Business Monday

Q&A with Guy Cote: On leadership, the cruise industry, and having the right people in place


As an executive search professional based in South Florida, it was only natural for Guy Cote to focus on the hospitality sector. Though client searches are confidential, he says, cruise industry insiders know Cote as one of the go-to recruiters for C-suite positions in cruise lines. And it’s public knowledge that the Cruise Lines Industry Association has contracted with Cote to find its next president and CEO following the appointment of former CLIA chief Christine Duffy as president of Carnival Cruise Line.

Since 2005, Cote has led the global hospitality and leisure practice for Heidrick & Struggles, a 60-year-old firm specializing in executive search, culture and leadership consulting. The company has more than 50 offices in more than 30 countries. In 2010, Cote took over management of the Americas region for the firm’s consumer market’s practice. “Having the right people in place is the No. 1 competitive advantage for businesses today,” he says. “More and more we are looking for transformational leaders.”

Q. How did you become a go-to guy for recruiting top executive talent for the cruise industry?

A. Our firm has executed a significant number of game-changing, prominent engagements in the cruise industry over the last few years. I have been directly involved in most of those. Engagements have spanned a broad set of functional areas including general management, marketing/communications, human resources, IT, finance and guest experience. We have a strong combination of trusted relationships and high performing placements that are all committed to leadership talent and thoughtful succession practices.

Q. Overall, what kinds of leadership skills and attributes do you look for in C-suite jobs like CEO, chief marketing officer, chief tech officer?

A. Each industry, company, and role is unique, including the culture of the organization that supports the fit and stick of any executive. We define a very specific set of competences, including experience and leadership attributes, to define who we target, where we look, and how we assess their ability to “fit” with our clients’ requirements. More and more we are looking for transformational leaders who can take a different view on the business; this also could lead to evaluating executives who have succession capability, broader functional impact, and an entrepreneurial approach to drive results across the business.

Q. What critical skills or attitudes are needed in the cruise and hospitality sectors that might be different for executive positions in other industries?

A. Successful executives in the cruise industry require a passion for delighting their guests. There are similar aspects to other hospitality businesses such as restaurants hotel/resorts and gaming organizations where guest experience drives how the brand engages with the customer. Cruise has the added complexity of transportation where guests are involved with a multi-dimensional vacation experience, inclusive of retail, spa, food/beverage, hotel, and entertainment. Many operate globally — and the larger ships can be compared to floating cities. Executives who succeed in this industry embrace the complexity, scale and impact of what is unique to these cruise businesses.

Q. The cruise industry is relatively small in comparison to the overall hospitality industry. How do you find qualified candidates without cannibalizing competing cruise lines?

A. We focus on skill sets that are a combination of experience and leadership competencies. While we do look at cruise industry candidates for cruise clients, more senior executives tend to have non-compete clauses in their current arrangements. And quite frankly, while there has been some intra-cruise movement in the past, we’re often helping to take a fresh perspective on how external talent can add to the bench. We have been involved in a number of good examples of recent movement into the cruise industry from restaurants, retail, entertainment, hotel/resort, and other relevant sectors.

Q. What markers do you look at to determine whether a candidate will make a successful transition from one industry to another?

A. We conduct competency based interviews that isolate key factors to help us understand what someone has done (where, how and why) and how that can help predict their ability to do it for our clients. This discussion also continues in a comprehensive reference process allowing us to take a perspective on how a person’s success in one culture can translate into an opportunity to make an impact in where our clients are trying to take the business. There’s a balance of art and science in what we do.

Q. How do you search out qualified candidates? Is there any unexpected place where you once found a candidate that turned out to be particularly successful in the new job?

A. We often target people who are heads down, actively employed and successful in their current environments, doing things that are relevant to the challenges our client faces. Rarely are we moving someone from the most likely spot. Also, because of the significant footprint of our firm we have the ability to tap into the expertise of global colleagues with deep knowledge of the talent pools in a variety of sectors. The cruise industry particularly has benefited by some cross-industry pollination that creates a different, incremental way of thinking.

