touch.” My mother said, “I’m her mother.” That always brings a smile to my face because my mother was good at helping me. The client, the fact he remembered her was awesome. That’s where I began and started the roots of my company. With clients and things, I learned very quickly that I was good at what I do and I’m very blessed that it is me. I formed my own process. I had never worked for someone else truly doing the search from beginning to end as if it was retained search.

One of my first clients was GE and I became very close to the head of human resources. He resonated with me. He saw that I loved what I did. He taught me the GE culture, what GE looked for and we worked very well together. One of my first incredible opportunities as a businesswoman and as an entrepreneur is I was called in to meet with Jack Welch at a very young age. I was asked to meet with him because Jack was starting a division called CIG, which was Corporate Initiatives Group. That group he wanted to form where I was to recruit from Booz, Bain, McKinsey, the top consulting firms to find exceptional young leaders, dynamic leaders who would be forming this group. They would be shadowing the presidents of the divisions and then eventually moving into that division to be the successor to the president.

I met with Jack Welch and this is what I learned from him. Whether you liked him or not, he was an incredible man in person, charismatic, a leader and a force. The people that I put into GE totally looked him up too as an incredible leader, driving the business and driving the company. One of the things he was exceptional at was finding incredible talent and leadership and recognizing what a leader was. What he taught me with this. He said, “Jeanne, you’re going to find me exceptional leaders. How you do it is this. When you meet with someone and you talk to someone, I want you to screen them that they are from the right firm and they do the right things. More importantly, I need you to recognize that they’re leaders and this is how you do that. I want you to find out from the person, from a very young age, what did they do that was them leading? What did they do? Did they start a lemonade stand? Did they do something that was for charity? Were they an Eagle Scout? Were they captain of their cheerleading squad? What was it that made them what I call a natural leader?”

He taught me and this is what I do to this day. I go back to the person’s very young time and I say to them, “Tell me about yourself. Tell me what did you lead? What did you head? What did you start that made you maybe a little bit different than someone else?” It’s incredible. When you do that, you can differentiate someone who is trying to lead and learn how to lead and someone who is a natural leader. Management is different. You can learn how to manage, but you can’t learn how to lead unless it’s natural. That to me was a gift.

That’s a huge gift. Let’s explore that a little bit. I want to take a pause and let that sink in because first of all, you got it from someone who clearly has a lot of success. I love the way you described him as charismatic. That alone is a quality in a leader and valuing the importance of attracting good talent. One of the things we mentioned in your introduction is the importance of creating a succession plan. He’s looking for young people to take over and the values of things like that. You and I are very similar in our appreciation and love of these stories. That’s why I asked you to tell me your personal story of origin. We now have such a much better sense of who you are and what your values are, your chutzpah if you will, to start your own company at such a young age because of the background that you had that allowed you to be fearless and not be afraid of failure.

This concept of anyone who’s reading this who maybe has an interview coming up. Be prepared to tell your story of something you did in your childhood that made you unique or showed some natural leadership or some entrepreneurialship. That kind of thing resonates because as we talked about at your event, when you’re going up to compete against other people, whether it’s for a job, to get hired, to find people for the company’s talent pool, those stories are what make you memorable, not what order you happen to be interviewed in or presenting. The better storytelling you can become and clearly that’s one of the reasons I’m so honored to have you on is you’re such a great storyteller.

This concept of tell me something from your childhood. I talk about in my own little childhood of being a paperboy and how I had to knock on doors and convince people to subscribe. I had to get up early, deliver it, and then I had to go at the end of the month and collect the money. That’s a great lesson as an entrepreneur. Being on a swim team and the lessons learned there about teamwork and the discipline that’s required. All those skills are what you’re talking about is a natural leader. The willingness to do what other people aren’t thinking of doing. I also hear you saying the discipline that you learned as an athlete, applying that to your career and being so organized and focused. Let’s talk about a story in your own successful career and I’m sure you have so many to choose from. What did you do that got Business Week’s attention that said, “She’s one of the most 50 influential headhunters in the world, not just in New York.”

That’s fully something I don’t even know. I do know as a young entrepreneur back then, remember women didn’t have a lot of opportunities to open their own businesses. I was very lucky and fortunate that my dad gave me the seed money to do it. I was also lucky that it was executive search. If you were good at that job, you were accepted whether you were a man or a woman. For me, it’s about my life and what my success has been built upon is having relationships. It’s not hard to build a relationship and keep a relationship. That can be a very natural thing. When I look at people and I judged them on how good they are with relationships, I look at, “Did you stay in touch with your friends from high school? Did you keep in touch with your friends from college?”

