Show Me the Stock Options!
Neal Lenarsky wants you to help him help you. It's the mantra from the movie, Jerry Maguire, and it rings as true for Lenarsky as it ever did for Tom Cruise as the angst-ridden sports agent. Because while the bespectacled Lenarsky, 42, looks more like a yuppified rabbi than a power broker, he's every bit the top agent for today's heavy hitters. Only for Lenarsky, who is founder and president of Strategic Transitions (STI) of Woodland Hills, Calif., his clients are all business executives.
That's right, an agent for executives. Imagine having an advocate who will scope out the next "A" opportunity while you attend to your board meetings and portfolios. A marketing guru who will help create a personal "brand" that jibes with your career goals. A friend with personal connections up the wazoo in the entertainment, consumer products, ecommerce, and retail industries. And an adviser who will help negotiate the intricacies of salary, bonuses, stock options, and title. It's enough to make the most jaded high-roller salivate.
And why not? Gone are the days when company loyalty translated into rewarding careers. On today's corporate ladder, executives move between jobs and even industries with the frequency of linebackers changing teams. So the business world is beginning to accept the notion of a talent agent. Wielding the skills of shrink, coach, marketer, and dealmaker, this new breed of agent helps corporate stars rise even higher in the business firmament.
But don't expect supply to come even close to meeting demand. Career agents, unlike headhunters, are hard to find. Besides Lenarsky, other executive agents include Joe Meissner, of Executive PR in San Francisco, and outplacement firm Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire in Boston. But Lenarsky is different: He never accepts companies as clients.
The distinction can be critical. "Recruiters are on the till of a company, and I've seen a lot of unhappy people placed in jobs that didn't end up what they were told they would be," says Rita Trevino Flynn, a corporate reputation management and strategic communications consultant, who previously worked at Export-Import Bank of the United States, and as a CBS and ABC Washington correspondent. "
Neal represents you, and he has a vested interest in your personal and professional well-being," adds another of Lenarsky's clients, who asked not to be named and works for a business-to-business ecommerce company in Southern California. "Because of Neal, I had two great offers to consider. One paid 40 percent higher salary than the other. But Neal helped me realize that [the higher-paying one] wasn't the right position for me. If he'd been purely driven by compensation, Neal would have pushed me to take the more lucrative offer." Another reason the client sticks with Lenarsky: he's no pleaser. "He's a friend, a confidant, a mentor, and someone I can always trust for honest feedback. He never tells me what I want to hear."
Lenarsky turns down far more clients than he accepts. Founded in 1996, STI represents 32 executives — and has a self-imposed limit of 50. "My business model is based on my personally spending 25 to 30 hours, each year, on each client," says Lenarsky. That model also depends on Lenarsky's receiving a small percentage of each client's annual salary and cash bonuses. (He won't discuss specifics.) Although STI has only three full-time staffers (including Lenarsky), a retainer fee buys the services of a creative director, image consultant, media consultant and strategist, financial consultant, two psychologists, and an attorney.Get in the loop
STI's services don't end after the client gets placed, however. Lenarsky is there to coach executives through unfamiliar minefields, help find new talent, and continually introduce clients to other bigwigs in his network. Clearly, like Maguire, it behooves Lenarsky to take on clients with the long-term potential to earn big bucks.
Other factors bear even more weight on whether he'll take on a client. First, the person has to be marketable someone with the talent, drive, and demonstrable track record that companies crave. Equally important, clients must come from the industries in which Lenarsky has an "in," namely entertainment, ecommerce, retail, and consumer goods. "I have to feel comfortable that I can do something for that person," says Lenarsky. "I had a $500,000 player in aerospace come to me, but he wanted another job in aerospace. I really liked the guy, and the fee was tempting. But aerospace is outside my network, so I had to turn him down. About 90 percent of my clients are already in the loop."
Of course, if these people are already in the loop, the question can be asked: What do they really get from STI, after giving up part of their salary and bonuses? It's all in the process. As soon as Lenarsky decides to take on a client, the two cloister themselves in a room where, for hours, they zero in on what that person really wants in life and work. Asking the hard questions reveals what clients love and hate about their jobs, their greatest sources of inspiration and pleasure, and their value systems in relation to money, titles, and peer approval. After a few such intensive sessions, Lenarsky knows executives almost as well a shrink or spouse. "For some, the answer might be power or money," says Trevino Flynn. "Neal helped me narrow it to the qualities of being in a place where I have the rank, position, and pay commensurate with my experience which is considerable and an atmosphere that's conducive to women. That's not an easy thing to figure out on your own."
That's exactly what happened with Andrew Leary, a former talent agent with International Creative Management, who with Lenarsky's influence and help has started an ecommerce venture due to launch this fall. It was Lenarsky who introduced Leary to his future partner and first investor. These days, Leary consults with Lenarsky almost daily. "Neal's a confidant and resource who can tell you how to handle situations with employees, colleagues, and investors," says Leary. "He's great for people looking to move careers. But he's as helpful, if not more, when they've already made that move."
That help comes in many forms: finding talented staff to fill a new organization, treading past corporate political traps, and making sure that clients remain Players (with a capital "P") in their industries. Even after clients assume their latest roles, Lenarsky keeps them plugged into his personal network continually introducing them to people who may become useful down the road. "My agenda is the individual's agenda," says Lenarsky. "My job is to brand you, keep you branded, and give you exposure throughout time."
So far, says Lenarsky, only a few of his clients have signed up for a second year of continued branding. Perhaps there's no need to maintain a personal brand in retail, say, or consumer products. Perhaps they're just slow to realize it. But in the world of ecommerce where being a player is as much a part of life as dining at Il Fornaio Lenarsky's agenting could show the money through stock options, startups, and IPOs.
Rochelle Garner (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about billionaire Rob Glaser for the June issue of Business 2.0.