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Recruiting for scandal-scarred corporate America

April 28, 2009, 8:52 PM UTC

I caught up this week with a former boss, John J. Keller, who just joined recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International as a senior client partner from rival Spencer Stuart. There, he recruited Dan Hesse to become CEO of Sprint and Ed Mueller to become chief executive of Qwest (Q), among others.

For all his accomplishments as a recruiter, John will always be a recovering journalist: He spent nearly 25 years as a writer and reporter at publications such as BusinessWeek and the Wall Street Journal, where he broke countless stories on the communications sector. (I worked for John at the Journal, and he taught me everything I know about reporting.)

And he still brings a journalist’s critical eye and deep research to his job as a recruiter of CEOs and other top executives. He tells Postcards that recruiters today, perhaps more than ever, have an incredibly important role to play in helping companies find high-integrity executives: “What we’ve seen in business in the last few years has really underscored the importance of hands-on management and good follow-through,” Keller says. “For executors, people who really take a hands-on, operational approach to leading a business, this is their time. It is our job to find these leaders and bring them to companies and their boards and their shareholders.”

What kinds of questions should boards be asking recruiters to make sure the headhunters are indeed doing their jobs? Keller has a laundry list. (Remember, this is a guy who used to ask questions for a living.) “What I would I ask if I were the client is, ‘How much up-front homework and referencing and study have you done on each one of the folks you’re presenting as a potential slate of candidates? Who have you gone to to find out about their previous records? How do you know that person isn’t taking credit for another person’s work?’”

So are boards, in fact, asking their recruiters those tough questions? Replies Keller: “They definitely are now.”