Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Back into the fray

Tracy Wolstencroft spurned retirement to be president and CEO of Heidrick & Struggles

What does it take to attract a successful, experienced, senior finance executive out of retirement and take up a CEO role in a completely different sector? According to Tracy Wolstencroft, who was appointed president and CEO at global executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles earlier this year after retiring from a 25-year career at Goldman Sachs in 2010, it was the people factor in the sector he was joining and the chance to lead an organisation whose best days lay ahead.

In his new role, New York-based Wolstencroft will focus on sharpening strategy, while utilising Heidrick & Struggles’ global footprint to help clients continue to build winning teams through the recruitment and deployment of senior executives. “The need for talent and leadership has never been greater, especially in a global economy that grows increasingly more complex,” he says.

He adds that elements of his personal leadership vision are shaped by his board membership of the Brookings Institution – a private, non-profit think tank focusing on social sciences – the National Geographic Society and the International Rescue Committee, which responds to worldwide humanitarian crises. “I believe I have learned how complexities can effect different situations, and I have hopefully become a better leader because of these experiences,” he says.

He points out that the finance and recruitment sectors might seem like they are worlds apart, but they share a number of similarities. “There is always a need for a strong intersection between people and ideas to drive businesses forward,” he says. He explains that his tenure at Goldman Sachs, which involved extensive interaction with CEOs, senior management and boards of directors, prepared him well for his new role.

Wolstencroft says that his first deployment in Asia – in Nagoya, Japan, around the time of the 1998 Winter Olympics – was a defining experience both in terms of the working environment and the cultural-learning benefits his family experienced. During this time in Asia he led a wide range of business departments, including investment banking services, environmental markets, public sector banking and infrastructure banking.

He describes Asia now as an incredibly rich business environment going through a broad and rapid scope of change. He says clients in the region seek leaders who are nimble and can quickly adapt while gauging the risks and opportunities they face.

This is especially evident in the mainland, he explains, where the days of the “old China hand” are giving way quickly to a new style of leader – one with the skills to navigate macro and micro intricacies while driving clear channels of communication across all departments. “In this new era, leaders must have the ‘bandwidth’ and elasticity to connect and communicate at grassroots level,” he says.

Similar to his own appointment, Wolstencroft notes his company is seeing a trend across many sectors where clients look to hire “industry outsiders” to offer new perspectives. He says identifying and marrying leadership skills with clients’ expectations and requirements is a challenging process, involving comprehensive, insight-based methodology and the engagement of leadership at all levels. “It is not only a question of is there a candidate and client fit, but will it be successful, and how?” Wolstencroft says. He adds that successful recruitment takes more than just a few brief conversations.

As multinational companies look to develop their activities in Asia, and regional companies expand into other parts of the world, Wolstencroft is excited by the prospect of leading an organisation of about 1,500 staff to meet clients’ needs. “Asia is very much a two-way street,” he says. “Multinational companies need the very best talent to lead organisations in Asia, while Asian firms need the best talent to lead and accelerate their operations internationally.”

Wolstencroft believes that regardless of business type or area of operation, nothing increases success more than strong leadership. He says one of the core strengths of a good leader should be the intellectual curiosity and capacity to clearly understand the business in which they work. They should also be capable of thinking analytically and clearly communicating strategies by understanding and explaining challenges and opportunities. “The ultimate test of any leadership is setting the path that others are prepared to follow,” he says.

He cites Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart who he came to know through his early days at Goldman Sachs, as a good example. “Sam Walton inspired and educated me through his ability to constantly look at others so he could improve,” Wolstencroft says. “He had the extraordinary capacity to make everyone better than they could on their own, from management level to cashier.”

In Asia, Wolstencroft says he admires former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji – who he met when Zhu was involved with reforms in the mainland banking industry – for his clarity of thought and ability to deal with complex issues.