Dale Winston found her true calling in executive search and built Battalia Winston into a world-class firm

By Marie Griffin

Photography by Mindy Best

It’s ironic. Dale Winston, chairwoman and CEO of executive search consulting firm Battalia Winston, has spent her entire career matching people with new jobs, while she herself has been with the same company for 32 years.

Dale Winston, chairwoman and CEO of executive search consulting firm Battalia Winston, has spent her entire career matching people with new jobs, while she herself has been with the same company for 32 years.

But, like a candidate she might have successfully placed, Winston loves her job enthusiastically, is passionate about doing it well, and is focused on making the company bigger — without outgrowing its position as a premier mid-size search firm.

“When you’re working with Dale on something, you don’t get the feeling she’s working,” says Sheila McLean, former president of the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), who has known Winston since the early 1990s. “She’s very, very happy with the profession she chose and she wants it to be a great profession.”

“She’s really passionate about what she does — the commitment and the energy comes through every phone call, every lunch meeting, and every post-interview notes comparison,” agrees Bill Kane, SVP and general manager of human resources and general affairs for the Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. Sumitomo is the third company for which Kane has employed Winston as a search consultant.

“Never get comfortable” is one of Winston’s mantras. “I’m personally a very entrepreneurial individual,” she says. “For me, that means being agile, rolling up your sleeves. When I say ‘never get comfortable,’ I mean never getting complacent, never thinking there isn’t going to be a new challenge tomorrow.”

The executive search business is very sensitive to the modulations of the economy, and Battalia Winston had learned to weather the ups and downs presented by what Winston now calls “mini” recessions. However, the Great Recession that started in 2008 dealt a hammer blow to the industry — and Battalia Winston along with it.

In 2010, AESC published a report called Executive Search in Transition that detailed the impact of the recession on the profession. “While statistics on the industry are hard to assemble because of its very fragmented nature, estimates suggest that, at its peak in October 2008, the search profession worldwide generated around $11 billion in revenues. As of October 2010, revenues are estimated at around $9.8 billion.”

That amounts to about an 11 percent revenue loss for the industry over two years, but the initial hit was probably much sharper.

An article in Workforce magazine in August 2009 noted that three of the largest firms in the industry had just reported quarterly revenue losses ranging from 29 percent to 45 percent. “For almost four quarters, executive recruiters saw commissions, revenue and profits plummet as companies walloped by the recession stopped hiring upper-level managers in the midst of massive layoffs,” the article stated.

The Great Recession slipped into what was commonly known as the “jobless recovery,” resulting in several more lean years for the executive search industry and Battalia Winston.

“We did some layoffs, but we’re in growth mode now,” Winston says. “I want to help this company get back to a larger position where it’s growing. Within three years, I could see Battalia Winston as a strong, healthy mid-size executive search firm with around 20 consultants.”

For an executive search firm, revenue is driven by the activities of its search consultants, called partners. Each partner’s job is first to form relationships with hiring organizations that will retain the firm’s services. Then, either the partner or his or her associates will start looking for candidates and vetting them. So, for Battalia Winston, the key to getting bigger, Winston says, is “adding productive partners.”

Battalia Winston is a retained executive search firm. “Retained” means that a client company with a senior-level job to fill has signed a contract with the firm. Once the firm has found candidates and thoroughly vetted them, two or three are typically presented to the client, who has the final say in the hire. The retained executive search firm will be paid for its time and expertise even if the client does not eventually hire any of its candidates.

The other type of search is “contingency,” where the hiring company gives search firms the green light to look for candidates, but the search firm will only be compensated if one of the candidates it presents is eventually hired.

BIGGER ISN’T BETTER

Battalia Winston competes in a landscape dominated by a handful of giants. According to Executive Search Review, number one, Korn Ferry, had revenues just over $1 billion in 2014 and Spencer Stuart, number two, had almost $700 million ($698.3 million). Number three, Egon Zehnder, is only slightly behind with $692 million. Heidrick & Struggles and Russell Reynolds Associates follow in another tight race with $493.4 million and $490.7 million, respectively.

In contrast — and by design — Battalia Winston is a mid-size company. “We’re growing in a very successful and healthy way, but I don’t believe that bigger is necessarily better in executive search,” Winston asserts.

“We have always wanted to have a premier mid-size firm because of the advantages that offers our clients,” she continues. “One advantage is that our clients are assured of partner attention. The other is that ‘off limits’ is not an issue.”

McLean, former head of AESC, explains that professional executive search firms heed two major ethical conditions — off limits and avoiding conflicts. “Once you get someone a job with a client company, you can’t go back and take them out and put them somewhere else — even though you know them really well. That’s off limits,” McLean notes. Avoiding conflict comes out of the executive search firm’s consultative relationship with its clients. “When you’re hired to do a search, you get to really learn about the company. You might meet a lot of the people there as you find out about what they want in their candidates. A conflict would be to use that information, or recruit people you have met, in any other search,” she adds.

