The 3 Characteristics of Elite Executive Search Partners

In my 17+ years in the space, I’ve never seen the market more competitive. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the best firms find the right talent. Executive search firms need to have the access and insight to identify, attract and hire talent. But what sets the elite firms apart? Even more important, what firm will be the best partner for your search?

Riviera Partners works with some of the most talented, innovative, and transformative companies on the planet. Here’s what they say sets us apart:

1. Specialization

Focus is fundamental to executive search, after all, there are no generalist technology leaders. Specialization is equally important with your search partner. You want a firm with decades of experience in the functional domain in which you need to hire. In engineering, product and design searches, demonstrated achievement is as important as leadership experience...this applies to both candidates and your executive search partner.

2. Strong Cultural Values

Most firms have a corporate mission statement, but only the best firms clearly demonstrate their cultural values. The four core values most important at Riviera Partners are empathy, transparency, grit and pride. They allow us to deliver the best service and experience to help companies and people reach their potential. We look for these qualities in new our new hires, corporate partners, and candidates. We also foster them in our employees. 

3. Man & Machine

Human is the man, technology is the machine. Man is investigative, creative, and collaborative. It’s trust, experience, and ability. Machine is turning data into action, uncovering new insights, enabling collaboration, and increasing velocity. Elite firms know how to strike a balance between man and machine.  Over the past 17 years, we’ve been committed to finding the right people and systems to make this goal a reality.

The primary directive for any executive search is to find you the right candidate as quickly as possible utilizing access and insight. Specialization, strong values, man & machine are the factors that separate the great from the good. Be sure to identify these in your next executive search partner.

Who’s Your War Admiral? Why Horses Beat Unicorns

Companies like Uber, ZenDesk, Okta, Braintree, Github...all truly transformative companies, led by extraordinary, highly valued, highly talented transformative technology leaders.

We hear a lot about “unicorns” in executive search. I get it, they’re rare. But when it comes to transformative talent, I don’t believe in unicorns, (nor should you). The best people aren’t successful because of magical powers. They work hard with grit, determination, and skill. They’ve also learned from great mentors, and pass along what they learned to the next generation. These people are a rare breed, but they exist. I like to think of them as War Admirals.

War Admiral was the racehorse who won the Triple Crown and Horse of the Year back in 1937. So what’s he got to do with transformative talent in 2019? War Admiral was bred to win. His father had been a champion, and that same team trained War Admiral. After he retired from racing, War Admiral’s lineage became one of the winningest in history, producing champions like Seattle Slew, Zenyatta and the most recent Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. My point is lineage matters, greatness begets greatness. Early in a search, organizations will often target specific high-profile, brand name companies, but lineage is equally important. Great people come from great lineage. Experience is always critical, but look at their mentors. Who did they learn from? What did they learn, and what are they able pass on to others? A candidate’s lineage indicates  likelihood of success across a multitude of factors critical to your business.

Our most successful placements all come from exceptional lineage. When you trace back the origins of the family tree, you may find a War Admiral. They are an elite category, highly sought after and extremely rare.  I’ve been fortunate to work with several War Admirals over the years. I’m looking forward to sharing their stories in the coming weeks.

How To Scale Without Breaking: 4 Common Symptoms To Watch Out For

Those new employees...they haven’t been indoctrinated in your systems, culture or your vision. And let’s not forget all the new responsibilities that are pushing your team to their limit. Scaling without breaking is no small feat.

Scaling stresses all aspects of your business, making identifying risk extremely difficult. Symptoms seem to bubble up everywhere from people to product to process. In my experience, the root of the problem...and the fix...comes down to people. Your software is buggy? Q&A test wasn’t strenuous enough? Product too complex? If you trace problems back to their root, you’ll find people...and also the requirements needed to scale without breaking.

Pay close attention to any product delivery flags signaling that you’re not meeting customers’ expectations.

Here are four common symptoms that need to be addressed in order to scale effectively and prevent breaking:

I spend a lot time helping our clients peel back layers and diagnose problems as companies scale. Often times, seemingly minor issues are actually symptoms of much larger issues that need to be addressed. If you’re experiencing issues with talent, customer service, silos or culture, take the time to thoroughly diagnose the problem at its root and design the requirements of your next leader accordingly.

Finding The Right Talent in Times of Transition

Determining the right candidate profile while your company is transitioning can be daunting. You are often in uncharted territory with requirements and qualifications in flux. With so much at stake, how do you set your search up for success?

Identifying Competency Stage by Stage

Businesses in transition are typically on the spectrum of build, scale and/or change. Most companies have one foot firmly planted in one stage with elements of the others needing to be addressed. The requirements of each stage are unique and it is extremely rare to find talent that performs well across all three.

