Sam German, a Client Partner at SPMB Executive Search, recently sat down with Jay Clouse and Eric Hornung, co-hosts of the upside podcast, to discuss the changing startup landscape between the coasts.
Today, world-class companies are being built outside of Silicon Valley and the upside finds those companies, talks with them, and discusses the upside of investing in them. Sam, a member of SPMB’s Emerging Markets Practice, specializes in helping growth-stage tech companies in the Midwest and Mountain West find top executive talent.
With a shared focus and geographic passion, Sam, Jay and Eric delve into some of the work and hiring trends that have developed over the past 18-months based on the impact and companies’ learnings from the global pandemic. Specifically, they examine the effects that remote working has had on the talent ecosystem and tech landscape in between the coasts, and they discuss whether regional expertise in executive search does and should matter anymore.
upside: With remote-first work being so prevalent now, does that make your geographic specialization less relevant?
Sam: I’ll be honest, I had a bit of an identity crisis around this. Each partner develops a business plan for their practice and mine was focused on recruiting between the coasts, primarily for tech companies HQ’d in the Central US — a geographic approach that suddenly didn’t seem to matter anymore. But, what I’ve found and experienced firsthand is that geographic specialization actually matters as much, if not more, now than it ever did.
upside: How so? Are you seeing companies requiring executives to be located at HQ?
Sam: Believe it or not, yes. We certainly had more searches that required relocation pre-pandemic; however, as a firm, we still relocated 30+ executives between 2020 and 2021 to new geographies like Bozeman, Denver, Phoenix and across Canada — and these numbers are back on the rise again! To be honest, we were initially surprised to see continued requirements around candidate location at headquarters at the executive level, but there are still instances where it genuinely matters.
upside: Are there specific functional areas that necessitate non remote leaders?
Sam: It largely depends on the company. We’ve definitely seen themes in engineering and operations — think Customer Service, Customer Support, Customer Success. Basically, in any instance a company might still have a fairly large call center. In those cases and in our experience, most companies deem it necessary that an executive manage and interact with teams in those call centers on a daily basis.
Additionally, my body of search work focuses on direct reports to CEOs within high-growth tech companies — so series A, series B, series C. At these earlier stages, a lot happens in the hallways, around the water cooler, and at an ad hoc coffee meeting. So, I’d say 9 times out of 10 my clients would much prefer to find leaders who are either located in their market or willing to relocate.
upside: From what you’re seeing at the executive level, is remote working preferred or are candidates looking forward to returning to an office in either their existing or a new geography?
Sam: Short answer — it’s a mixed bag. I’ve had a number of executive searches that began with remote job specs at the start of the search process. But now, 18-months into the pandemic, with candidates beginning to go back into their offices and interact with their teams, we’re seeing that some individuals are realizing they love, miss and need daily in-person interaction.
Ultimately, people are people. Some are burnt out from remote working and the lack of boundary between work and home life while others love the freedom and flexibility. My hunch is that a hybrid work model—a mix of in-person and virtual—will likely be the new normal for a majority of organizations going forward.
The #1 Factor Driving Candidate Decision-Making — Team & Culture
upside: What key factor(s) is driving candidates’ career choices over the last 18-months?
Sam: What’s been really interesting to see over the past 18-months is, more and more, the number one criteria that candidates consider when making a move to a new company or leaving a company is around culture. Candidates are prioritizing personal fit and happiness with one’s boss and team even above compensation in some instances. On the heels of the pandemic, individuals are less willing to compromise when it comes to shared values and overall happiness in their daily working life.
upside: How do you see that reflected in your Emerging Markets practice? Are there any regional factors that drive happiness, culture and fit?
Sam: Having lived in the Midwest for six years and now living in Boulder, CO there are some shared sensibilities and values that appeal and truly matter to candidates, and likewise, hiring companies in these regions. Not to overgeneralize, but over and over again, I encounter both a personal and professional culture of kindness, politeness and respect among my Midwestern clients and candidates. It’s difficult to describe unless you have close ties to this geography, but as an executive recruiter specializing in these regions, it’s critical that I understand these nuances in order to deliver the best possible candidates (with staying power!) to my clients.
Likewise, I have a number of clients in the Mountain West between the Denver/Boulder area, Bozeman, Salt Lake City, the Canadian Rockies and Edmonton and, again, I don’t want to overgeneralize, but there’s a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality. People work their butts off, but then they also make time for a trail run or a mountain bike ride over lunch — or in the wintertime, if it’s a powder day, they hit the slopes. It’s part of the DNA of so many of the organizations and their leadership teams that I work with in these regions. There’s a firm belief that ambition and quality of life do not need to be mutually exclusive.
In a (somewhat) post-pandemic environment, It’s exciting to see candidates finding their work/life/values balance. And as a regional search specialist working in areas that are so near and dear to my heart, it’s thrilling to be able to connect my clients with candidates that have shared values — it ultimately leads to a stronger, longer-lasting working relationship.
So while remote working remains prevalent, I think we’ll see the pendulum begin to swing back to in-person and hybrid in the next 6-12 months. And with cultural fit driving so many executives’ career choices, the Midwest and Mountain West will undoubtedly continue to attract top technology leadership.
upside: Sam, thank you so much for spending time with us today. If folks want to learn more about your practice and SPMB, where should they go?
Sam: Thank you both so much. If anyone wants to get in touch with me, they can find me on LinkedIn (Samantha German), or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit our website — SPMB.com, which highlights our areas of search focus across the country, along with the amazing clients we have the privilege of partnering with.