This is very corny and it’s something that people laugh at. My team that I built a long time ago, my core team, one of the women has worked for me for 29 years and one of the women’s father was my first boyfriend in life. My father mentored him and now his daughter has worked for me for thirteen years and I mentor her. Another person was my son’s best friend and he’s known me since he was very young and he’s worked for me for twelve years. Relationships are, in my opinion, what makes your life successful.


If you can form relationships in personal and in business and you’re the same person whether you’re doing work or whether you are dealing with friends, it means that you’re genuine. It means that you’re transparent. It means that you care. It means that you have empathy. It means that you have the ability to have trusting, loyal, deep relationships that lasts for a very long time. That truly is what a relationship is to me. I believe that clients understand me seeing this team. People will say to me, “You still have Lisa with you?” Without Lisa, I don’t even know if I’d have my right hand. I always say the Lisa lasted longer than my marriage or my mom or anybody. The reality of it is if you can have relationships, you can have much more in life than other people have and you have trusting relationships and then people want to help you because you’re helping them.

People want to help you when you’re helping them and the best way to build a relationship is through empathy, being authentic and being transparent. That consistency of who you are, whether you are talking career or personal stuff. When you’re talking to someone at the level of the executives that you’re placing at the C-Suite, these people need to know you have their best interests in heart. “Will my family like this if I move to another city to take this job?” You care about them being happy in the job, that their whole family is involved as opposed to, “I don’t care. You are qualified for this job and it’s more money, take it.” That’s a very different relationship than, “Let me express some of my fears and concerns about this.” You’re the great person, a trusted friend, the empathy. I’m sure that would be scary for everybody in your family. Your kids have to change school, whatever. That’s what I see is your secret sauce.

Not only are you right, but it’s funny because when you’re doing it and you’re someone like myself, you don’t even think that you’re doing it. I look at myself not as a headhunter or someone moving somebody into a job. I look at myself as a career consultant. When I am talking to someone about uprooting their family, I’ll give you an example. I had a candidate that moved from Seattle to New York City. That is a huge move for the family emotionally. A big difference between hiking on the weekends. Even the grocery store, they freaked out. At the end of the day, I have to understand that I’m not just moving this person. I’m not just changing this person’s career. I’m changing this person’s entire family and what the future is going to be for them. It’s critically important to me that they’re happy because my client is not going to be happy if my candidate and the family is not happy.

I know this sounds very strange, but I have told clients even if they love someone that it’s not going to work because I know for a fact that the spouse cannot move from their mother living next door. There are things that I find out that I cannot make the person move because it’s not right for them. It’s so important in my role and in the role that I do that I know we have empathy, but I’m also realistic to what can be done and what can’t be done and what’s better for everybody. At the end of the day, it’s going to haunt us all if it’s not the right thing. That candidate comes back to me eventually when they’re hiring and they use me. My client is thankful because we always find the right person, but the wrong person would be a nightmare.

It seems like you put long-term relationship value ahead of short-term profit.

Short-term profit is never going to help you in the long run if you stay in a business that you need your relationships to work.

Let me ask you two questions about what advice do you give a candidate so that they have a successful interview or a successful pitch if you will? Is there anything you tell people who might get nervous or they don’t interview that often, it’s a different experience for them? Because you’re such a career expert, is there a tip that people can listen to whether they’re looking for a job now or their next interview that you would say, “When you’re interviewing, you need to do,” what would you say?

First of all, you know my list is long.

Give us your top two or three.

First of all, the most important thing is that the candidate researches where they’re interviewing. I once had a candidate, the client said to the candidate, “Why are you here?” This was a very senior level person and the person said, “Because Jeanne told me it’s a good job.” That is not the reason to go into an interview. It’s critical that the candidate does their research. What is the company? What are their earnings? Know what you’re walking into and who you’re interviewing. The candidate should also find out as best to their ability who are they interviewing with, the background and the experience of that person.

Research the company and the person you’re talking to.

That means that you’re prepared. I’ll give you an example. I’m going to meet a CEO. When I researched that CEO, that CEO had gone to the University of Maryland. That CEO was in a fraternity that I hung out with all the time. This was a long time ago. It still gave us a common denominator of something that I could bring up and also he then knew I understood his background and where he came from. Researching and having a common denominator or at least educating yourself so that you know what you’re dealing with when you walk in is critically important. It also gives the candidate a comfort level that they’re going to be more ready than not ready. Number one is doing the research on the person or the people you’re meeting with as well as the company. The next thing is what are you there for? Understand what are you interviewing for and what makes you qualified to interview for that.

