Anna Auerbach – Co-Lead, Product Officers Practice At Search Firm Egon Zehnder
Talent search and the hiring process have evolved through the years. Sometimes you don’t even have to go out looking for the perfect job because the job now has a way of finding you. It’s a matter of building up your credentials and making them known to the right people and in the right forums. To set you up better for success, Anna Auerbach, Consultant and Co-Lead Product Officers Practice for executive search firm Egon Zehnder shares insights into their talent search process. She gives tips on what to do when you get that call from a search firm or an executive recruiter, along with what to expect and prepare for to get an edge in the search process. If you are looking to advance your career, don’t miss out on this episode!
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Anna Auerbach – Co-Lead, Product Officers Practice At Search Firm Egon Zehnder
On The World Of Executive Search And Her Own Journey From Ukraine To Egon Zehnder
I’m JR Lowry and this is “Career Sessions, Career Lessons”. Our show is brought to you by Pathwise.io. Pathwise is dedicated to helping you live the career you deserve. Basic membership is free, so visit Pathwise online and join today.
My guest is Anna Auerbach, who I met when she was a senior at Brandeis University interviewing for a business analyst role in McKinsey’s Boston office. She earned that role and spent her first few years post-college at McKinsey. She then spent a year at the American Museum of Natural History in New York before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School. Following business school, she went to the Bridgespan Group, the nonprofit consulting arm of Bain & Company.
She moved on from there to become the COO of Moonridge, a philanthropic advisory organization. She then branched out on her own, starting Werk.co, a SaaS-based platform designed to bring personalization and flexibility to the workplace. She sold that business to The Mom Project and joined the executive search firm Egon Zehnder a few years ago, where she focuses on technology, digital, and product officer roles.
Anna has earned a range of industry recognition, particularly for her time as an entrepreneur. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.
Anna, welcome. It’s good to have you on the show. It’s been a long time since the two of us have talked, so I’m looking forward to catching up.
Thank you. This is great. It’s good not to be in an interview context but in a different interview context.
That was a long time ago. I do remember that day very clearly. You came across as driven and scrappy then. I was happy that we decided to offer you a job. Clearly, things have gone well for you since then. Congrats on everything.
That’s kind of you to say. I might have looked good on the surface, but I was terrified behind the scenes and on the inside. I’m glad it came across that way. I’m sure we’ll talk about this more, but that experience set me up for so many things. I’m grateful for that and grateful that it comes full circle in this conversation.
You talked about nerves. I’ve interviewed enough people at this point that I generally will look past nerves to a degree because everybody gets nervous in an interview. You just have to be confident that when the person’s in their day-to-day, they’re not going to be like that. That it’s just the moment.
Let’s talk about your current role. You work in executive search. You focus on tech, digital, and product offer searches. The world of search is a mystery to a lot of people. Tell our audience a little bit about what your day-to-day work is like.
I’m in a firm called Egon Zehnder. What’s interesting about the firm is that we’re European-based. One of the things I love about our particular flavor of search is it’s got this beautiful global, European, and international element to it. We as a firm are pretty equally split between search and advisory, which also gives it a different element. We’re not transactional search, and we’ll talk about what that means in a moment. We also combine it a lot with leadership advisory, coaching, succession, planning, everything around culture, and team effectiveness.
For us, it’s never about placing a person. Our whole thing is leadership for a better world. We think about leadership holistically. Search, in a nutshell, is helping place executives. I personally have a hard time with the word headhunter. I’m not hunting anyone’s head. That sounds awful. I like to think about it as an executive search, executive placement, and helping to place the leaders of tomorrow.
You see what companies are looking for. You see relatively senior people aspiring to something more. You’re at a very interesting intersection. I know every search is different, but can you describe what a representative process goes like?
Sure. The interesting part in being in search is that most times, people think about you as placing people and that you represent humans as an agent. We’re working with clients [i.e., firms]. It is client service and client advisor ultimately. We try to manage both sides, but we work for our clients. As you think about a typical search process, there isn’t a typical one. To break it down, it starts with meeting with clients and understanding where their needs are. We think about it as the getting-to-know-you part of the conversation. When you see enough of these arcs, you realize that that’s when success or failure is set up.
Much of it is around asking the right questions and understanding their needs. It’s almost like the marketer’s fallacy. If you ask people what they want, they’ll tell you what they want, but that might not be what they need. A big part of the search process starts with asking great questions up front to understand the need for the role, whether somebody was in it before, and what the context is.If you ask people what they want, they'll tell you what they want, but that might not be what they need. Click To Tweet
You also have to be a broad business person. It’s not about, “I need a chief product officer for a software company,” but what’s happening in that space? Is it a growing space? Is it a dying space? How is the company positioned? Who are its competitors? What does the future roadmap hold? This job, at its best, is a strategy job, and it’s about getting smart in each industry. Each search starts with that exploration, intake, understanding, and asking lots of questions.
