The New Job Search: Agent for Change
By Adam Bryant

Athletes have agents. So do writers, directors, and stars. Meet Neal Lenarsky, the country's first agent for businesspeople.

It's been five years since Jerry Maguire made the agenting business sexy and turned the expression "Show me the money!" into an annoying cliché. These days, it seems, everyone from has-been actors to never-were basketball players has an agent. So it's somewhat remarkable that Neal Lenarsky, who runs Strategic Transitions in Burbank, California, remains pretty much alone in the field of agents for businesspeople.

Sure, corporate America is filled with headhunters who ostensibly represent job-hunting executives, but their bills are paid by the client companies, not the execs themselves. Those headhunting jobs are more lucrative in the short term, which may be one reason Lenarsky, 43, seems to have the business of agenting businesspeople all to himself at the moment. Joseph Daniel McCool, editor of Executive Recruiter News, calls Lenarsky's approach "a new model."

Lenarsky, though, may not be alone for long. A former recruiter for the likes of Pepsi, KFC, and Disney, Lenarsky hung out his shingle in 1996 after realizing that the traditional executive search process didn't allow him the time "to get into people's heads" sufficiently to truly help them, he says. He now has 65 clients whose salaries range from $150,000 to $700,000. He specializes in the new-media, entertainment, consumer goods, and retail industries, representing people whose careers have been, as he says, "out of alignment." Still, Lenarsky is highly selective about whom he takes on as a client. They have to be marketable, promotable through two levels, and "deeply intuitive," he says. If there's chemistry, and if they buy into his fee structure -- 3 percent of their former or projected compensation package, then 6 percent a year for as long as they choose to retain him after they land the job -- they get the full treatment. That entails 25 to 30 hours of soul-searching and developing a strategy for switching to a new field or job, followed by Lenarsky's opening doors, polishing cover letters, setting up interviews, and continued consultations.

Like any good agent, Lenarsky plays his PalmPilot like a Wurlitzer, drawing from a database of 8,000 names. "Some people collect baseball cards," he says. "I collect executives." Richard Zinman, a onetime movie producer (Rudy, Winchell) who hired Lenarsky to help with his career switch to the Internet, calls him "one of the best-networked guys I've ever met. It's six degrees of Neal Lenarsky." Clients also rave about the fact that Lenarsky's agenda and theirs are one and the same -- a "clean game," they call it, and that can be rare in a world where traditional headhunters can seem more concerned with whether an executive is placed than with where.

In that sense, Lenarsky's approach is a sign of the times -- and perhaps a sign of the future. Not only does his new model mirror such relatively recent innovations as using a conflict-free buyer's agent in real estate transactions, but it's also a snap-tight fit with prevailing ideals about work: Grandpa had a job; Dad had a career; today's executive wants a calling. Hence Lenarsky's mantra: "Don't just get a job; get the right job."

If you don't, he says, you'll come to understand his theory of employer-as-vacuum: "Companies basically suck," he jokes. Unless you find a good fit, he explains, your job will Hoover you in and you'll bounce around against the walls. But find the right job, Lenarsky says, and he'll point you to something more valuable than money. "Show me the fulfillment?" Well, you get the idea.

This article originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of MBA Jungle.