Your ideal candidate should have competency in your current stage and the capabilities to take you far into the next. By clearly defining where you are and where you want to be in the near future, you can focus on the qualifications most critical to your organization’s success. Let’s take a closer look at the unique characteristics of the three most transitional stages, and the talent traits necessary to succeed in each.

Build: Zero to One

Company Characteristics: Building is a priority with startups, but it is common across all stages. The #1 priority here is finding market quickly as possible. With small, scrappy teams and little support, the founders’ knowledge and vision are critical. Small teams come with limitations, particularly around recruiting, development and operations.

Talent Traits: Build talent has technical prowess, but are versatile enough to operate with limited resources. This person should be a talent magnet, attracting the best people as your business continues to grow. Also, they need to be passionate about your company’s mission as they will help define your culture.

Scale: Bringing Order To Chaos

Company Characteristics: To scale, an organization has found market fit and is building market credibility. Often times, their product offering is gaining momentum, and building towards critical mass. Internally, there is a supporting cast in place; they have identified blind spots and are moving from organic to more structured processes.

Talent Traits: The ability to work cross-functionally is important here. You are looking for a great communicator, a chameleon comfortable switching between technical, business, and people skills. Credibility is also a factor as well. This stage requires someone who has seen scale, understands the importance of operations, process, and possesses deep functional expertise.

Change: Digital Transformation

Company Characteristics: Companies in this phase are typically well established but in need of transformation. They are making significant changes to deal with new competition and other market factors. These organizations have operational processes and technology in place, but they may be outdated and need to addressed.

Talent Traits: Leadership is paramount with companies going through change. They must be politically savvy with the ability to influence up and down, and to both internal and external audiences. They also must be experienced in making the difficult decisions necessary to reorganize and fix dysfunction.

It is important to note that transitions are rarely linear. They exist on a spectrum. If your company is changing, chances are you are continuing to build. And, going through major change will most likely include elements build and scale. Only by establishing which stage characteristics are most important to your organization will you have a clear understanding of the talent traits needed to get you to the next level.

Thinking About Diverse Teams as Systems

Thinking About Diverse Teams as Systems by Jodi Jefferson, Riviera Partners


It’s been a busy year for diversity in the news. Since the Google Manifesto and the Uber debacle, it has become clear that even large, forward-thinking tech companies continue to struggle with diversity in the workplace. And yet there’s plentiful evidence that diversity is good for business, and most tech startups are eager to hire a more diverse workforce. But how do you accomplish this in a way that’s beneficial both for your company and meaningful for the people who work for you?


Understanding teams as systems


Diversity is a complex subject, and teams are complex systems. You need to understand all the necessary parts, why each layer is so critical, and how they all work together to achieve a common goal. In working to understand the diverse needs of your team, think of it as an operating system driving the function of a larger machine, in this case your company. In order for your machine to work properly, your OS needs to perform a diverse set of functions, such as scheduling tasks, executing applications and controlling peripherals. Similarly, a diverse team is like having a diverse set of tools that allows you to optimize for diverse problem solving, which will only make a system work better, be more resilient, with happier people and better products.


Building a better system starts with understanding why diversity is so important. Teams that comprise of diverse cognitive, gender, ethnic, age and socioeconomic diversity simply outperform those that are less diverse. HBS reports that “diversity can boost innovation and employee engagement. Companies with greater gender and ethnic diversity also financially outperform their peers. Diversity increases a company's ability to attract and retain top talent, to better understand their users.”


Hiring for diversity


It can be tempting to immediately point to your recruiter or HR department and ask them to hire more women. In the last year, I’ve been increasingly asked what my “diversity initiative” is for nearly every executive search I embark on. As a recruiter who has specialized in building engineering teams for 10 years, this is not only my problem to solve. It’s all of ours; and this is not just about hiring more women (although that’s part of the solution). Take a close look at your team. How is it built out in terms of race, gender, LGBTQ, veterans, ethnicity, people with disabilities, income, education, and more?


As Uber head of diversity Bernard Coleman III notes, the first step to creating a diverse team is overcoming your own biases. “People often hire based off of familiarity and/or comfort, (i.e. someone who went to your program/college, looks like you, shares your interests or is a member of an organization you’re affiliated with).” Instead, consciously seek individuals with unique perspectives who come from different backgrounds. Find reasons to hire them. Make exceptions. This is not about “lowering the bar” to increase diversity--it’s about finding a different kind of talent for your team and honoring your differences.


Creating an inclusive environment


There is no shortage of stories (and hard evidence) that women and underrepresented minorities (especially in tech) experience bias and a general lack of welcoming environment. So once you’ve identified the gaps in your talent, consider what it takes to build it out accordingly.