We do a lot of calibration. Calibration is, “Is it is more of this or more of that?” In search, we use something called a search strategy. Where are we looking? Where are we looking for this person? What might this person look like? Calibration is important when we test different types of profiles. Sometimes, it’s on paper and through stories of people that we’ve gotten to know. Sometimes, it’s for clients to have a couple of test runs of conversations, and then things pick up. It’s around I and my colleagues being out in the market and getting to know candidates.
We go deep on assessment. I’ve only been at this search firm, so I don’t know how others do it, but I would say we’re very deep on not just looking at a resume. We’re understanding somebody’s competencies. What have they done from a leadership capacity or functional expertise? The other big thing for us is we have a framework for potential. For us, it’s less about what you’ve done but what you can do. Frankly, when you think about the importance of diversity and underrepresented populations, the best way to get at that is not what you’ve done. Not everybody has had the same opportunities and the same path. It’s around what you can do.
With that, we call candidates, we hear their story, share our summary, and then clients get to meet them. A lot of that work then transitions to the client to run people from the interview process. We help design that. We’re always talking to both sides, like, “How is it going with the meetings?” A big thing is around where someone needs to build conviction, both client and candidate. We’re also super hands-on in what we call the closing process, agreeing on terms and offers and onboarding. We stay involved through onboarding most often. It’s incredible, intensive, and so much more than finding a person and placing a person. We do everything from market expertise to thinking about negotiations. That’s the fun of the job.
You mentioned assessments. Do you always put people through a battery of assessments or is that up to the client?
We, for ourselves, to feel like we’re operating with integrity and quality, and that we’re getting to know people and giving a company somebody that we can stand behind, we do our own assessment. It’s an interview, but it’s about evidence of behaviors and things that are evidence of either leadership competencies and qualities or this potential model I talked about. Some clients go deeper and do all the psychometrics, have other things that they assess for, and have their own third parties they use.
We always check references. Guidance to the audience is to keep warm with people that you would put on your reference list. Make sure you know what they’re going to say. Generally, we’re not surprised. Sometimes, we’re surprised.
For everyone to know, the secret is we’re going to call what we call soft references. It’s the people you didn’t give us. If you don’t have your previous boss on the list, we’re probably going to find them and call them because there may be a reason why you didn’t put them on the list. That’s something for folks to know. As you progress in your career, leaving places in the right way, reputation and track record matter. Everybody’s career is [up and down]. Everyone gets to make mistakes. You’re not going to get along with everyone, but handling transitions with grace is exceptional.
I know some people who view themselves as senior people read into who from a search firm first reaches out to them. Is it a partner is an associate? From your perspective, is there intent behind that or does it come down more to who’s got the bandwidth to do the outreach?
I don’t know if I have an easy answer. For us, we never have our research colleagues or assistants reach out. We reach out personally. It’s very important to us. Every firm operates differently. I don’t think anybody should read into that. Sometimes, with pure bandwidth, I don’t think it means anything. The only thing I would say is to take the call. I always say, “Take the call.”
I find it interesting when folks respond and say, “I’m not looking.” That’s great, but it’s a chance to get to know you. How will I know when you’re looking if I don’t have a chance to get to know you? I don’t think who reaches out to you matters, but if you have the capacity, my advice is to take the call. At worst, you spend 30 minutes, are on someone’s radar, and maybe help a friend or colleague because you’re also going to be a source for [the caller] for advice and ideas. There’s a beautiful “pay-it-forward” to this. My advice is to always take the call when you can.
I know for a lot of people, the search world is a mystery to them. They don’t know how to build their network in the search industry. You work for the client [firm]. For somebody who wants to be known by the relevant search firms or the relevant people in search firms like Egon Zehnder, or somebody who’s outright interested in a new role, what’s the best way for them to get in your database or on your radar? I know you don’t have time to talk to everybody when they’re not necessarily a fit for something you’ve got right then and there.
Doing your homework and reaching out is the only advice I have. By doing your homework, I mean look up the firm. Make sure they do work in your space. It’s amazing how many reach outs you get from people who are reaching out to somebody who doesn’t have their expertise. In Egon Zehnder or anybody else’s website, find who runs your area. Let’s say you’re a CMO. Find a CMO practice. Find who leads the CMO searches. It’s not me. I would not be the right person to reach out to, so then you’d get lost in the pings of emails. Find the person who does your relevant work and then reach out. Pretty much every search professional, at the very least, will say, “Send me your resumé so I can update our database.”
Our work is in the combination of working through known quantities of folks that we know well and that we’ve gotten to know over the years. We all have our stable of folks that we’ve developed relationships with over time. The second is recommendations from networks, which is why I’m like, “Take the call. Help a friend. Help a colleague.” You can help your friend find their next job. That’s through recommendations.
