Meet the Experts: Tom Barnes

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By Tom Barnes

I am one of the very few people you will ever meet who has spent an entire career, by design, in executive search – over 30 years now. I had the great fortune of doing my apprenticeship and training at a rapidly growing search firm in London where we specialized in tech. Our main focus was in hiring IT professionals for large organizations, such as banks, government agencies, retailers and manufacturers as well as the technology vendors that supplied them. I joined as employee number 37. By the time I left, we were over 1,000 people, had IPO’d, and were Europe’s most visible senior-level recruiter in those spaces. I was also reporting at that time to the CEO, and I was the youngest person to do so. All of this provides some context for what happened next: the Internet.

When the internet started to become a viable place to do business, the top US venture firms arrived in town, all in the space of a few weeks it seemed: Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins, Benchmark and Accel. They were busy writing checks to bright-eyed and enthusiastic young CEOs who then needed to build teams. Because we were so visible in technology hiring at my old firm, we seemed to be a logical choice for them when they needed to hire leadership talent. Primarily because I was the youngest senior person on the team, I was sent out to meet them all. We won nearly every pitch but we found delivering on these projects became increasingly difficult.

It became clear that for this ‘new economy’, as it was being called then, the traditional best-in-class tech headhunting companies weren’t going to win out. The primary reason for this was that there were no obvious places to look for talent – no direct competitors or analogous businesses – and so we had to think creatively, expansively, and tangentially about where to find talent. Executive search professionals, at that time, were not particularly well-versed in solving this type of problem.

Similarly, when we contacted candidates to tell them about our client, most of the time, they did not know of the client, and often the business models were new and unique. Executive recruiters of the time were not particularly good at painting a compelling picture to candidates on behalf of these new, pioneering and often very risky, businesses. They were used to moving people from SAP or Baan to Oracle but  the crucial difference was that candidates knew and understood at least a large part of the role, the products, the environment and the company. This was absolutely not the case with these emerging new economy businesses.

So, for all of these reasons, we saw the opportunity to create a new specialised firm. My co-Founder, James Brocket, and I decided to work out where the weaknesses were in the traditional approach and then we set about creating a new methodology and approach to solve for them. For the last near 25 years, we have been very slowly, but steadily and successfully, building the business. And so, there are two places I’ve ever worked, this being the one for 25 years.

Areas of Specialization

Our heritage is in technology. It started in internet businesses and quickly expanded into supporting technologies: large-scale infrastructure, and on-premise software, which quickly moved to SaaS. This then evolved into also working with businesses that were not only using technology but increasingly relying on it as the backbone of their entire business. More and more, you’d hear businesses in non-tech environments talking about becoming digital businesses – companies across all sectors started referring to themselves as tech businesses.

Our areas of expertise then expanded through retail into consumer goods, through FinTech into financial services, through health tech and health IT and wellness into life sciences, and pharmaceuticals. Now, we have a company with a deep understanding of where the world is going. We see technologies when they’re in their most nascent stage because we still work with the world’s leading venture capitalists and see these vanguard technologies firsthand. We see how these then get turned into successful tech companies and how they are then embraced and used by clients across all sectors.

We serve companies interested in the future and in how technology can help them get there. But the common denominator is clients who want to build more than just competitive senior-level teams. They want to put together teams that can disrupt and, as close to as possible, ensure the company’s health and financial vitality for the next decade. That is our business.

What Do You Love About Your Role?

After all these years, it’s still solving client problems. It’s still that slight frisson of terror at the start of a project. It is knowing as much as I do about search and about the great imponderables of humanity, knowing all the things that can go wrong with a search, all the various permutations and decisions that can lead to a project being derailed. After all these years, I still get that frisson of, “Oh my gosh, are we going to be able to make this work?” And then you trust in the process, yourself, your experience, and your knowledge and, critically and most importantly, your team members to help see around corners, pre-identify problems, and have solutions and options ready and waiting.

And knowing that if you always look out for your client’s best interests and think ahead in terms of what might get in the way, and act with vigor, passion, and commitment – knowing that, yes, you might have that frisson of terror starting a project, but knowing that we’ll get there. Picking your way through that complicated maze, getting to the point where the client has an amazing outcome, and then seeing the difference that person makes for your client, that’s immensely satisfying. And if you trace it all the way back from when you picked the project up with excitement and terror and then follow it all the way through to then seeing how the executive you found then went on to positively transform the business, that’s immensely satisfying.  Having the opportunity to take pride in the journey and its positive outcome, that’s the thing that I still enjoy the most.

What Does Success in Executive Search Look Like For You?

Success is, obviously, solving your client’s needs, but it’s also ensuring they understand how you solved those needs so they have the confidence to partner with you again and again. Success is also undoubtedly about seeing the impact and positive change that the person you helped that client to recruit goes on to make. How long the candidates we help them recruit stay and prosper is an obvious metric that we monitor. But one of the most satisfying ones is getting a call saying, “Hey, I spoke to your client. We know each other. They were thrilled with the work you’ve been doing for them. I was wondering if you could come in and talk to us.” That’s a clear indicator of success as well. So, if you put that all together, that’s what success feels like to me.

What is the Greatest Opportunity of the Decade?

It’s understanding how executive search fits in an environment where artificial intelligence is poised to change our industry. I think it’s recognizing that the essence of what we do, when done to the highest level, will be difficult to replace with AI. I think that there’s going to be a rarefaction of our industry, with fewer and better players remaining. The firms that continue to evolve, be creative in solving problems and drive outstanding outcomes for clients will end up doing the best and most important and exciting projects. I intend for Calibre One to continue to thrive in that more rarefied environment.

What’s Your Favourite Quote?

“Keep buggering on” – Winston Churchill