Q. A generation ago, most workers stayed a long time in a single company. Now, that’s a rarity. So how do you figure out if a prospective employee is someone who has moved around because they’re mastering one job and moving up, or whether they’ve flamed out?

A. It’s a fine balance. Some movement allows people to demonstrate an ability to take what they’ve done in one organization and apply it to another. That’s frankly positive given that they’ve been successful in both organizations. We look for enough tenure and traction in a company versus short stints without defined contributions. Promotions internal to an organization are often good indicators of that. Each company, role and time table is different, and often times there are explanations for why jobs come to an end. We help our clients assess the transitions and motivations. References when targeted and confidential can be very helpful here.

Q. What red flags do you look for today? Someone who has stayed a long time in a single company or job? Other red flags?

A. The longer I’m in this business, the more I change my answer to this question. Every executive and situation is unique! There are some people who I think are so comfortable and tenured that they could be accused of being not “portable” — and then they surprise me and I end up eating my words! Again we care more about delivery — how you’ve done what you’ve done and how you’d translate that to how you’d approach the opportunities with our client. That articulation drives success more so than “flag” biases.

Q. Companies and organizations frequently talk about the cost of losing and replacing talent. Yet staying in one company or job for a long time is now considered a negative. So what is the magic formula?

A. Finding good executive talent takes time. It’s a question of supply and demand — and also vetting the right skills and cultural profiles. It can take time for an organization to see the benefits of a good hire; 12 to 18 months isn’t unreasonable given the time it takes to transition and impact certain functions. Retention is an important responsibility of any organization to keep good executives who are contributing to the business. It’s a balance of adding fodder to the bench thoughtfully, planning for succession and driving different ways of thinking. Ultimately a top performing, relevant and innovative organization with a culture and incentive structure supportive of great talent is the best retention tool around.

Q. As an executive headhunter, what signs to do you look for to figure out if someone not only will fit in a new job or culture, but will stay there long enough for the company to view the hire as a success?

A. We focus on recruiting executives who “fit” and “stick.” The stick part is often more challenging as it has to do with cultural alignment. This can mean aligning with existing culture. But often has more to do with a focus on where the cultural is going — and balancing with the existing team to help drive that. There are many things we do to help assess how someone will drive change in a new organization inclusive of our interview, assessment tools and references. We also help define what a good definition of “stick” means for our clients. While IBM might have looked in the past at lifetime employment as a barometer there, we are seeing different tenures based on opportunities to transform and grow within and beyond an organization depending on role, cycle, etc. It needs to be discussed upfront for a successful search!

Q. What are the dynamics driving Millenials and how is recruiting them – and keeping them – different from recruiting in previous generations?

A. While it would be easy to bucket and generalize around Millenials, each executive is different in how they prioritize their professional and personal interests. We do know that younger executives look for ways to impact business and grow careers progressively. They may be viewed as less “loyal” given their openness to move between organizations to glean skills that can help them build their careers. Organizations have to be more open to shorter potential tenures of people in roles given the aspirational nature of growth/impact. Succession planning, bench building and change management are elevating in importance to most organizations today.

Q. What are common reasons that qualified candidates remove themselves from consideration?

A. There are so many reasons why candidates withdraw from a recruitment process. Often times actively employed executive have anxiety around transition — be that professionally (having to re-establish credibility in a new organization; leaving a culture they thrive in; departing before a particular goal or project is completed) or personally (relocation for the family). The right fit for the role will view the move as progressive on multiple fronts. Successful recruitment processes get in front of these opportunities to make sure that they’re addressed thoughtfully, proactively and respectfully on both sides!

Q. Are there challenges in recruiting executives for jobs in Miami that might be different from other cities? What are they, and is that changing as Miami’s reputation becomes glossier?