The third is the database. Our databases are only as good as the information that’s in them. LinkedIn does not let us API into anything, and that’s the same with every search firm. LinkedIn is very protective of that. We may not have up-to-date information. At worst, the search professional will say, “Send me your resume. I’ll make sure our database is updated.” At best, you get a 30-minute phone call and get to know each other. Do your homework and reach out. No one says no. Those emails don’t go ignored. They go somewhere.
It’s in your interest to know everybody who’s in the areas where you do work.
That’s right. Reach out to the right person. The whole general contact info submission forms don’t do that. We all have easy contact forms on the website. Contacting the right person is important because it shows that you’re invested and have done your homework. Everybody wants to feel like you’re not just sending your profile to 50 search professionals but also being deliberate about the relationships you’re cultivating.
Fair enough. What have you seen people do to help themselves and hurt themselves once they get into a search process?
There are so many observations. We could spend a whole hour on this probably. To help themselves, they should do their homework. This is my theme always. I find it incredible and so valuable when somebody comes prepared and has done “secret shopper.” I have a confidential CEO search I’m leading. For one of the candidates I spoke to, we had an initial call and then we scheduled a follow-up to go a little deeper to do the assessment. He starts the call with, “I signed up on their website and I did the mystery shopper. Can I ask you a few questions?” I was like, “Yes, you can. That’s awesome.”
Take the initiative. Do your homework. Know the company. Know their latest news. Know who you’re meeting with. That sounds so basic, but so many people don’t do that. Ask for feedback. Ask good questions. It’s okay to ask at any point, “How am I doing in the process? What’s the company excited about? What are they not excited about? Who else is in the process?”
You can ask us that. We might not tell you proactively, but you can ask if there are other candidates in the process. It helps you think about how to position yourself. We won’t give you names, but we can give you an idea, “You’re up against somebody that’s more of a digital native.” You might want to think about how you’ll trump up your tech experience as an example. That’s important.Search firms don’t just look at a resume; they understand somebody's competencies and potential. Click To Tweet
I mentioned having references ready. Be responsive to the process. Clients are prone to add interviews, exercises, and psychometrics. The more you’re comfortable with that, as opposed to pushing back and being surprised, ultimately, you need to go with the process and similarly adapt to the conversations. What helps candidates is being good listeners, taking cues on who they’re meeting with, their style, what they’re solving for, and having done their homework. For somebody who is a peer in this role, ask them how they like to work. These are such basic things, but you’d be shocked how many folks don’t do that. All of those things help candidates along the way.
The converse is what hurts. What hurts candidates is when we pick up on ego, to be honest. Candidates [where we] start picking up on, “Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to fill out an education verification form? Why do I have to go to do another interview? I already met with them.” We’re like, “That’s what the company is asking you to do.” That hurts. You have to check your ego at the door for sure.
Also, reference surprises. You never want that. You don’t want that, so be prepared. Talk to your references. Tell them that they’re going to be getting a call. You can’t script them, but at least be prepared for what they’re going to say. Similarly, know in your head that whoever’s doing that search, whether the direct company or search professional, is probably going to call people you didn’t provide. Being prepared for that, and having managed those relationships over time is important. It all sounds basic, honestly, now that I say it, but those things are important.
There are also outright things you can do, like being misleading about something in your background.
Don’t do that. We’ve had difficult situations where there’s a legal situation. We do negative press searches. If there’s a lawsuit or there’s something negative that was in the news, we’ll find it. We have to, at these levels. There have been difficult situations where people have had convictions and things like that. We’re humans. We’re not perfect. The most important thing is being upfront.
There was a situation that happened where there was negative press about someone. There were allegations. If you get ahead of that and say, “I want you to know that there was a situation in the past. This is what happened. You’re going to find it. Here’s what happened. Here’s what I did about it,” or, “Here’s how I grew from that.” That helps.
We had someone in the process who, unfortunately, had some bad situations. It was an alcohol problem. He had since gotten help and he still got the job. It’s because they came clean about it and were open about how they grew as a person. They explained that it was a moment in time when they were going through something very difficult. That increases your esteem for someone. If someone is able to be humbled by something like that and talk about personal growth and their journey, that’s only a positive thing.
You then get to the offer negotiation. Let’s assume you’ve gotten the job. What portion of people in your experience negotiate the offer?
Probably half. Things you could do that are important is looking at public information on comp. Don’t ask for crazy things. Don’t be surprised. Rules have changed in the search world. We’re not allowed to ask for your current compensation. It comes from a good place. It’s around a lot of the things that have happened with entrenched gender and racial bias. We don’t want people who have had an artificially low salary to keep getting an artificially low salary.
