March 24, 2002
To Foster Your Star Quality, Get an Agent
By Amy Zipkin

Movie stars, rock performers and sports celebrities have agents to keep their careers on track and to negotiate deals. Now, a handful of corporate senior executives are hiring agents, too. Firms that specialize in such agents started popping up in the 1990's, pitching a range of services that they say had never been packaged before.

The first was Executive PR in Portland, Ore., in 1993. Others include Strategic Transitions Inc., with offices in Los Angeles and New York, Stybel Peabody & Associates in Boston, Executive Agents in Overland, Kan., Juice Talent L.L.C. in San Francisco and Waterman Hurst in Stamford, Conn.

The companies' founders say they are filling a void in executive-career management, offering a second pair of eyes and ears to alert harried senior executives of opportunities and perils that they may be too busy to notice by themselves. "A false career move is like going over a 1,000-foot cliff," said Neal Lenarsky, chairman of Strategic Transitions.

By introducing their clients to the right people, referring them to lawyers to negotiate compensation packages, setting up speaking engagements, conducting independent salary reviews and hiring research assistants, agents say, they are giving executive careers an extra push. "There are stars and rising stars in the business world, much like in Hollywood and professional sports," said Bonnie Wan, chief executive of Juice Talent.

Agents aren't exactly taking the corporate world by storm, though. Most of the ventures are one- or two-person shops catering to executives at medium-sized firms. Some experts even say that using them could backfire by creating doubt in prospective employers' minds about the depth of a candidate's commitment. Big recruiting firms, which work for employers and are barred from taking on job hunters as clients, shrug off the upstarts as a blip on the hiring scene.

Even so, some of those recruiting firms privately acknowledge they are looking for ways to offer similar package deals. And many of the executives who have sought agents' help say it has made all the difference in the world to them.

Mark Workman, a former senior vice president for global strategic marketing at Sony Pictures Entertainment in Los Angeles, credits the talent agent he hired toward the end of his three-year contract in December 1999 for his new career as an entrepreneur. Previously, Mr. Workman consulted a lawyer to learn the ins and outs of negotiating a pay package. He had also been contacted by headhunters trying to lure him away from Sony. But he wanted to explore opportunities outside the entertainment industry, and he decided he needed an interpretive guide.

He found one when he bumped into Mr. Lenarsky of Strategic Transitions at a media conference. Mr. Lenarsky got his attention by asking, "In the last year, how much time did you spend planning your career versus your vacations?" The answer, Mr. Workman said, was "not much."

For seven months, the two men held weekly meetings in Mr. Workman's dining room, papering the walls with career questions and answers in bold black letters. Then they met with headhunters, who lined up job interviews. As they discussed Mr. Workman's strengths and weaknesses, both men slowly realized that he was more of an entrepreneur than a corporate politician. He liked to run his own show, take risks and follow his instincts rather than rule books — and he hated meetings. After turning down an offer to be chief marketing officer at Excite@home, he decided to go into business for himself.

The relationship didn't stop there. Mr. Lenarsky helped Mr. Workman choose an office location, seek trademark advice for his company, FirstFireworks Group Ltd., an entertainment branding and business development agency, and find a chief operating officer.

Mr. Workman, who is 40, says the company is now thriving but that he never would have started it without Mr. Lenarsky. "Your wife isn't going to say, `Let's go out and drain savings to do this,' " he said. "You need compatriots out there with you. Neal provided that."

Another executive, Thomas McMakin, 40, also sought an agent's help. Mr. McMakin left his job as chief operating officer of Great Harvest Franchising Inc., a franchiser of bread bakeries in Dillon, Mont., when it was sold last year, but he realized his lack of an M.B.A. and his limited professional network could hamper his search for a new post.

So he hired Joe Meissner, managing director of Executive PR. The two men drew up a plan to market his skills to a private-equity firm that could eventually put him in charge of an acquisition.

Mr. Meissner then contacted 20 business associates who could vouch for his client, wrote letters of introduction to private-equity investors and set up job interviews. Within five months, Mr. McMakin had joined McCown De Leeuw, a private-equity investment firm in California, as an operating consultant.

His first assignment was to explore opportunities in the adventure-travel industry. Mr. Meissner helped him edit his report, and when the project was scrapped after Sept. 11, hired a researcher to help him find possible acquisitions. Both men believe the firm will eventually buy a company that he can run.

Not everybody is convinced that hiring a talent agent makes sense. "You don't want someone you hire to be so blatantly self-promotional," said Robert E. Mittelstaedt Jr., vice dean for executive education at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Hiring managers, he says, may wonder how long a candidate who is represented by a talent agent will stick around. Executive search firms also harbor reservations. Peter D. Crist, vice chairman of Korn Ferry/International in Chicago, said that even if he could represent individuals, he wouldn't do so. Executives who want full-service counseling should hire an executive coach, a lawyer and a financial manager to do the things each does best, he said.

Even so, the emergence of talent agents represents a healthy impulse, some experts say. "Maybe a power shift is going on," Dr. Mittelstaedt said. "Executives who are really good are not going to let the corporation control their life anymore.