In advance understanding, what you are exactly teaching. What’s your story? What’s the story that brings you here? It’s not just, “I’m good at this and this.” Tell stories of why I got into this field. I’ll give you an example of even my own son. Unfortunately, one of my sons became very sick and he’s fine now, knock on wood, but he went to a major operation. His brother at a young age saw all this. It impacted him greatly. He decided that he wanted to do something that was going to help the world and was going to help people physically. When he was interviewed at Vanderbilt with the dean, the dean said to him, “Why do you want to go into mechanical engineering?” My son told the story of his brother and that he then walked through the hospital talking to all the other kids and he came back to me and said, “Mom, who invents all this equipment?” I said, “Engineers.” My son said, “I want to be one.” That story so resonated with the dean that he said to my son, “I don’t care if you qualify grade-wise. You’re going to be in this school.”

There is a great example of the power of storytelling. The emotional connection that explains your why and your passion for something brings you to life in an interview and separates you from all the other candidates who may have more experience. I’m guessing, Jeanne, that you take your own advice. You walk your own talk. In other words, you’re competing against another firm or maybe two other firms for, “Why should we hire Jeanne in DHR to find our next CEO and your specialty?” You do the research on the company. You do the research on the person you’re interviewing. You have a story of what makes you memorable and unique. You paint a picture so that those people can get experience through your storytelling of what it’s like to work for you.

What you said is critical for every person that’s making any interview or pitch. What differentiates me from the next person that’s walking in or the last person that just left? What is it that when I leave, they’re going to remember me? That’s critical for everybody to think about. Whether it’s an anecdote, whether it’s a leadership story, whatever it is, there has to be something that you leave them with that somebody else doesn’t have. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a skillset. It can be a personal thing. You have to find it for yourself so that you can utilize it. There are two other things that are incredibly important when you are presenting in an interview or in a presentation. One is don’t talk too much. People get nervous and when people are nervous they chatter and they go off into tangents. You have to make sure that you’re answering the question, you’re staying on track, you are succinct, you are concise, you are answering the question and having a personality but you are not going on and on. My clients will say to me, “They are great person, Jeanne. They’re perfect for the job, but they will drive us crazy here if they talk that much.”

I have a statement that I would love your input on if you agree with this or not, “Confident people are comfortable with silence.”

Talking a lot is a nervous person who’s not confident and people know that. People that listen and are able to explain themselves in a way that is clear and done and then you move onto the next thing are much more highly regarded and come across as confident but not arrogant.

You’ve got to research, know why you’re uniquely qualified, and don’t talk too much. What’s the fourth insight, that wisdom of nugget?

This is going to sound corny, but what do you wear, how do you look and what is your personal presentation? One of the things that you know and I know and I’ve done and you’ve done, but many people don’t understand, you want to have your own personal brand. Part of that personal brand is who walks into the room that this person that you’re meeting with, whether it be a presentation, whether it be an interview, and what are they seeing? The minute they see you, they form an opinion of you before your mouth opens. Are you put together? Are you fitting into their culture and their environment? Are you wearing something you feel good at?

That is so important. If we feel something is too tight or we haven’t put the suit on in a while and it’s a little out of style, just that confidence and how you fit. Here’s a little analogy because you inspired me to think of it. If you’re interviewing a company and they’re interviewing you and you’re also interviewing them, what you’re looking for is to see if there’s a fit here. If your clothes don’t fit properly and you’re not comfortable in your own skin, that comes across too. I love what you said there.

I’ll give you a story. One of my clients is a very big Fintech firm. It’s very well known and it’s a techie company. One of my candidates who was a techie guy from California said to me, “Jeanne, what am I supposed to wear? I don’t wear suits anymore, but I had got out my best suit, I got out my tie.” I said, “Before you go crazy, let me talk to the CTO who’s going to be interviewing you.” I called up my client and I said, “Candidates are asking me what they should wear, give me advice.” This is what he said and this is the advice that I give every single candidate now. My client said, “Jeanne, tell the candidate to wear what they are comfortable in, what they wear regularly to work and where they feel they’re going to be at their best.”

What that means is if somebody is in a techie company and they were t-shirts or golf shirts to work, the chances are they’re going to be interviewing at a similar company. If they walk in with the suit and tie on and nobody else in the company wears a suit and tie, they’re going to stand out and look weird and culturally make a huge mistake. That also shows that the client is saying to me and to the candidate, “You have to feel good about you.” That’s what we’re saying. At the end of the day, it’s imperative that you take the time well before the presentation, well before the interview, what am I going to wear? What is my hair going to look like? Do I need a haircut? Do I feel better when my hair is pulled back than when my hair is down?