We’re only allowed to ask for compensation expectations. When you state those, we know you’re usually taking your salary and adding something to it. That’s generally how it works. Back to homework, public companies have proxy statements, so before you do that, look at what executives make. There’s easy information you can find. Honestly, for companies that aren’t public, you can do some pretty quick Googling between Glassdoor and things like that. You can get a sense of what comp is like at the company. Don’t throw out something that’s three times what peers make. If that’s something that you want, probably don’t pursue that process.
In terms of negotiations, being informed about what’s possible is important. Half of the people don’t even ask. They take what they get. Hopefully, by the time you get that, there has been a conversation around comp expectations. I prefer offers that don’t have surprises. That is much better. Before you get to that place, the only advice is to be thoughtful about what is important to you if you think about the three main components of comp around base, bonus, and long-term incentives.
It’s important for people that are going into a search process to think about what’s important to them and where their flex factors are. Ultimately, if you’re trying to maximize total compensation, and knowing where you can be flexible, can get you more overall. Conversely, in this day and age, it’s wonderful to talk about your life circumstances. It’s perfectly acceptable. If you’re like, “I have three kids in private school,” tell the client that. People understand.
I don’t think this is a check-your-personal-life-at-the-door situation anymore. For some people, base [salary] is very important. It’s okay and good to be open about that. Reflecting on the components of compensation, what’s important overall, and where you have some flex is helpful, particularly if you’re [looking] to maximize your overall package.
I have a friend who is an HR professional. She always hires an employment lawyer to help her negotiate her offers. What proportion of the time do you see a lawyer in the middle of all this?
Not enough. It shouldn’t be in the middle, so that’s the one caveat. Once you cross the VP level, you should have an employment lawyer on call for searches, and maybe even before that. I would say there’s no hard rule of thumb on how much these things cost. Depending on the contract structure and the type of industry, whether it’s a publicly-traded company, sponsor-backed, or VC, there are different complexities to these contracts. It’s $500 to $2,000 to $3,000 out of pocket. You are going to protect yourself so much, so it’s worth every penny.
I don’t see individuals sending their contracts to employment lawyers nearly enough. I’ve started practically advising that with any candidates I work with. What’s the contract for? It’s to protect against downside risk. To spend $1,500 or $2,000, or whatever it ends up being to help yourself in a severance situation and a transaction situation is incredibly important.
I stay as far away from legal language as I can. Legal language is for lawyers. An “and” or an “or” is going to make a massive difference. Making sure that you have a great advisor on this is important. What I probably would not do is put them in the middle. Sometimes, people do that. What is helpful, particularly if you’re working with a search firm, is to send the contract to a lawyer, get their comments back, and understand the magnitude of the changes. Often, it is simple, small things that get changed. They end up being non-controversial.
Things can get intense when you have a lawyer-to-lawyer [interaction]. It depends on how difficult the contract negotiation is. I’ve never seen it go sour, even in difficult CEO situations. It’s important, at VP, SVP, and those points, that you should have an employment lawyer in your stable. Have somebody that you can rely on and send the contract to. Even if they’re like, “This looks good,” you want that. You should be happy to pay people to say, “This looks good.” That’s very important.
You mentioned an important point, which is having them on call in advance. It takes time to get that set up with them when you’ve got a company on the other end waiting to know whether you’re going to accept the offer or not. You run the risk that the lawyer and the law firm that you have on call may end up having a conflict. They could also have represented the company in the past, and then you have to start over, right?
Yes. The one thing I’ll say is until you get to the very big leagues, you’re probably not going to a big firm. For example, my husband and I have both used an employment lawyer in the past. He’s a single shingle guy. He’s awesome. He’s very open about the types of contracts he’s good at and the types he’s not. The chances of that being a conflict are slim to none. If you go to one of the big, big law firms, then sure.It's less about what you've done but what you can do. Click To Tweet
To the point of homework, there are a few things that I would do. If you’re embarking on a search, look at your LinkedIn [profile]. Make sure it makes sense. Make sure there are no weird dates in there. Make sure it reflects what you’re doing. People still use resumes. Brush up your resume. Make sure you have your list of references even if you’ve not given them a heads-up yet. Start thinking about that. Make sure you have a couple of employment lawyer options on call, as an example.
I haven’t had people who have their own guy or gal that’s at a smaller firm have conflict. Have a person you could call. If you are undertaking a search, I would line all of those things up as you embark on the search. There’s also that reference example. The request for references comes quite quickly. You might not be expecting it. Suddenly, you’ve had 5 or 6 conversations that are like, “We’re going to need your references next week.” You then have to hustle in all these conversations [with potential references].
I’m thinking about searches. Imagine August 2022. Everyone’s on vacation. What you don’t want is to have your offer be delayed because the company can’t reach your references. Buttoning all that up and having that ready so that the train can hit stations on time is important. I know we weren’t talking about LinkedIn, but that is where everyone goes first. Make sure your bio makes sense. Make sure the dates and other little things line up. It’s housekeeping.