Sure, I have a pipeline of female engineering leaders at my fingertips, but why would they want to work for you? What are you doing to prove your environment is diverse and inclusive? If you’re trying to attract a diverse subset of talent, start by asking yourself some questions:



Take a long, hard look at your answers to those questions. Do you need to take steps to make your company more inclusive? If so, consider making some of the following improvements to your company (in addition to my suggestions above):



Also, remember that that the root of inclusivity considers all people. Take a page from Denise Young Smith, Apple’s first ever VP of diversity and inclusion: focus on everyone, not just minorities. “Diversity is the human experience,” notes Young Smith. Once you understand your team as a system in need of a diverse set of tools, identify the gaps in your system and work to create a more inclusive environment for all employees, then you’re well on your way to success. Are you ready for a change?


Written by Jodi Jefferson, Riviera Partners


The Story of a First-Time CEO as Told Through Machine Learning

Machine learning is a method used to devise complex models and algorithms that lend themselves to prediction - it sounds complicated and cumbersome, but this data really tells a story.

Recently one of our engineers questioned why some searches take longer than others and decided to dive into our collected data to see if his assumption that searches with less experienced CEOs are the culprit.

He was surprised to arrive at the opposite conclusion - that searches with first time CEOs took a month shorter, on average, based on placements made in the last two years. Furthermore, we found that the more experience the CEOs have, the longer it takes to place retained search roles. So while we may spend more time coaching and mentoring newer executives on how to find the right person for the job, leading it to feel like a longer process, the data shows it’s likely to close faster. It’s like Einstein said (and our own VP of Data Science, Tammy Wang, has reminded us!), “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

This is just one example of how machine learning and data-driven technologies tell a story that can guide us in our mission to help our clients execute effective searches - this small tidbit of data gives us the knowledge to educate our clients about the average time a search might take, valuable information that wouldn’t be possible without our powerful, advanced algorithms and technologies.

Here’s What’s Hot in Tech Engineering Positions Right Now

Whether you’re a company seeking to fill a critical engineering position or a potential candidate looking to sharpen your technical skills, it’s critical to pay attention to trends in hiring. Knowing what skills are most in demand gives everyone the knowledge to find, or fill, the right job. And finding a perfect match benefits all. Here’s what we are seeing is hot right now:

Other areas that have picked up dramatically in the last year include companies innovating in the Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) space. While these skills are still on the rise and not necessarily highly desired yet, it’s definitely an area to keep an eye on. Containerization, which is a lightweight version of virtualization (virtual machines), is also picking up steam as technologies like Docker become more popular.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen? How to Prioritize When Part of a Hiring Team

It’s not often that just one person in a company is responsible for making a hiring decision - and truth be told, you wouldn’t really want it that way, but that doesn’t make it any easier to be part of the team responsible for onboarding an important player. Here are some tips from industry veteran and Riviera Director, Jason Hann, on how to make your hiring team an effective one.

The first thing any hiring team needs to do is prioritize and make some key decisions:

If you keep the process tight, keep the team as focused as possible and remember why you are hiring and why you have been included in the hiring team you are far more likely to make the best long-term decision.

Important - and Telling - Interview Questions to ask a Candidate for Hire

Interviewing can be hard, both for the interviewee and also the interviewer. To interview well on either side is really a skill, and there are no second chances to make a first impression. Looking for some interesting insight into the mind of a candidate? We asked some of our most experienced recruiters what their must-ask questions are.

Riviera Director Jason Hann recommends seeking out information on some of the more challenging aspects of work, such as when things don’t go as planned. The question: Tell me about a recent failed project - were you the leader or part of the team? What happened and what would you have done differently?

When asking about a failed project, Jason says he is looking for humility and solid self reflection, as well as the critical thinking it takes to learn from mistakes. If the candidate is a leader and can’t think of a failed project, they probably lack the experience it takes to help build and lead teams because every leader has plenty of failed projects!

Jason also recommends asking: What are you looking for in your next challenge?

When asking about what is appealing to a candidate about their next challenge it’s an opportunity to discern if they’re going to be a “roll up the sleeves and do whatever it takes” kind of leader or if they’re just looking for a “perfect situation.” The latter group are often less likely to jump jobs, but if someone expresses a passion for building teams, solving for specific problems or being more involved in product development, it’s often a sign they are lacking fulfillment in their current situation and are ready for a new challenge.

Partner Sam Wholley reaches beyond just work experience and asks about life experience with one simple question: What is the hardest thing that you’ve had to do, or that has happened to you in your life, and what did you do to overcome it? The answer shows the level of grit a candidate has, as well as what they are willing to do when they need to be successful. On the technical side, Sam also likes to ask senior candidates to tell him some of the best technical management advice they have gotten from a mentor and how they have put that into action - as senior leaders, in engineering, or any field, we should be able to put the wisdom of mentors to work for us.

