When a Headhunter Misfires

Sifting for European talent is a true art, as some readers are quick to point out

By Lisa Bergson

When I phoned the one halfway decent candidate for our European regional sales manager job proffered by high-end headhunter TMP Worldwide, his wife sounded strangely disconcerted. It was more than the language barrier, I sensed. (You can tell something about a job candidate by how his or her spouse acts when you call their home.) Indeed, my Belgian candidate was in Germany, where he had found another position, according to TMP.

With that, my trip to Brussels two weeks ago to interview TMP's prospects was a total bust. (See BW Online, 4/6/01, "A Brit, a Dutchman, and a Belgian Go for a Job"). The Belgian candidate, who at first seemed unsuitable, had turned out to be worth a second look -- but now a German company had nabbed him. Neither of the other two candidates was about to go out and get his hands dirty pitching the products. At this point, I would just as soon forget about Europe and the ROW -- rest of the world, that is.

But 35% of MEECO's sales come from outside the U.S., down from 40% a year ago. The drop is directly attributable to our slackened effort in Europe, where there's significant potential for growth. Our new electro-optic technology could address some of their most challenging requirements for monitoring environmental hazards and maintaining process control. So there's no turning back.


  Since the last column, in which I bemoaned the lack of good prospects for this job opening, I heard from a lot of you that TMP was to blame. Hugh Williams, an American who has spent the past 11 years working in Europe, put it best: "You are evidently working with a recruiter who either does not fully grasp or cannot handle your requirements, and is not employing cultural fit/understanding as a criterion in the process."

They could do a better job, that's for sure. Still, to be fair I have to give some credence to TMP's contention that it's hard to find talented sales engineers interested in doing a lot of missionary work for a small, relatively unknown company. "How big are your sales in Europe?" each of TMPs candidates asked. It turned out TMP had exaggerated by, oh, threefold, and when I told the candidates the truth, their faces fell. I never hire under false pretexts -- it comes back to haunt you -- and I've let TMP know that honesty is my policy.

Then there are the job requirements. Essentially, the regional sales manager would be overseeing a bunch of unruly, opinionated, at best distracted (and at worst, abusive) independent sales representatives -- who, I've found, are just as likely to blow you off when you've crossed the ocean to see them as to jointly engage in promising customer calls and thoughtful territory planning. (See BW Online, 11/3/00, "When Good Reps Go Sour"). It's hardly a fit for everyone, especially now when capable salespeople are in high demand. And I thought finding the right mate was difficult!


 I still hope to find a sales-oriented engineer from some relatively neutral place, like the Netherlands or Switzerland, who speaks several languages and has experience with independent sales reps. Wim Dericks, a reader from Atlanta, suggests "a Belgian national with four languages," noting that "the West Flemish people have a very strong work ethic (much like Mormons here)." How am I supposed to know these things?

Alternatively, Wim believes, I can "probably find a European national in the USA who has been here for a while and needs to go back for family reasons." I can see the advantage of hiring someone who has lived in both cultures. Another reader, Cory Moss, a real Mormon from Salt Lake City, speaks from experience: "The right American, in Europe, can be very successful.... It takes savvy, language, a smile, and trust. Having lived there, I know."

Someday, I can envision having at least three sales managers over there. I'd like one for Britain, which is like the Japan of Europe (unto itself, with deep historic animosity toward everyone else); one for Northern Europe, where a technical, consultative approach prevails; and one for Southern Europe, where relationships are more likely to carry the day.


  As Daniel Carter, a reader from the Netherlands, wrote, "Europe cannot be approached as one market." Working out of Britain, Jan H. Van de Kaa concurs: "Crossing the border from, say, Holland to Germany is a world apart, not just in language, but in lifestyle and business conduct. Being late for a business appointment in Spain or Italy is no big thing. In Germany, five minutes late is a showstopper." Europe, I'm finding, is really less a union than an affiliation, and a loose one at that.

At least I'm learning a lot in the quest for a European regional sales manager. In early May I'll be back in Brussels to go a second round with TMP. (If it doesn't work out, I'll pursue some of the other avenues you worldly readers suggested. Thanks so much -- you guys are great.) This time I'm also going to take Cory up on another of his recommendations -- the Cote D'Or across from the Gare Central. "Best chocolate in the world," he wrote.

Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. She received a Masters in Journalism from New York University and received Columbia University's Walter Bagehot Fellowship for economics and business journalism. You can visit her company's web site at www.meeco.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com.

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