You were running a software company, which you sold. We’ll get to that in a minute. How did you then end up in the executive search world as a next step?
There is a thread in that the software company was very mission-based. It started around the idea of women being underrepresented in leadership. It then expanded to the idea of how you can foster more inclusive work cultures and how you can offer flexibility at scale as a way to retain, motivate, and inspire employees and breed a more diverse, more inclusive work culture.
When we sold the company, I had this moment of realizing I had no idea who I was anymore. I always had my five-year plan. When you launch a startup, your five-year plan is the startup. You’re not interviewing for other jobs. You’re not looking to the outside. As we were selling the company, I had this moment of not knowing who I was anymore.
I’d been a founder, and that was so wrapped up in my identity. I went very broad. I went back to my mentors and a dear friend who does assessments at a different firm that I went to. He had incredible advice for me. I was like, “Do me. Help me figure out who I am. I’m lost.” I thought about operating roles. I thought about being a founder. I thought about going back to McKinsey. There were lots of things I thought about. To fast forward [what was] a much longer exploration process, Egon Zehnder drew me in. I started more on the candidate side of conversations for other searches for clients and then quickly started considering the opportunity[to work at Egon Zehnder itself].
I love the people. I love the international flair of the organization. The more I thought about what is it that I loved about the startup, the more I realized that for me, it’s around creating the future of work and fostering the future of work cultures. How do you do that? The software helps, but who was using our software? People. Who influences change in companies is not software.
For all the good that I feel like our startup did and for all the conversations that we fostered, those who were having the conversations were humans. Ultimately, I found this beautiful way to continue to carry this torch for the future of leadership, and it’s by doing search. We place people in positions of power. Who else shapes company cultures? Who else shapes the world? For me, that was the connection point.
The other insight I had is I went from having been in professional services for a while and being a founder. I didn’t ever think I was going to be an entrepreneur. I am quite risk averse. The realization I had is I went one way, swung the other way, and the right way is down the middle. I used to hate the term, but I was meant to be an intrapreneur. It’s doing something entrepreneurial but within the context of a company.
Here, I don’t have to worry about, “Are we going to make payroll?” That was stressful! I don’t know if I’d go back to that ever again. I know we’re going to make payroll. I know we have a marketing team and an accounting team. I know invoices are going to go out. In the years I’ve been here, I’ve been able to build new things and try new things. That’s the beauty of it. I was trying to make it a short explanation, but that’s a bit of why I landed where I am. I do feel like I get to continue [to carry] the same torch that my startup was carrying.
You were ahead of your time in that you were focusing on flexibility and inclusiveness well before the pandemic started. Then came the pandemic, and [flexibility] is what we talk about all the time. It’s flexible working, remote working, or hybrid working. Did you have a little bit of that, “I knew it, I told you so,” thought as all of this was playing out?
I feel like we all need a little less flexibility. I do think we were a little bit ahead of our time. That made it harder to scale, to be honest. It’s the idea that the taxi light has to be on. I don’t know if the taxi light was on yet for flexibility when we were building the company. The insight was right. Separate lessons learned on startups, and this whole product market fit is a thing. You do have to find it.
I think about the fact that there’s so much more to solve. We had the pendulum one way. I think about the fact that pre-pandemic, we were fighting the good fight to have companies think about hybrid work from home, flexible work hours, and different physical work environments. We started expanding to how people need to and want to work best and how you can eliminate the frictions that keep people back from advancing. It’s not just women. We’re ultimately all humans, and life is messy. What’s interesting is we still have to solve that.
In a post-pandemic world, I honestly think we’re all lost in how we’re going to work going forward. Malcolm Gladwell went on a rant [just before this discussion occurred]. We can talk about that, but it was very polarizing. You could argue the negative connotations of what he said. On the other hand, he’s got a point. We’re humans. Think about the cave people days. We slept in groups. We crave others. We crave contact with others. There’s safety in numbers.
Am I more efficient at home? Do I get more laundry done? Do I see my kids more? Sure, but I’m at the office and I ended up going into this very deep conversation [earlier] with a colleague. That’s not going to happen on Zoom. I don’t know what the answer is, personally. I can say I don’t want to go back five days a week. I love some flexibility, and I also like the change of scenery. I don’t think we’re anywhere near done solving this. How could you have predicted a global pandemic that sent us all home for two-plus years?
Everybody is trying to figure this out. Nobody has the answers. I’m not sure that a person [Gladwell] who writes for a living and probably spends a fair amount of his time not in an office environment is the best person to comment on an office environment. That’s probably why he lit up the internet.
