Wanted: Crew for the Titanic

It will take all of top recruiter Joie Gregor's skills to find talent for Bush's White House. One way: Telling folks they'll make a difference

The executive branch's hunger for exceptional management talent (something it shares with growth-oriented companies the world over) was again made evident recently when President Bush appointed Joie A. Gregor assistant to the President for Presidential personnel.

Gregor, who up until her appointment was a vice-chairman with global executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles (HSII), has more than 20 years' experience in senior leadership recruiting, succession planning, and building truly global management teams. And she has exactly the kind of reputation, experience, and connections the Presidential offices of the federal government want to leverage to their advantage.

She has recruited board members, chief executive officers, and chief operating officers for large multinational companies. And prior to her work as an executive search consultant, she worked for IBM (IBM), where she held a variety of senior-management positions that prepared her for the rigors of corporate headhunting, and now, chasing down top talent for the White House. Gregor replaced Liza Wright, who joined the Bush team after working from the global search firm's Washington offices. "It's becoming the Heidrick & Struggles White House," says Gerry Roche, senior chairman of Heidrick & Struggles.

Unique Talents Required

"Joie is one of the nation's top executive recruiters," President Bush said. "Her considerable experience will be an asset to my Administration, and I am pleased that Joie is joining the White House team."

But even when you're recruiting talent with the President's calling card in hand, it takes experience, skill, and more than everyday smarts to get the job done. The job will require Gregor to be a fast study in the unique leadership needs of the executive branch and the kind of overtures that would entice a business leader to enter public service. To the challenges of her new job Gregor brings a BA from the University of Colorado and an MA from Case Western Reserve University, for which she serves as a vice-chairman of the board of trustees. The former Heidrick headhunter was also an IBM Sloan Fellow at Stanford University, where she received an MS in management.

Gregor's move from one of the world's biggest and best-known executive search firms to the White House, while very impressive, isn't a first for a talented headhunter. Consider the impact of an equally well-credentialed recruiter who was brought to both the Nixon and Reagan Administrations. In the early 1970s, E. Pendleton James worked as special deputy assistant to the President for executive recruiting, bridging connections between the White House and the corporate world and building a name for himself under the authority of President Richard M. Nixon.

Changing Things for the Better

James went on to support the staffing needs of the campaign to elect Ronald Reagan, and when the Gipper assumed the Presidency in January, 1981, James was officially appointed to lead the Office of Presidential Personnel. It put the headhunter-in-chief effectively on par (at least from a hierarchical perspective) with the President's press secretary and other close advisers.

James helped to institutionalize the practice of executive recruiting within the government arena because he brought a keen eye not only for people who supported the President's ideals, but for those whose talent and experience truly earned them the right to serve in the executive branch of the federal government. He also brought to an end the days when pure political patronage could make a person's management career under the cover of the White House. Reagan himself took a personal interest in the Presidential appointments process, and James was its instrument, messenger, and choreographer.

"Pen," as he was known by his many friends in the executive search profession, later launched his own executive search firm, Pendleton James & Associates, which was acquired several years ago by Whitehead Mann, then the largest executive search firm in Britain.

Bold Recruiting Moves Required

But James was also recruiting for a President whose public approval ratings, on average, reflected much more positive public sentiment about job performance than President George W. Bush's. The uphill task of selling this President's vision and convincing high-performing executives they should join an Administration dogged by opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and highly unfavorable poll numbers might only be achievable in the hands of a bold recruiter like Gregor.

She will need to convince exceptional leaders that there's still time for them to make a positive impact on an Administration beset by challenges, and that has fewer than 500 days left. Indeed, recruiting for the current White House probably isn't all that different from recruiting executives to work for an embattled CEO.

And any executive who is willing to go to work in the White House between now and November, 2008, has to think about something else: Where they're going to find their next job if the Democrats win back the White House next year.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE