Mike Doonan, Managing Partner, SPMB Executive SearchMike Doonan, Managing Partner
Founded in the late 1970s, SPMB is one of the first executive search firms to focus exclusively on technology and innovation. Today, the company plays an instrumental role in building out the leadership teams at the most innovative companies in the tech space. It’s no wonder the majority of today’s IPOs in the technology sector are SPMB’s clients. Further, the company also partners with large multinationals across all categories—media, consumer, financial services, health care, renewables—on their path to digital transformation. Some of the prestigious companies that SPMB has partnered with include Google, Amazon, Airbnb, Capital One, Stripe, Comcast, Disney Streaming, Major League Baseball, Cisco Systems, Under Armour, T-Mobile, Target, and Lululemon.

Following is the conversation that Manage HR magazine had with SPMB Managing Partner Mike Doonan as he talks about the evolution of the company and how they are poised for continued success in the years to come.

Tell us how SPMB became one of the country’s top executive search firms.

The first 30 years of our existence were focused on building out pre-IPO technology companies. The companies we represented in the market had the most innovative products and services on the planet but did not have management teams with the experience needed to create scale, meaning to grow beyond their startup phase and into large, global public companies. That was our role, our charter—to bring in executives that would scale these businesses to complement and capitalize on the company’s innovation.

During this phase of SPMB’s evolution, our channel to market was the investment community, the venture capitalists that invested in these companies, and that’s where our relationships originated. We looked at, and still look at, our job as making investors money by building out next-generation teams at their portfolio companies that create liquidity (IPO, M&A) for their investments.

Fast forward to about 10-15 years ago. The hiring managers and heads of HR and Talent within our existing clients began moving into larger public companies and asked us to come along. When they joined these larger companies, they inherited searches that were being executed on by the SHREKs and moving very slowly with limited success. Given our history in the tech space, we are innately wired to move quickly. To move quickly and ensure success, we only take on a very limited search load so we can thoroughly resource each project with a dedicated team that can execute surgically and aggressively on our clients’ behalf. We have been told time and time again that our differentiation is the speed, smarts, consultative nature, and sometimes blunt force that we apply to our search work.

How has your focus and expertise in technology benefited your clients today?

Given that we grew up in deep technology, we can speak to the issues currently faced by technology executives in a way that very few search partners can. While other search firms have a network of executive partners that focus on industries (technology) or functions (CIO or CTO), given their limited breadth and scope, they do not understand the underlying technology utilized within the ecosystem.

In the course of our search work with deep technology companies like Google Cloud, Cisco Systems, Gitlab, ServiceNow, we understand what they do at the bits and the bites level. This allows us to both represent our clients and their technology roadmaps at a deeper level than anyone and on the flip side, we can challenge the qualifications of a CIO or CTO candidate in a way no other executive search consultant can.

What differentiates SPMB from the other players in the Executive Search space?

We sit at a unique place in the market at the intersection of scale and innovation. Our early stage growth clients seek scale. Our large incumbent clients seek innovation.

Large search firms give their clients exposure to executives at large companies. Boutique search firms give their clients access to start up talent. Given our unique positioning over the past 45 years, we not only offer our clients the best of both of these worlds, but we’re also uniquely able to give clients exposure to a 3rd candidate community that sits at the intersection of these 2 ecosystems.
We also do not believe in a long list, shortlist process that has become standard in executive search. A long list, shortlist process generally plays out like this:
● The search firm provides a list of recycled names from their last relevant search.
● The client has to do the homework of going through the list and culling it down to a smaller group.
● The search firm reaches out to the smaller group in an attempt to bring people to the table.
● The company meets a few people, probably gets the group down to 3.
● One of those 3 people takes another job, one decides to exit the process, and that leaves the client with one hiring option. If that does not work, they need to go through this painful process all over again.

We sit at a unique place in the market at the intersection of scale and innovation. Our early stage growth clients seek scale. Our large incumbent clients seek innovation

Instead, we run a process dubbed our 4x4. The goal is to have four qualified candidates that we have spent a significant amount of time with and put them in front of the client by the 4th week of the search. We then have four candidates we are processing on our end while the client is interviewing their group of 4. Then, every week going forward, we maintain our 4x4, meaning that the client always has four people in the process as we bring new people to the table based on our research and client feedback. That way, at the end of the search, the client also has 3-4 options regardless of whether or not candidates fall out.

We also model our research efforts after a financial M&A valuation exercise. We do not immediately go to a list of recycled names like legacy search firms. We first identify the unique business problem our client is trying to solve. Our experts then look at the industries that have successfully solved that problem (which may be a different industry than our client plays in). Taking an extra step, SPMB does not just find the person at this company today, but the person that was at the target company when they were going through a similar inflection point to our client.

We find that a major output of both our 4x4 process and our unique research model is a much more diverse candidate slate than the traditional long list / short list process used by a majority of our competitors.

What does the future hold for SPMB?

The executive search market, particularly as it relates to technology, is growing faster than I have seen in my 20 years in the business. This is attracting a lot of outside money private funds investing in search firms. Firms taking on private investors tend to look after their own interests and profit first and foremost, as opposed to the interests of their employees and clients.

Comparatively, as Managing Partners at SPMB, we view our role as creating opportunities for our employees to develop and grow their careers in areas that interest them. The theory is that if our employees are happy and growing professionally and personally, expanding their skill set and experience, and excited by their work, they will then take care of our clients, and in turn, our clients will continue to come back for more. Therefore, as our employees grow and take on more responsibility, we build teams under them, and that leads to our growth—organically, and brick by brick.

Along those lines, we chose not to lay anyone off during the pandemic. While many firms, including most of the large ones, took a red pen to their people (their cost), we decided to hunker down and invest in our people, processes, and systems. The theory was that we could come out of the pandemic that much stronger and be able to recruit folks from SHREKs that we may not have been able to attract in a normal market. That strategy, playing the long game in a historically and systemically transactional business, has treated us well and has enabled us to leapfrog the competition. When a search is going long, most search firms take resources off of the project to make sure it remains profitable. We actually add resources to ensure that our clients get the level of service they expect, pay for and deserve.