Let’s not forget about the fact that we’re talking about people who have the luxury to work from home. There are so many people that never had that luxury. They ended up being frontline workers but never intended to be frontline emergency personnel. It’s a very complicated issue. The hard thing is that there’s not going to be an easy answer.
When you think about digital transformation in companies, trying to rebuild a non-digital company and trying to do that digital transformation is quite difficult. It’s almost easier to build a digital company [from the] ground up. In the same way, we have so much legacy work culturally. I’m sitting in Midtown. There are giant office buildings behind me. I can see in all the windows and they’re empty. We have a lot of these vestiges of how we built up work and the origins of management to make sure people were doing the work. This is all so silly. If we designed how we work from scratch, we would probably design it differently.
My hope is that we take the opportunity not to make these small incremental changes and be like, “Is it 2 or 3 days from home?” That’s honestly a silly conversation. It’s an important conversation, but we’re not having the real conversation, which is what it means to work and how one works best. Why do we have a five-day work week? We could go on a whole thing here, but there’s a much deeper conversation to be had around what the future of work is.Startups and careers have things in common, which is the market's always talking to you. You just have to listen. Click To Tweet
In my company, we’re going through the same process that everybody else is in terms of how many days a week, what we want people doing in the office, and does the office environment needs to change. Some of this, we’ll figure out quickly and some of it’s going to take longer.
Solving it could take a generation. It took us a long time to get to what a modern office is and [what] modern management is. It’s going to take a while to rebuild that too. You and I both talk more from the white-collar workforce perspective, but there’s so much more to talk about. Our problem is access and flexibility. For people that are hourly employees, it’s accessing stability. Their problem is inflexibility and unpredictability.
I don’t want to say the pandemic did anything good. It didn’t do anything good, but I hope that one positive effect that will last is we rethink how we all work and what’s important to us. I see companies thinking differently. It’s bi-modal out there. There are companies that are snapping right back to five days and ones that are not.
One of the interesting things I have seen is people are being a lot more open about what’s important to them and [about] their whole selves. That’s beautiful and wonderful. If you think about it, we spent 2 to 3 years looking into people’s living rooms. Sometimes, it’s their bedrooms. Sometimes, there are kids running behind them. That’s very personal. It’s given us permission to be humans.
What we need to accept is work is intertwined with life. We spend a huge chunk of our waking live hours at work. Trying to pretend that it is not meant to integrate with your life and trying to pretend that your personal life doesn’t exist is silly. You’re only going to get to a good answer if you try to integrate the two a little bit better.
I had one moment at my last job where I was having a meeting with my team. They were going back and forth in chat while we were having our team meeting about the fact that behind me, the bed hadn’t been made. I know – that was a rookie mistake. It was one of those mornings where I’d hopped on early, got going and in the flow of the day, and never looked back.
My favorite is when I walk by my husband on a Zoom call. We usually try not to both work at home at the same time. For everyone that knows my husband, he was wearing a dress shirt on top and pajama shorts on the bottom. He’s like, “It’s my favorite look of the pandemic. It’s pandemic fashion.” We’re all guilty of that.
Sometimes, there are children running behind us. I had a pitch where my daughter burst in, followed by my son, and followed by my nanny. I had a trail of people bust in behind me. Honestly, my initial reaction was like, “Ugh.” It was a first-time client. I was like, “I’m sorry, guys. We’re back to pandemic life. I’m sure you’ve all seen this before. Give me one second.” I went off video and on mute. I exited everyone from my office and was like, “Okay.” Everybody had a good laugh about it. It’s okay not to also be embarrassed when those things happen.
I have a friend whose family gave her a gift as a joke. I forget whether it was for her birthday or Mothers Day. They had a light system. One light color outside the door meant it was okay to come in. One light meant you could come in if it was important. One color meant that if you came in, you were in deep trouble.
I wish I had that, although my daughter probably wouldn’t have listened to it, but that would be helpful.
Let’s go back to the start. Let’s go back to before you and I met when you were interviewing for that job at McKinsey. How did you end up at Brandeis and zeroing in on McKinsey as a possible first employer?
I’ll take you way back for a moment. I moved to the US from Ukraine. I was born in Kyiv. We came to the US when I was six on refugee status. My family and I are Jewish. At the time, if you were Jewish, there was no life that you could have. There was a refugee opportunity. We landed in the Boston area. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston. The values placed in me at that age were hardwork and tenacity. Somebody at work [once] called me fearless. I was like, “I didn’t have a choice.”
I always tell this story. My mom studied English in college. My dad didn’t speak any English when moved to the States. She found a job first and went back to night school. She was a huge inspiration to me as a strong woman. She sent me to kindergarten here, and I didn’t speak any English, except she taught me one word, which was “bathroom.” As you can imagine, for a kindergartner, that’s pretty important. The downside scenario of not knowing that word is bad. I was always tenacious and fearless.