A. I used to think the uniqueness of South Florida was challenging, and you can point to schools, real estate, housing prices, hurricane season and international aspects of the destination. But when you recruit in February for example, what’s not to love?! There really isn’t an easy city to recruit to. A move is always somewhat disruptive. And we have a lot of terrific things that executives and their families find very compelling. The major challenge we still face is the employment situation in the event that a trailing spouse is looking for a job; it’s not as obvious where to turn for those options than other major, metropolitan markets might appear on first blush.

Q. How do executives who are looking to move from one job to the next get onto the radar screens of search firms?

A. Each firm takes a different approach in how they handle outreach from active seekers. Our website,, allows executives to upload their information as “candidates,” and that gives them global exposure.

Q. How does compensation for executive search firms work? Is there a percentage of the executive’s salary, or a flat fee, or a combination?

A. We are retained by our clients to work on very specific, senior-level assignments. I use the term “clients” to refer to the organizations that have asked us to work on a dedicated way on their behalf to recruit an executive. There are many different structures that exist to compensate firms for this effort. Our typical structure, as you suggest, is a percentage of an employees first year estimated cash compensation.

Q. You also help companies find board members. What kind of background and skills do you look for?

A. Similar to an executive search, each board position is unique in regards to the experience they’re seeking to add. We spend critical time up front to assess how a new member will increment the existing group. And we’re careful to ensure that there are no conflicts based on what other activities that potential board member is currently (or anticipated being) engaged in.

Q. There’s a fair amount of chatter about how few minorities and women are on U.S. corporate boards. Why is that, and do you think that is changing?

A. Global executives, are looking for leaders who are agile and innovative. Often times a focus on diversity helps drive incremental thinking and engagement with management teams and customers. Boards need to reflect the reality of the changing demographic within organizations and their customers. We encourage organizations to expand the diversity of thinking and experience of their people in senior roles and on Boards– it leads to more innovation, as well as better solutions and strategies.

Q. You’re involved with the travel and vacation industries in a unique way. So where do you go on vacation?

A. I’m a huge fan of cruising — perhaps it’s a love of water — and in 2010 I sold my second boat to allow others more qualified to drive! I also have a log cabin in North Carolina where I go to relax. It’s a great balance.

Q. Is there one thing a candidate should NEVER do in a job interview?

A. #1 Rule, don’t be late. Promptness sets the tone for the entire interview experience. Equally important: do your homework. Be thoughtful, not presumptuous and translate how what you’ve done would contribute to your success in the company/role. Do not beg for the job; overeager can be interpreted as desperate, and that can kill even the best qualified candidate!

Q. Is there one thing a candidate should ALWAYS do in or following a job interview?

A. The easy answer is “send a thank you letter.” Often times these decisions are made by the time the US mail delivers that. So an email within 24 hours is thoughtful. And not a long winded, overly complimentary one that rehashes your resume, but two to three sentences thanking them for their time followed by a reinforcement of interest, ideally taking something learned during the interview that best-qualifies you and playing that back.

Q. What’s the best advice you ever got? Anything tied to talent?

When I was promoted into my sector leadership role, a consultant from our Dallas office commented that this shouldn’t alter my direct approach. She encouraged me to maintain a point of view and perspectives and not get caught up in the “politics” of leadership. I think about this feedback regularly when coaching out teams, delivering messages to clients, and building relationships with candidates.

Q. What’s the best advice you ever gave?

A. I continue to tell people to follow their passions. It may sound easy and cliché. But when I meet executives who have stayed in a place (job, industry/company, geography) where they’re just going to work every day — versus doing something that they love — it truly aligns with mediocre performance. Do what you love — you’ll do it with vigor — and that will serve you well.

Q. Tell us one thing about you that would surprise your colleagues.

A. The other day I picked up a colleague from our New York office at MIA airport. She said she expected me to show up in a red sports car like a convertible or something. I drive a gray SUV. She has reset her expectations!

Guy Cote

Job title: Regional managing partner, Americas, consumer markets practice and partner, global sector head, hospitality & leisure, Heidrick & Struggles

Years in industry: 18

Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, Georgetown University; MBA in marketing and operations, Columbia Business School.