There are few people in the global infrastructure community capable of dividing an audience with quite so much aplomb as Dan McCarthy, the oft-contentious chief executive of specialist head hunting firm One Search.
This piece is written in the full knowledge that Dan’s forthright nature has been known to ruffle feathers, but – having worked with him for three years (2014-17) – it is delivered by someone who has the been in a ringside seat… a measured view from one who knows the person behind the LinkedIn profile.
And the vast majority of IJGlobal readers will know Dan best from his not-infrequent postings on LinkedIn and occasional online, no-holds-barred squabbles with industry players… most of whom come away with career-altering scars.
However, countless people know Dan as one of the most influential international head hunters in the infrastructure and energy space, having 13 years ago launched his own search firm targeting a niche area – financial modellers – for London-based banks and financial advisers.
This business has flourished from those early days placing grads and analysts – many of whom are now MDs and remain loyal to Dan who secured their first real break in the industry – to today… where he has relocated to New York, and is regularly placing managing directors and leading executives into infra/energy lenders, funds and financial advisers.
It’s not been an easy ride, having launched the search firm in 2007 – in the teeth of the global financial crisis – Dan has built a company of some 20 head hunters, with offices in London and New York… and plans to expand further afield when the time’s right.
Bull-headed determination has seen Dan through to logging increased turnover each year and establishing a flourishing business against embedded competitors… to the point that One Search is now, arguably, the market leader in this space.
Having worked with Dan for three years, I can testify that while he is swift to rise to a challenge and can be brutal in his response, he has had a hugely positive impact on many people’s lives and careers and is loyal to a fault with those who play fair. Those who play dirty with him tend to rue that decision at leisure!
He has spent 17 years in executive search after deciding that life as a Big 4 accountant – the distant carrot of partnership dangling at the end of an excruciatingly-long string – was ill-suited to his entrepreneurial spirit.
In brief, Dan has the capacity to become your closest friend… or (should you fall foul of him) your worst enemy. But on all points professional, he holds the keys to a lot of kingdoms.
Tales from the front line…
Chatting with Dan this week, he confirms the view that recruitment is centred on relationships – not just finding people new roles and introducing clients to candidates – but a good deal more… being an integral part of the industry, on-market at all times.
And while some cling to the belief that head hunters are on par with estate agents (realtors), they’re making a severe mistake with a specialist outfit like One Search, failing to understand the deep relationships that organisations of this ilk have with the industry it serves.
Having worked on that front line, I can attest to the central role a honed search company plays in not only filling roles, but guiding the client – sometimes shifting expectations in line with market realities – and guiding the right candidates to the right role.
One piece of advice that Dan was keen to share is the value in building that relationship with a specialist head hunter at any stage in your career, whether or not you’re in the market for a new job.
“The right opportunity for you won’t come along when you want it to,” says Dan. “It will come when it comes, and you’re a hostage to the forces of the market. Therefore, if you put yourself forward and build a relationship with someone like me… you’re putting yourself in a position to be approached when that time is right. But it likely won’t be when you decide the time’s right.”
In the same breath, Dan recognises that this is not the best message to be sending to the market, but the honesty of it is undeniable.
People who mistake the role of head hunter for that of estate agent, tend to view themselves as square pegs waiting to pull the trigger - when it suits them - to be slotted into the square hole of their choosing.
It doesn’t work that way and clients are rarely looking for candidates who are actively seeking a new role, rather people who are smashing it out of the park in their current role… but when they hear X Company is interested in talking to them, drop everything for that career-defining move.
“People who view this as a transactional job are so wrong,” says Dan. “They think along the lines of ‘I’m not in the market for a new house now, so why would I be talking to an estate agent?’ It is much deeper than that.
“Look at the IJ awards and the people who pick up awards. They are not picking up awards because they are out-and-out superstars. They are picking up awards because they have built a fantastic team and were smart enough to work out their success is based on the quality of the team.
“They truly understand the value of a true search partner as they understand the value of hiring the right person who brings the right relationship or makes the difference to getting them on the next big deal – and that often comes down to my ability to get that person to agree to come for that first coffee.
“The ones who see it as a transactional piece of business and do not value that relationship, put themselves at a disadvantage. The ones who are most successful in the business understand that building a good relationship with someone like me is one of many key differentiators for success.”
Dan is a strong champion of gender equality and to support this, One Search has rolled out the Young Women Into Finance scholarship programme, funding its first year of operations.
This is a fascinating, five-year programme that sees One Search orchestrating a team of infrastructure and energy professionals working in partnership with schools to introduce the option of a finance career to female pupils at schools in London and the south east of England.
“On gender equality, everyone talks the talk – but nobody really walks the walk,” says Dan. “Big institutions constantly bang on about how much they believe in diversity and inclusion, and that they want 50:50 teams and shortlists.