“Dale Winston has a very, very fine sense of how to keep the firm at a size where it’s not conflicted or plagued by off-limits issues,” McLean says. “I think it’s very important for Dale to get noticed for doing that — while still being one of the best people in the search industry.”

With offices in Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Woodbridge, NJ, as well as its New York City headquarters, Battalia Winston works with companies in a wide range of industries, but it is particularly well known for its expertise in working with life sciences, private equity, industrial, oil and gas, consumer and not-for-profit businesses.

“I have always had at least 20 percent of my practice in the not-for-profit world,” Winston says. “That has been throughout my career because it’s something that’s important to me. It happens to be a growing area for us today. A lot of not-for-profits are now looking for people who want to move from corporate America and have skill sets that haven’t been resident in the not-for-profit world. We are carving out a unique position around that.”

SEARCH ‘THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY’

Having worked with Winston as a search consultant for some 25 years, Kane of Sumitomo ticks off a list of four characteristics that make her exceptional in his view. “One, Dale really knows her clients. She really does her due diligence — and not just with the candidate, which everyone does. She gets to know the culture of the [hiring] company and she does a fantastic job of assessing candidates against that paradigm,” he says.

“The second thing Dale does very well is to get to know the business, the industry, of the client company,” Kane continues. “I have worked with her while I have been in a few different industries, and I’ve always been taken by the in-depth knowledge Dale exhibits.”

Winston’s third differentiator, he says, is that “she follows up extensively. She makes it a point to check in with [the people she has placed], not just me. She is constantly taking their temperature to see what’s working and what’s not. She will then synthesize that information and report back to me as the chief talent manager on anything we need to do to make sure that person is as productive as possible.”

Finally, Kane calls Winston our “GPS of talent,” keeping an eye out for talented people Sumitomo, and any of her clients, might need in the future, whether they realize it or not. Even if the client doesn’t have a position open, Winston “might suggest an exploratory discussion, to keep that person on our radar,” he notes.

“To this day, I contend that you need to do search the old-fashioned way,” Winston remarks. Decades ago, companies tended to value executive search firms most for their ability to uncover “hidden” talent, which today’s organizational leaders believe is now readily available to them directly through LinkedIn and other internet-enabled tools.

“LinkedIn is a good tool for helping to find the people, but assessing those people and closing them require different skill sets,” says Winston. She compares executive search to the real estate industry. “When real estate listings all went online, people thought that would be the end of brokers, but real estate brokers are still needed,” she points out.

As a third party, the executive search consultant has the ability to form relationships with both the client and the candidate, and uncover considerations that each one would probably not share with the other. Compensation is the best — and most critical — component of the hiring negotiation, and that’s where communications often break down, Winston explains.

As part of her due diligence for her client, the hiring company, Winston will find out what people in a given position are actually being paid, in real time. “Not what they want to make,” she emphasizes. “I can’t tell you how many times during my career a candidate has said, ‘I’m going to ask for A or B or C.’” When she thinks the candidate’s demands will kill the deal, Winston doesn’t hesitate to say so, and she will have the information that gives her words weight in the eyes of the candidate as well as the potential employer.

“My role isn’t just putting people in seats. It’s really helping companies to grow,” Winston says emphatically. “The good companies recognize that the cost of our fee is worth the due diligence we have done to make sure that they’re hiring the best person available.”

Winston takes great pride in the culture of Battalia Winston, and in the latter part of her career, she is eager to pass that along. “In the long term, I want to be able to create a legacy for this firm that’s now 52 years old. I want to support people in doing good work on behalf of clients in a way that’s different from our largest competitors,” she says.

“We have a very collaborative environment. There are no sharp elbows here and that’s by design,” Winston adds, noting that the firm could probably have grown larger if she had been willing to hire more aggressive, pushy partners. Instead, she says, “We do a lot of teaming, which is very unusual in our industry.”

Winston uses the words empowering, collaborative, supportive and caring to describe her management style. “My strength is developing people, supporting people,” she says. “But, everybody’s strength, taken to its extreme, becomes their weakness. My failure is that I might do too much of that.”

“Dale is a leader with all the qualities you want at the head of a firm, but she is also a leader who wants to give back, who wants to mentor the leaders of the future,” McLean says. “She’s very, very smart and a very good business woman, but she also brings the extra dimension of wanting to teach the craft.”

Even after decades in executive search — and in spite of all the challenges — Winston is looking forward to staying in the game. “It’s a wonderful business,” she says. “And you can work in it for a very long time because people are buying your wisdom.” CEO

Marie Griffin is a freelance writer based in the New York City area. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

‘IT WAS HELPFUL MY NAME WAS DALE’

Dale Winston, chairwoman and CEO of Battalia Winston, tells SmartCEO how her experience as a wife and mother with a career evolved, along with society, over the years.