I applied to five colleges in the Boston area. I’ll tell you how I made the decision. I got a scholarship at Brandeis, and that was important to my family at the time. I still remember it, and it smarts a little bit. I got into Brown, but we couldn’t afford it. It was not possible financially. I still remember getting the financial aid worksheet. It’s your parents’ income and then subtract taxes. The estimated ability to pay was everything my parents had. I was like, “That’s not possible.”
I went to Brandeis. It was great to stay local. It was my training wheels for leaving the nest. As soon as I got there, I realized I wanted to go explore. I feel like I’d always been in the Boston area growing up. I wanted to see the great wide world. I ended up studying abroad and graduating a semester early. It was that itch in me.
How I got to McKinsey was a funny way. I ended up having an internship at Lehman Brothers in the summer of my junior year, back when Lehman existed. I was so grateful for the opportunity. I could not believe I got that job. I still remember that interview day. I have no idea how I got that internship, but I learned a ton. I didn’t love it that summer. I was sitting, staring at spreadsheets. The spark of people, and that’s been the thread of my career, was planted then. I felt like I wasn’t engaging with people and clients. I was sitting in front of a spreadsheet most of the day and night. It felt like something was missing.
I remember we bumped into a happy hour with consultant interns, and I was like, “This is it. Typical fearless, tenacious me was like, “I will apply to every consulting firm that I find on Vault.com.” What you might not know is I applied to 32 consulting firms. I had a whole Excel sheet. That’s how I kept track of it. I had no idea where I was applying at the time. I knew Bain and BCG. I knew some others. You remember that interview day. I have no idea how I got the job. I had that whole impostor syndrome. That whole day, I was like, “I’m going to be found out and somebody is going to tell me, “Thank you, Anna. You can go.”
I have to say I’m so grateful for [the role at McKinsey]. That set me up for everything that happened after. I feel like the connections were so valuable. My closest friends are my McKinsey analysts. I met my husband, in a way, through McKinsey. It’s been so formative to me. One of the special things is there has never been a McKinsey person I reached out to for help that said no, whether they’re alumni or current employees. It is amazing how those little things are so formative in your career.
It is a good place to start a career. You get a very broad exposure. I look back and I learned a lot. I stayed too long. The last few years were not as fun for me as the first few years, but I gained a ton from the time that I spent there. I remember going back to the day you came in and got interviewed. I want to say you were probably the only person from Brandeis we saw or one of very few.
Do you know why? It’s because McKinsey didn’t recruit [at Brandeis]. I still remember. I knew I was the underdog. I kept calling. That’s my theme of tenacity. I kept following up and being like, “Do you need a reference? I have reference letters for you. Do you want a writing sample? I have all these things.” McKinsey gave me a chance because I remember both Bain and BCG telling me, “You’re a non-core school. We’ll call you after we get through our core schools.” How brutal was that as a 22-year-old to hear that? I imagine there were not any other Brandeis folks interviewing at McKinsey.Pay it forward. We do so much better together than apart. Click To Tweet
That may well be true. We were probably guilty of the same thing of having a set of core schools. Something you did along the way got you through the recruiting team. The message was, “She’s not from one of our core schools, but you should see this woman. She’s persistent and has fought for it.” When we got into the decision meeting, I remember having a conversation about, “Let’s take the chance.” I’m glad we did. I’m glad it worked out well for McKinsey and worked out well for you.
It’s interesting. The caliber of companies that you’re talking about, like the top consulting firms, top banks, and top tech companies, are incredible boot camps. I don’t know a better term, but they’re like finishing school. I hate that term. I’m going to find a better one for the future, but they’re the apprenticeships. The reality is you graduate college not knowing a whole heck of a lot about what real work is like. I’m always in support of somebody doing a stint at one of those big, top firms.
To your point, for most people, it ages out. For most people, it [becomes] time to move on. There are folks that are lifers, and that’s awesome. They stay and have a perfectly fulfilling career. In fact, many of my peers ended up staying and having wonderful, fulfilling careers. For many people, it’s a stepping stone, but regardless, it’s valuable. It’s valuable for the company to have those employees there for the time that they’re there. For [the individual], it’s valuable [as well].
Even being on the search side of things, getting those stamps does matter. I think about my product searches. We often explicitly look for somebody that has what we call “best in class product.” Doing something that is the best in the class of that industry would give you training. You see what good looks like at scale. You see a much more systematic approach to product, strategy, finance, or whatever your thing is. For many people, you don’t get to spread your wings until you do something that is a little scrappier. That is a little bit more operational. For some folks, those big companies are their careers. For others, they spread their wings only when they go smaller and scrappier.
You’ve done a lot of different things. You’ve done consulting, nonprofit work, and HR software, which you started on your own. Now, you’re doing executive search. Do you feel like you’ve found a home at this point or is this another chapter and maybe there will be more chapters to come?
