Diversified Search Group’s CEO Aileen Alexander spent some time with Executive Leaders Radio talking about the company, who inspires her, the importance of adaptability, and her love of teams.
Listen to the radio show below. (Aileen’s interview starts at the 13:59 mark.)
Additional interviews were given by:
- Loree D. Jones-Brown, CEO, Philabundance
- Elizabeth Hughes, Publisher and CEO, Philadelphia Inquirer
- Heyward Donigan, CEO, Rite Aid
Read the transcript of Aileen’s portion of the show:
Herb Cohen: We’re back. You’re listening to Executive Leaders Radio. This is your host, Herb Cohen. And let’s get to Aileen Alexander, CEO of Diversified Search Group. Aileen, what is Diversified Search Group? What are you guys doing?
Aileen Alexander: Diversified Search Group is the largest woman-founded executive search firm in the world. We recruit directors to boards, CEOs, and other C-suite executives in Fortune 500 companies to major nonprofit organizations.
HC: How large or how small is the team, and where are you from originally?
AA: We’re 340 colleagues, coast to coast. And I’m originally from the Greater Philadelphia area.
HC: And you were from a bunch of other places as well. Tell us a little bit about the moving around as a kid.
AA: Well, I count Philly as home because that’s where I went to high school. But I’ve lived in Huntington Beach, California; outside of Detroit in Michigan; here in Philadelphia; multiple places.
HC: And this is as a kid, you know, this wasn’t in your 20s or 30s. So when you were a kid and you moved around this much, I mean, how did you go about getting accepted by the different kids, the different neighborhoods you moved into?
AA: It was all about adaptability. I also had the opportunity at a young age to reinvent. The way I got to meet new kids was all through sports.
HC: What kind of sports were you planning as a kid? And what are you talking about?
AA: Well, I played a little bit of everything. This is back when you could play multiple sports. So I played volleyball, basketball, softball, ran a little bit of track, and I discovered soccer.
HC: What was a common thread in your role with all those different teams when you were a kid?
AA: Well, you know, I was always learning the fundamentals, right? It was doing the drills and learning how to dribble, pass, shoot, but also playing the Xs and Os. And knowing a lot about your teammates. Often we had complementary strengths, as well as gaps.
HC: What does all that stuff have to do with your role of building Diversified Search nowadays?
AA: Well, at Diversified Search Group our colleagues are working with our clients, helping them build teams. That’s what we’re in the business of doing.
HC: How young were you when you began to read people?
AA: Well, maybe eight?
HC: And give us an example of that. What do you mean?
AA: Well, at eight, I mean, a couple of different forms. One was you had to read your teacher when you were in the classroom and really understand where they were coming from. I’m a bit of a nerd, I’ve been told, so probably about eight. But also when you played sports, you had to be able to read your teammates, but also your competition.
HC: And this ability of yours to go deep and really understand people, how does that help your clients, and how does that help you build Diversified Search?
AA: Well, I mean, it’s all about listening and really diving in and delving in, you know, understanding what’s of strategic importance in terms of your clients, where they are today, where they’re going, and really diving into the cultures that they’re building, which is essential in today’s competitive environment for talent.
Jeffrey Mack: Your grandmother, Nana, I believe.
AA: Yes, Nana.
JM: Really didn’t travel the world much, but she did have an understanding of the world. How did she get that understanding and what did you learn from her?
AA: Well, Nana grew up in… well, she was from Queens, originally and Brooklyn, and then was in a small town in Long Island. And she was all about curiosity. In fact, she started the local library. And if you went to Nana’s nightstand, there were at least three books. They’re fiction and nonfiction. So it was all about seeing the world through reading.
JM: What did you learn from her?
AA: I learned a lot from Nana. All about curiosity and being an avid learner and really bringing breadth to what you read and what you learn.
Patricia Wellenbach: So you mentioned that your mom was very deeply connected to community service and that inspired you to make a critical decision and join the Army? Yes.
TW: So how did doing all of that work on the basketball court, the soccer field, get you ready for the army and the service to the country?
AA: Well, my mom was always about giving back and giving back locally. When you maybe were going through some tough times, my mom was the one who delivered a meal. And sometimes you didn’t even know that it was her. Playing sports was all about the team. And for me, being in the United States Army was the ultimate team sport to be part of.
TW: And how did that get you ready to be the CEO of Diversified Search?
AA: Well, in the Army, as a lieutenant, I learned people first, mission always. You take care of your people. You got to build teams. And at the end of the day, you’ll be able to accomplish what you need to strategically.
