by Phil Schneidermeyer

How Best To Use Executive Search Firms

Mar 16, 2010
IT Strategy

Aetna CIO Meg McCarthy shares her experiences hiring through executive search firms

As CIO and senior vice president of innovation, technology and service operations for Aetna, Meg McCarthy’s responsibilities extend beyond IT. Her employer is a leader in the U.S. health insurance and benefits industry, with more than 34,000 employees and $35 billion in revenue. In addition to her tech duties, McCarthy oversees real estate, procurement and service; leads the informatics group; and runs ActiveHealth, an Aetna subsidiary in New York.

Both McCarthy and Aetna place a high value on attracting and retaining leaders. The company views its information technology as a competitive advantage. During a recent conversation, McCarthy, a client of Heidrick & Struggles, described how Aetna goes to market for IT talent, how she works with executive search firms like ours and the broader view she brings as a CIO with more than just IT responsibilities.

How has Aetna approached the hiring process?

We hired someone from the executive search industry to have as an in-house person to run the hiring process for us. We then extend his abilities by using search firms.

Usually we go outside when we need to expand our talent base in specific areas. We also talk to firms on a regular basis just to understand best practices for specific hiring situations. We may need a specialist in IT, for example, with a particular skill set. Then, I would say, if we look to fill a position of significance we want someone to act on our behalf, screening candidates before we see them.

What criteria do you use to select a search firm?

Obviously the reputation of a firm is important, but so is the knowledge and expertise of its search consultants. We want to be sure the consultant has experience relative to our culture and understands our expectations. Sometimes working with bigger firms can be problematic, as they may be blocked from recruiting out of our direct competitors.

What should IT leaders watch for in interviews?

It is very hard to get a good bead on whether a candidate is able to get the job done when interviewing. Sometimes someone can look very strong on paper and still not be a good fit. We get candidates who are not able to transcend strategic work and day-to-day operational responsibilities with any level of dexterity.

It’s important that whoever is doing the search has as much knowledge as possible about what it takes for a candidate to be successful within your organization.

What qualifies as innovation experience in IT leaders today?

Innovation doesn’t just happen. You have to brainstorm around it and then drive it to execution. A leader and his or her team will reach back into the enterprise and out to customers. We do that today, but we’re now making a point of doing it with more regularity and formality to be sure that we are bringing it back in, thinking it through, and determining how we can execute on those ideas that we believe will enhance our leadership in all areas of the business. We are excited about it.

We do a lot of interesting things today. We acquired a capability last year that allows us to do “crowd thinking”: We can go to customers with a focus on their strategic needs.

To what do you attribute the success of your best experience working with a search firm?

It depends on the person you are working with and the management process you agree to put around the search. For us, what’s best is a firm that brings good and qualified candidates and provides ongoing feedback. We also look for opportunities to build subject matter expertise in the search firm partner.