All those things are being prepared no different than when I did my research on the company or that I reviewed my resume in advance. Making sure that you look the way you want and are calm when you walk out that door, that you do not rush, that you gave yourself enough time to get ready in the morning, that you ate your breakfast. Whatever your mood is, make sure of it. The sad thing is I’m the one that gets the feedback from the client on how the candidate was interviewed. There are candidates that I believe are so right for the job. I have gotten to know this candidate so well and they bomb.

The reason they bomb is they had a bad morning. They didn’t get themselves to the train on time. Their spouse didn’t make sure that the kids were ready. There are many reasons in our lives that things fall apart on an important morning, but it’s imperative to try your best to prepare for it so that if your daughter has to go to daycare, that’s planned in advance and it’s not dropped on you five minutes before. There are so many things that you’ve got to think about to make sure that it all goes as well as it can go. These are the things that a lot of people think maybe five minutes before or think, “No problem, I can do it tomorrow.” Take presentations and interviews as seriously as possible and be sure that you do it the best you can.

How can you be calm and confident if you’re frenetically running out the door and you were going to wear something and you realize it’s at the cleaners because you haven’t planned?

That’s a perfect example. It happens all the time.

I want to talk about one final topic, which is diversity and inclusion in the workplace because I know that’s near and dear to your heart. You told us your story at the beginning of this interview about your mom’s impact on segregation ending, it’s no surprise to me that you’re continuing the legacy of that. Tell us what do you think needs to happen and what people can do besides awareness? Is it setting certain goals like, “By this year, this percent of people will be hired?” What’s your philosophy on this?

First of all, especially with the #MeToo Movement, companies are waking up to how backward we are when it comes to diversity. Personally for me, I opened up my own company a long time ago, but where some women are now, it’s not anywhere near as far as it should. The things that I am excited about, the laws that are changing, that we can ask anyone anymore what they’re making and that it’s coming much more equal. If you’re at a certain level, you should be making a certain amount of money. These are things that are all, in my opinion, going in the right direction. What I do believe and I work at the board level and at the C-Suite level, one of the things that I’m trying to get across, but I’m seeing happily that the CEOs and the boards are starting to understand. It’s imperative to have a diverse pool of employees and leaders because diversity brings on brainstorming. It brings on creativity.

People think differently, so when they speak to each other, when they bring their ideas together, differences are coming up that are good. Therefore, when the end solution comes up, it’s from a lot of ideas and a lot of different viewpoints. Everybody is the same, they grew up the same, they went to the same college, they did the same things. You need diversity to be the best that you can be. I think we’re getting there. I know this sounds crazy, but one of my clients, he is an incredible person. He’s the CTO of Bloomberg. He gave the commencement speech at Columbia where he went to school and he addressed the technology, the engineering school.

In that speech, it gave me chills and you should all watch it. He addressed the audience and he said to the audience, “Look around you and all the women that are graduating as engineers. Look at how many of them there are, but there should be many more. Every man here should make it their goal to make sure that when they’re in a position of hiring, they made sure that there was an equal number of women surrounding them as men.” Our leaders are recognizing the imperative message that they need to give out and to give to the world. All of us should believe it. The good news about, in my opinion, diversity and inclusion, many companies now have a human resource person that this is their focus. Every search that I do, we make sure that it’s a diverse slate of candidates.

I get asked when there are no women on boards that they now want women on boards. The most important thing is it’s hard to educate everyone, but I do believe that if you believe in diversity, if you believe in inclusion, then it’s our responsibility to make sure we do what’s in our power to get it across when we can. For instance, I’m part of the University of Maryland’s advisory board. I make sure that women are spoken to. I talk at colleges. I make sure that there are entry-level positions that we’re looking at equally men and women. I look at the pay that I’m getting for the candidates. It’s up to each one of us and make sure we move the needle, but the needle has to move more than it did from when I was 22 to where I am now. That is a personal goal of mine, but it can become a personal goal of many more people.

You’ve certainly inspired us with a reason to do it about creativity and innovation. Listening to you, as busy as you are, doing other things outside of your work and your personal life to make your own personal passion of wanting this to happen, from speaking and even being here as a form of doing that as well. I can’t thank you enough. Is there one final thought you want to leave us with or a book you like or a quote you like?

This is what I’ve told my children all their life. Be the best you can be. No one else can do it for you. You have to do it for yourself. That to me makes you better. It pushes you daily to be your best and it also helps you to want to learn to improve. That to me is what makes us different, makes us better and makes us always looking to be the best we can be in life. That’s what I’ll leave you with.

Be a lifetime learner so you continually grow and be your own best because nobody else can do you. Thanks again, Jeanne.

Thank you for having me. You’re awesome.


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