TW: So from the age of eight, and then on to your Army service years, you’re creating winning teams. And then you came to a company that creates winning teams for companies and boards, right?
AA: That’s right. Yeah. We’re all in the people business. We know the power of people, the power of perspectives, and what that means in terms of impact in an organization, but also broadly.
TW: So I love the fact that you said that you’re named Aileen, your mom’s named Aileen, and your grandmother’s named Aileen. And your comment was it was in an era when it was very uncommon for women to share their name. Can you talk about that and how that feels now that you’re the CEO of Diversified and what that means to you?
AA: Well, my Nana was an original. And we used to say that maybe we weren’t so original in naming each other after one another. But it was pretty powerful in terms of our connection. And I think about where I am today. Like I said, I’m at the largest woman-founded executive search firm, started by Judee von Seldeneck, who was really a pioneer in creating equity opportunities, really for women out of the gates, which we have now built upon.
HC: So, there’s a lot of similarities between Judee and your grandmother.
AA: In terms of being a pioneer? Absolutely. And being a first mover.
HC: And I think you mentioned you went to Catholic school?
AA: I did. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school here locally outside of Philadelphia.
HC: And what did you get out of that experience that has anything to do with helping you build Diversified Search?
AA: We were all about supporting one another. That really came through. You know, we’d support you if you’re on the soccer field. We support you if you were going into the debate match. And ultimately at Diversified, we’re a team of teams, supporting each other in our success.
HC: Tell us more about that team of teams. What are you talking about?
AA: Well, there’s a great book written by Stan McChrystal, retired four-star general, about being in a team of teams. And when you think about Diversified’s client base, it’s fairly broad. We work with corporations, we work with nonprofit organizations, health care systems, as well as we do a lot of work in education with universities and K-12 institutions. And at the end of the day, we are a team of teams in how we approach serving those clients.
HC: So would you prefer to hang out alone or would you prefer to hang out with a bunch of people?
AA: Oh, I’m a people person. So hanging out, even just being in this room, hanging out with people, particularly after the last couple of years, is quite energizing.
HC: Oh, so the COVID time was not a great time for you because you love the energy of people. You loved the energy of team.
AA: I love the energy of team. And yes, I’m like many who had a bit of Zoom fatigue.
HC: Can you feel when it fits? When you talk to a client and you understand what the client needs and you meet a good candidate, can you feel that click?
AA: You can feel the click. Again, it gets back to reading the room and really listening and observing. And that click is ultimately what makes a great match, right? It’s all about that chemistry. It’s all around that fit.
HC: So when you’re bringing in teammates to Diversified, you’re looking for people that have that same basic feel for how do you put the team together, aren’t you?
AA: Well, we want people who bring that passion in terms of building teams, but we also want diversity in terms of experiences, perspectives, because not only does that drive our clients in terms of what they’re looking out to achieve, but it makes us better as a company.
HC: What else you thinking, Trish?
TW: So earlier you talked about all your moves and how it created adaptability, capacity, or new resiliency. How do you think you translate that now when you’re working with clients and they’re bringing new executives into their companies or into their boardrooms?
AA: I mean, we are undergoing one of the largest sea shifts in terms of all that’s happening in our environment from an economic perspective, technology with digital disruption, and also what’s going on geopolitically. I mean, it is a time of big T transformation and I think that ability to adapt with our clients, but also help them get the leaders they need that are going to adapt with them, not just today, but tomorrow, is really key.
JM: Aileen, you have a great respect and you’ve learned a lot from your Nana and your mom. I understand you have two twin girls.
AA: I do. Identical.
JM: What have you learned from your daughters?
AA: They’re all about adaptability. Right now. I’d say early on, my husband and I, we used to tease when we were bringing 8-month-old twins through the airport that we were leveraging our army training. It was all about logistics, contingency planning, and roles and responsibilities. Today, it is all about navigating social media and yes, a bit of humility because no TikToks for mom.
HC: Uh huh. So you really enjoy being a mom, don’t you?
AA: I love being a mom.
HC: What’s the similarity between being a mom and being the CEO of Diversified Search?
AA: It’s being willing. You know, I heard this from someone just recently, that it’s a two-way street, right? Often we think about being the mentor, being the boss. But if we open up our ears and we listen, we can learn a lot. And I think you can learn from your kids. I mean, my kids can do a Google presentation faster than mom, and they can teach me technology, as well.
HC: Website address for a Diversified Search?
AA: It’s DivSearch.com.
HC: We’ve been speaking with Aileen Alexander, CEO of Diversified Search Group on Executive Leadership Radio. Don’t go away. We’ll be back in a moment.