The reason I joined is that I saw a wide-open ocean here. I don’t know if there are any more chapters. It’s impossible to know, but I feel like I’ve found a wonderful home. One of the things that sold me so much is, as you look at the people who’ve been at Egon Zehnder for twenty years, they started as one thing and then evolved to another. For me, my career has been opportunistic. There’s no grand design. I used to have five-year plans, but those got thrown out.
I don’t know what the master plan is, but some of the more interesting careers are people who are opportunistic. Following your passions, the people, and also what works in that stage of your life, is important. This is my home. I feel like there are so many things I could do here. Is there another chapter? I don’t know, but there’s a lot of work left.
You got a lot of years left, so we’ll see how things play out. What do you do to recharge your battery? You’ve got two kids at home and a busy job. What do you do to decompress?
For me, it’s exercise. I know that sounds super cheesy. I talk fast. I’m working on slowing it down. I move fast. My brain always goes a mile a minute. It’s interesting. It’s how I’m wired. I realized that I could only clear my mind when I’m moving. It’s equally physical, but it’s also mental health. I try to exercise or do something that keeps me moving every day. That’s super important to me, and being in the outdoors whenever I can. I love New York City. We’re New York City lifers at this point. I love the energy of the city, but the best recharge for me and for us as a family is being out in nature, be it the beach or the mountains. Since we can travel again, it’s going to be travel. I get my inspiration from travel.
What are the places [in the photos behind you]?
I have two favorite places I’ve been to. [One is] Aït Benhaddou in Morocco, and the other one is East Greenland. Those are two of my favorite trips that are so different, but to me, both places were so rich in culture and stories. I took so much inspiration for different reasons from each place. The more I’m in places completely different from me and who I am, the more I recharge and reset.
My screensaver is from the summit of Mount Toubkal in Morocco. It was a spectacular climb.
I love Morocco. I love the food, culture, and people. I love all of it. Greenland was powerful for all sorts of different things. It had a natural beauty but also the reminder of the deeper story, for anybody that ends up Googling it, of the Westernification of Greenland. Societies were one of the problems. Thinking about how not imposing the better way to do things, and the Western way to do things doesn’t always help. It was a difficult trip from that standpoint but also an important reminder for all of us to be a little bit more aware of the values of the rest of the world.
Do you have final thoughts to share?
I don’t know. We covered so much.
It’s because you’re a fast talker.
I get twice as much done. There are no right or easier answers to careers. Startups and careers have things in common, which is the market’s always talking to you. You just have to listen. You can design a career, but even in a well-designed 5 or 10-year plan, there is a time to be opportunistic. The market’s always talking to you. You have to listen. Being receptive to what you’re feeling, and taking those leaps when you have the chance to, is important.
Back to what you said about taking the call, the worst case is it’s ten minutes out of your life to hear somebody talk about [an opportunity]. Maybe they will learn a little bit about you. You certainly learn a little bit about whatever opportunity that they’ve got. Only good things can come out of that knowledge.
Don’t forget. It’s not just about you. I’m so big on community and connections. If somebody is reaching out to you with a better role that you’re not interested in, take ten minutes. Learn about it and think about your friends. Think about the impact that you can have in terms of your friends’ careers. They might not be getting the same call. I am so big on paying it forward. We do so much better together than apart.
I know you’ve got the rest of the day ahead of you. I appreciate the time. It was great catching up. It’s been a long time. Hopefully, we will keep more regular contact going forward, which is one of the reasons why I started doing these. They’re great reconnecting discussions.
This is a joy. I super appreciate the time and opportunity. Thank you.
Thank you as well.
I’d like to thank Anna for joining me and sharing her impressive career story and an immense number of learnings about the search firm world. If you’re ready to take control of your career, visit Pathwise.io. If you’d like more regular career insights, you can become a Pathwise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for the Pathwise newsletter. Follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Thanks.
About Anna Auerbach
Anna Auerbach is a consultant and a co-lead of the Product Officers practice at search firm Egon Zehnder, which she joined in 2020. Anna began her career as a consultant and business analyst in McKinsey’s Boston office. She then spent a year at the American Museum of Natural History in New York before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Following business school, she went to the Bridgespan Group, the non-profit consulting arm of Bain & Company. She moved on to become the COO of Moonridge, a philanthropic advisory organization. Then she branched out on her own, starting Werk.co, a SaaS-based platform designed to bring personalization and flexibility to the workplace. She sold that business to The Mom Project and moved into her current role.
Anna has earned a range of industry recognition, particularly for her time as an entrepreneur. She has been featured by Bloomberg, Forbes, and Glamour, among others. Apart from her MBA, she earned a Bachelors degree in Economics and Psychology from Brandeis University. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.
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