Ivan Adler made his way into a Hill office that was in a shambles: naked walls, Dumpster-style trash bins, piles of boxes, jeans-clad workers carting out the contents of what had recently been the stately domain of a sitting member of Congress.
The lawmaker, whom Adler won’t name, is trying to line up a private sector gig after voters sent him packing. And though he still has a job for a few more weeks, there were obvious signs of his need to hang out a new shingle.
“We’re sitting there talking about this member’s future, and employees from the Architect of the Capitol literally come in and are taking furniture out of the office,” Adler said.
Down the hall in another one of six recent meetings with Election Day losers, Adler said he couldn’t even find a place to sit.
This is what the revolving door looks like. It’s messy.
So it’s no surprise that an industry exists to help grease the transition.
Enter the revolving-door facilitators, a select group of about a half-dozen professionals who quietly pursue or broker job deals for lawmakers and senior staffers who are headed for K Street.
Many of these headhunters, like their recruits, came from the Hill or the executive branch. Most work on retainer for clients that include major trade associations, nonprofit groups and corporations looking to hire top-tier executives. Others, like Adler, will represent the job-seekers and get paid by the firm or organization that hires them. He’ll also work directly for firms seeking a new hire.
Really high-profile candidates can retain their own counsel, such as Williams & Connolly partner Robert Barnett, whose clients have included former presidents, Cabinet heads and longtime members of Congress.
Adler, who got his start in Washington in 1988 as a press aide and driver for then-Sen. Al Gore, has been in the scouting business for 17 years. He said he represents a number of lawmakers and senior officials who will be out of office in the new year or are just looking to cash out.
Headhunting can be a lucrative business. Most searches — especially for the biggest firms such as Korn/Ferry International or Heidrick & Struggles — bring fees that start at $100,000, sources said.
And because the work is often clandestine, these headhunters find themselves conducting interviews and vetting job candidates in unusual spots.
“I literally could write a book,” said Liza Wright, a partner at Lochlin Partners, a boutique executive search firm with offices downtown and in Tysons Corner, Va.
One high-profile job candidate became so jittery about a lunch the two had scheduled in the Hay Adams Hotel that Wright suggested they instead have the meeting in the backseat of her car, which was parked out front.
“They were particularly sensitive,” she said of the person, who did not end up getting the job. “It was highly unusual. You do what you have to do.”
Wright and others in her business have come through the revolving door themselves. She was director of presidential personnel at the White House during the George W. Bush administration.
Nels Olson, vice chairman and co-leader of board and CEO services at Korn/Ferry, also did a stint in presidential personnel. His practice has filled some of the biggest jobs in Washington, including the recent search for the new CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, which installed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the helm.
Jackie Arends, who leads the government relations and aerospace and defense practices at Spencer Stuart, also logged time in the Bush administration recruiting Pentagon and other officials. Her shop recruited former Sen. and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to run the American Council of Life Insurers and nabbed recording industry lobbyist Mitch Bainwol to lead the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Perhaps of more interest to departing lawmakers, she is looking for the head of global government relations for the beer conglomerate AB InBev. Spencer Stuart is also on the hunt for a global government relations chief for Albemarle Corp., a chemical company.
When Arends, an attorney by training, phones from her office, an odd “101” or just “unknown” pops up on the caller ID. And candidates who cycle through her downtown office for interviews might find themselves waiting in a private “holding room,” a windowless office with a desk, chair and phone. That way they won’t bump into their peers in the lobby, she explained.
Denise Grant, a former Hill staffer who leads the government affairs practice at Russell Reynolds, agreed that confidentiality is essential.
“We snuck somebody in and out of a hotel using a freight elevator once,” she recalled.
Grant, just this week, filled an opening for the CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association with Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican whose Missouri district just voted her in for a ninth term. Last year, Grant recruited then-Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Most headhunters retained to fill top slots say they typically identify 40 to 150 candidates and present a client with a list of about five to a dozen names for potential interviews.
Julian Ha, government affairs practice leader at Heidrick & Struggles, filled the top government affairs post at Toyota Motor North America this year with Stephen Ciccone.
Ha said many of the searches he’s involved in have an international focus because lobbying isn’t just a Washington pursuit. A self-described recovering attorney and former State Department legislative affairs aide, Ha said he’s seen an uptick in business since Election Day.
But since he doesn’t represent the job candidates, he often limits his meetings with departing Hill denizens to members and the most senior staffers.
Most headhunters like Ha say they work to find job candidates from both sides of the aisle. But the market can be tough, especially for those who got voted out or whose bosses lost their seat.
Leonard Pfeiffer, who runs his own firm and has been in the search business for 30 years, previously with Korn/Ferry, said the onslaught of résumés this time of year can be overwhelming. “We do meet with people that are recommended to us,” he noted.
And Wright, who said she spends much time meeting and networking with Hill folk, admits that “most of the candidates, to be honest, that we recruit are not actively in the market.”
Perhaps adding insult, now many of the voted-out members reside in temporary Capitol cubby holes. Adler said, as a result, he’ll conduct meetings off campus.
“Probably the strangest place I’ve ever closed a deal,” he said, “is the men’s room at The Capitol Grille.”