“I have set up a programme where I go to schools to talk to 16-years-olds, taking with me women from the industry and we raise awareness of the potential of a career in finance.”
Dan adds: “The reason that finance is so heavily stacked with men is that women do not think it is for them and if they do not have a role model, it does not get brought to life for them, and they end up thinking it is for posh people and it’s a big mystery.
“We go into these schools, get them interested, find them a mentor – who stays in touch with them on an ongoing basis – and One Search pays for them to do the CISI Corporate Finance & Capital Markets qualification.”
Studying starts while they are still at school and involves placements with their mentors or other infra/energy organisations, leading them towards a career in finance. In the second year, the modules continue with workplace visits, followed by two modules a year while at university and summer internships at a One Search client.
While at university, they start learning the art of financial modelling with the intention that when they graduate they can build one from scratch, have had two full summer internships with an infra fund, bank or advisory firm – setting them firmly on the path to a career in finance.
Sponsors of this programme have the opportunity to support candidates through to the final stages and – for no fee – the option to hire a fully-trained grad on to their team, doing their bit to resolve the gender diversity issue and future proof their businesses with grads who can hit the ground running.
But it’s not all good deeds…
Office bants and pranks…
Executive search is a full-throttle, adrenaline-fuelled environment, with consultants juggling a dozen mandates all at different stages… daily herding cats uphill while pitching for new mandates, ensuring client and candidate interests are aligned.
Working under constant pressure, it’s essential to let off steam… which is often achieved through office bants (banter) and pranks.
It was while working with Dan that he masterminded the most elaborate office prank ever concocted – one that reduced a consultant to a quivering wreck and had everyone (including him… eventually) laughing hard for weeks to come.
Word reached Dan that after the One Search team Christmas party one of the consultants had (not without encouragement and possible financial inducement) presented a rear view – from the unmissable vantage point atop a letter box – to diners at Langan’s Brasserie near the Green Park tube station.
In the new year, Dan had the Regus manager for the Berkeley Square offices call him out on the pretext that the police wanted to discuss an incident understood to have involved some of his team.
“Right you lot,” says Dan. “Before I go down and talk to the police, I need to know now – does anyone here have anything they want to tell me?”
One of the consultants – let’s call him Tim and make an assumption that he needed to be brought down a peg or two – has by now gone a deathly shade of pale.
“Guys, if any one of you has done something you want to admit to, I’ll go down and deal with it. But if none of you admit to anything, I’m going to take it I’ve nothing to worry about and I’ll see this off.” He added: “I refuse to believe any one of you would do anything to discredit this company.”
Deathly pale consultant now breathing at an elevated pace.
Off goes Dan with the office manager “to speak with the police” – in reality to dissolve into hysterics around the corner. Meanwhile the consultants who “encouraged” the act (and helped mastermind the charade) insist they won’t grass anyone up, studiously avoiding the eye of their colleague who looks fit to have a heart attack.
Dan returns in fury with a disc in his hand, points at Tim – who is now openly panting, eyes desperately snaking around the room for a bolt hole – saying: “Tim! What have you done? I’ve just spent half-an-hour with the police and they’re looking to press charges. What are we going to do? This is serious.”
Denials were soon shut down with the disc held aloft: “I’ve just seen the bloody CCTV footage. And you two (he singles out two consultants who are in on the prank), you’re every bit as much to blame. I saw you in the footage and I would expect better of senior members of staff.”
Tim now babbling incoherently, tears threatening.
“Right, you three – get yourselves around to Langan’s Brasserie and apologise to Mr Langan. Do it now and let’s hope he drops the charges. It’s the only way we can stop it.”
Tim gets unsteadily to his feet, hoarse rasps bursting from his lips, while the two conspirators reluctantly get up to join him (one to film every step of the way).
Now at the front door of Langan’s Brasserie. “Excuse me,” stutters Tim. “Can I please speak to Mr Langan, please?” Surprised look from maître d': “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Mr Langan died in the 1980s.”
Tim bumbles on: “Ah… ok… ahhhh… can I please speak to the manager… please?” Maître d' increasingly bemused, looking at the other two suspiciously, beckons Tim upstairs (away from diners) saying: “I’m sure that can be arranged.”
Enter the manager, Tim gushes out his full admission of wrong-doing littered with forthright apologies.
“Oh… that was you, was it?” says the manager, immediately catching on to the prank and holding back laughter. He forgives Tim and sends him on his way, declining the kind offer from one of the duo that he should wash dishes for the rest of the day by way of compensation.
Returning to the office shell-shocked, it was almost too much for Tim when he was told he’d been pranked and the team erupted with laughter.
Cruel, but it remains to this day the single funniest event I have ever witnessed in an office.