Riviera’s approach to hiring is “right person for the right job.” Ask questions that will show a person’s true colors and motivations and you are far more likely to make that “right” hire.

Perks are Passé: Get Talent by being a RABBIT in a Herd of Unicorns

Everyone offers perks these days. Everyone has unlimited vacation. Everyone has a kitchen full of food. Everyone has a foosball table. These perks have become check-box items for companies. Perks are passé.

The best way to get talent is to be a focused business; not by competing against the likes of everyone from Apple to Google on perks. If your candidate is interviewing with you and is also interviewing at Google or Apple, the candidate is being disingenuous with someone; frankly, it’s usually the startup. However in some cases that person might just be trying to figure out which path is best for them, which brings me to my second point. I challenge you to think about what truly motivates people - a true perk: working at a company that is a viable business and will ultimately make a difference. So if you are an early stage company looking to grow your staff, stop focusing on the unlimited vacation and company cars and go back to focusing on the fundamentals. Be a RABBIT in a herd of Unicorns.

Not Just a Cute, Furry Animal

What exactly is a RABBIT? Defined by CB Insights: Real Actual Business Building Interesting Tech. Are you a RABBIT? If you are then tout this versus the perks. It’s the best way to attract top talent. In a world of billion dollar startups and multi-billion dollar corporations it might be intimidating to think that you don’t have a lot to offer employees if lunch isn’t catered every day, but after years in the recruiting industry I can confidently say those perks can matter much less than you shining a light on the accomplishments of your company.

This is especially true in a time when VC deal activity is down, reductions in valuations and layoffs are all happening. The Unicorn frenzy has had its 15 minutes of fame - research has been pointing to that for some time. Every day I interview candidates and their questions have started to become very focused on the viability of the business itself. So the next time you interview someone, lead with what the company has done, who has noticed, the growth and impact of your offering and the recognition you have received for your work.

Do You Pass the RABBIT Test?

Ask yourself these basic questions and if you can answer yes to all five, I believe you have more to offer than you may realize:

  1. Is the problem your company is solving interesting and viable today?
  2. If you are hiring technical talent, are you using the latest tech?
  3. Is there something about the way the technology is being used that offers a challenging problem to an engineer?
  4. Do you have leadership that can also provide mentorship?
  5. Do you have proof points to share with candidates/those you’d like to join the team?

Your Company’s Vision and the Role Everyone Plays

Study after study shows that being inspired by work is good for your health, and even going a level deeper, reports have determined one of the most important dimensions of job satisfaction is how employees feel about the company’s mission. It’s more important to the team to feel like they are part of something than to have an on-site dry cleaner.

A tip to make sure your vision is valued: show the employees, from the engineers to the front desk staff, how their work contributes directly to that vision. If everyone realizes the importance of the role they play, company culture will be better and people will statistically work harder.

Work and Play: Encourage Creativity

It’s no secret engineers love technology, so if you are looking to fill a key role on your technical team, think about the unique, state-of-the-art tech you use to create your product or service. Do you offer something cutting-edge that engineers are excited to work with? Will you provide creative autonomy in how the work is completed? This doesn’t just apply to engineers - empower people in all areas of your organization to think about how they would like to approach their job and give them the freedom to do so.

Freedom is a consistently high-ranking factor in job satisfaction, and while this can apply to traditional perks like flex schedules or remote-working privileges, an often undervalued aspect of freedom is the way in which employees are encouraged to approach their tasks. This is especially important as the millennial generation enters, and takes over, the workforce.

Lead and Develop  

Being a leader your company believes in is just as critical as having a mission they want to stand behind, but it’s a frequent misconception that leadership only needs to come from the C-suite. Starting from the top down, every manager in the company needs to frequently and clearly communicate the company mission and truly OWN what it stands for.

Companies that provide transparency, trust and communication to their employees frequently rank happier on employee happiness indexes. This could be attributed to the fact that when people are informed they are likely to make better decisions. This is most true when there is a challenge the company is facing, but establishing this culture of transparency around both good and bad news will show employees you are a leader they can trust.

Hand-in-hand with being a good leader is offering mentorship and career development. We have all had someone in our career who took the time to teach, coach, listen and guide. Pay it forward - both you and your company will be better for it.

Create a Truly Perky Culture

While the term “perk” as it relates to work is derived from perquisite, which means an incidental payment, benefit, privilege or advantage over and above regular salary or wages, the verb perk is defined as becoming more cheerful, lively or interesting - if you focus your organization on being a happy, interesting place to work your company will be the true perk: a place that attracts, and keeps, top talent.