How Strong Leadership Propels Winning Companies

10 lessons from one headhunter’s two decades behind the scenes working with hundreds of clients and thousands of senior executives.

A friend recently asked me what the “secret sauce” is for the companies (and executives) who consistently win. So, I sat down and thought of the common denominators for all of the success stories that I have seen and heard over the past twenty years. After working with many hundreds of entrepreneurs, innovators, investors and senior executives, there are attributes and metrics that clearly stand out.

Accordingly, I am pleased to share 10 lessons learned divided into 3 categories – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, which I will address in reverse order:


  • Misplaced Frugality. A common complaint comes from heads of sales when their boss (or CEO/board) orders changes to their compensation plan, many times because the sales force is making too much money. “Changing the goal posts” is the quickest way to lose trust and eventually your top performers. In my experience, the most successful companies have top sales reps that can make 7-figures annually and the head of sales can earn commissions that rival the money a CEO makes from a cash standpoint. A wise mentor simplified it this way to me, “No matter how large/small a company, there are only 2 sides…those who bring in the revenue and everyone else.” It really is that simple. Those companies and leaders who embrace the rainmakers and share the wealth succeed more.
  • Short-Sighted and Cheap. Too many times, we have lost a top candidate because the client (or investor) tried to save money on the final offer and compensation package. Doing this on the final offer sends the signal that they are not really valued. In a handful of cases from among hundreds of searches I have done, the client has “surprised” the top candidate with a meaningful and unexpected bonus. After the final comp package has been negotiated and agreed upon, the CEO (or hiring manager) would say “because we value you so much as a person and as an executive, we want you to have this sign-on bonus so your family can do something special. We recognize they sacrifice a lot with the time you spend at work, this is for you to say thanks to your family.” Let me assure you, for the leaders who take this approach, the new executive would walk through walls for their company/boss and more importantly, their family feels like the company truly cares.
  • Bad Behavior. Sadly, many companies accept bad behavior or at least let certain high performers play by a different set of rules. This is a recipe for failure every time. Bad behavior encompasses a number of things, including companies misrepresenting current traction, candidates untruthful on their resumes, inflating accomplishments, falsifying compensation, and many other untoward activities. We even had a lead candidate claim that he earned an MBA at a top school, yet the school did not even have an MBA program.


  • Not Embracing Failure. Too many times I have witnessed a client “pass” on a leading candidate because of a failure in their past. Seeing the inside of many hundreds of companies over the past 20 years tells me that failure is critical; a fundamental determinant for how a person will respond, how resilient they are and what lessons learned will they bring to their next role. We followed the progress of those candidates that were rejected, and they usually went on to accomplish amazing things.
  • Fishing Instead of Spearfishing. Of course I am biased, but I believe most companies should use executive search professionals to find the perfect senior executive (after all, aren’t ALL senior executives critical hires?). Far too many companies permit their HR departments to construct the management team. I can’t tell you how many times a company has told me, “thanks but now we don’t need your services because we know an exec and he/she checks out.” A primary value of any good executive search consultant is providing their client choices of multiple A-players. With more choices comes better perspective, the right “mutual fit” almost usually rises to the top. Interestingly, the ultimate hire is typically not the candidate the company originally had in mind. This highlights the difference between achieving good results versus excellent or elite results.
  • Executive Search Industry — A One-Sided Model. While headhunters exclusively represent and get paid by the client company, I know very few senior executives who truly “trust” the headhunter. Many feel the recruiter is really trying to “sell” them on an opportunity instead of really listening to their goals and concerns and finding true alignment. In my opinion, more headhunters should act like “honest brokers” and treat candidates like an agent would for sports or hollywood. That establishes trust, which is critical to making lasting connections and placements.


  • Start With Why (as seen in Simon Sinek’s popular TED talk). In my experience, the best companies focus on “WHY” first then “WHO”. Only people develop the company strategy and only people can execute it. “HOW” is merely the strategy and tactics that the WHO create. “WHAT” and “WHEN” are simply the goals to be achieved. Most companies start with WHAT and WHEN. The most successful companies start with WHY and then WHO.
  • Teams vs. Tribes. Teams are a collection of people with varying skills and experiences and draw their paycheck from the same company. Excellent or elite teams (those who get excellent and elite results) operate more like tribes and passionately unite around a common purpose. My friend and former Navy SEAL, Clint Bruce, taught me this concept (hear his explanation here). He teaches that there are 5 common traits of tribal leaders, whether they lead a military unit or a company: they are: balanced, curious, elite, know why they are there; and they share their scars/failures.
  • Strong Leadership = Competitive Advantage. Strong leadership overcomes every challenge and obstacle that arises. The very best leaders I have worked with will always find a way to WIN, and its infectious. In my assessment, traits of the best leaders include: honest, transparent, disciplined, highly competitive, empathetic, coaches, know and care about their employees, they embrace diversity and diversity of thought, then stay out of the way.
  • Alignment is Key. In my experience, alignment is achieved through a few attributes: the right executive in the right role; the right cultural fit beats the best experience; an authentic company acting out on its mission and matching your passion with your goals (read What is Your Calling?). I would bet on a team of B or C players who are aligned, have clear roles and objectives and trust each other, versus a team of A-players who are prima donnas, are not aligned and possess ulterior or selfish motives. (see Malcolm Gladwell’s The Myth of Talent) Lastly, alignment is a better way to describe chemistry, which I believe is an over-used word. From my optic, CEO’s (and sometimes strong-willed founders) convince the team (or tribe) that they can WIN. The distinction is not merely getting teams to believe they can beat the competition, but convincing them to win for each other. Establishing an environment where everyone truly cares for their teammates and have accountability to one another is a winning strategy. Most special mission units in the military and many sports teams WIN with this “one team, one fight” approach.