In the mid-1970s, when Dale Winston’s elder son started nursery school, she started working full time. Living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with a husband working in investment banking, Winston didn’t “have to work” to help support her family, so she was definitely swimming against the current.

“I will say that a very large part of my ability to be successful has been the support, throughout my career, of my husband Roger,” Winston remarks. “And that was a period of time when his support was not quite fashionable.”

Once Winston got to the office, there were additional challenges. “Early in my career, it was helpful that my name was Dale,” she says about her androgynous first name. “When I called a company, they didn’t know if I was the person calling [on her own behalf] or that person’s secretary.”

Winston wanted to take her career to whatever heights her talents would enable because “that’s who I am,” she explains. Yet, she didn’t try to “have it all,” as the saying goes. She authored a column for Forbes.com in March 2009 that explains her philosophy.

“There are several possible paths for the high-potential executive woman who wants it all, but each involves a tradeoff,” she wrote. “The female who wants both a family and a path to the top faces a far greater challenge than any man … We’ve come a long way since June Cleaver, who was always home with a batch of cookies at
the end of the school day, but the corporate mom who wants it all still has no choice but to seek it along a road
of compromise.”

One compromise for Winston was to focus on New York City-based clients to limit the amount of business travel she would have to do, although those clients — particularly conglomerates and private equity firms — were liable to have divisions elsewhere. So, when out-of-town travel was necessary, “my husband and I had a deal,” she says. “We would avoid being away at the same time” while their two boys, who are nine years apart in age, were young.

As a top executive and, later, a business owner, Winston had more flexibility in her schedule than women in lower-level positions might. Plus, because much of the work in executive search is done over the phone and, for the sake of candidates’ privacy, after traditional 9-5 hours, Winston could do some work from home in the evening, freeing up time earlier in the day to have dinner with the family or volunteer for activities at the boys’ schools.

In fact, executive search has a long history of attracting women. Back in November 1996, an article titled “With the Old-Boy Network Dying, Women Rise in Recruiting Field” appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

The story quoted figures from Executive Recruiter News saying that women had represented 12 percent of executive recruiters in 1982 and, by 1996, “they account for close to 35 percent and their numbers are growing.”

“There’s still an old-boy network, but it’s old and it’s dying,” Winston told the newspaper. “Clients want to hire based on your knowledge and expertise, and they really don’t care about gender.”

Almost two decades later, Winston says, “It’s an advantage to be a woman-owned business in these times. I still think you do have to make compromises as a woman in business, but I don’t see the challenges to be the same as those that existed years ago.”

BATTALIA WINSTON MILESTONES

1963: Bill Battalia founds O. William Battalia & Associates.

1967: Battalia & Associates takes a leading role in the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) as one of 16 original companies.

Mid–1970s: Dale Winston begins her career at a contingency search firm. “In contingency search, you get paid if, and only if, you find someone for the job,” she points out. “I learned a lot.”

1980: Bill Battalia’s company is renamed Battalia & Associates, Inc.

1978-1983: Winston learns the ropes in retained executive search at woman-owned firm Gilbert Tweed, where she was a vice president.

1983: Winston joins Battalia & Associates as partner, bringing the firm’s number of employees to three. “I could have hung up my own shingle by that point, but I also did some looking around with established firms,” Winston remembers. “In the course of that, I met with Bill Battalia. I did a lot of checking and no one had anything bad to say about him. I was impressed with his high ethical and professional principles.”

1986: Winston becomes president of Battalia & Associates.

1991: Terence “Terry” Gallagher joins the firm as a partner and senior vice president and general manager of the New Jersey search practice in Edison, NJ, which he started. This is the firm’s first office outside Manhattan. The same year, the company is renamed Battalia Winston International.

1990s: Battalia Winston expands with offices in Chicago (1994) and Boston (1996).

1996: Bill Battalia retires.

1997: Winston is named chairwoman and CEO of Battalia Winston International, and Gallagher is named president.

2003: Winston receives the AESC’s Gardner W. Heidrick Award for outstanding contributions to the executive search industry. She is only the second woman to receive this honor in AESC’s history.

2005: Battalia Winston International joins the Belgium-based Amrop Hever Group, a global network of independent search firms. The company used the name Amrop Battalia Winston for marketing purposes, although Amrop had no ownership stake in Battalia Winston. Battalia Winston left the network in 2012.

2007: Battalia Winston opens a Washington, DC, office.

2008: Winston and Gallagher appear on Businessweek’s list of the 100 Most Influential Headhunters in the World.

2011: Battalia Winston launches its “diversity & inclusion” practice in Chicago. In a press release, Winston said: “[Building a multicultural, talented workforce] goes beyond ensuring a balanced slate of candidates. It reflects a commitment to assimilating these highly sought executives successfully into their corporate cultures and ensuring retention is part of the strategy.”

2013: Battalia Winston celebrates its 50th anniversary.

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