Can You Fail Forward? with George McGehrin
George learned all about going from hero to zero and back to hero. Now he recruits and trains executives. Are you ready to learn from failing forward?
For close to 20 years, George has run a national executive search/recruiting firm mostly dealing with executive search and leadership at the C-Suite level throughout the US, Europe, and South America. His clients range from small startups to global organizations, most are companies that you have heard of, or products that impact your life. After recruiting, he also works on their personal branding and coaching.
LinkedIn: George McGehrin
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Read Along as Karla and George discuss how you CAN fail forward
Karla Nelson: And welcome to the People Catalyst Podcast, George McGehrin.
George McGehrin: Karla, hi, it’s great to be here. It’s always good to catch up with you.
Karla Nelson: Yeah, you got it. Great to have you on the show, sir. And I know you’re just outside of New York, there, so there’s no shortage of, probably, challenges that you guys are all experiencing there, being five miles out of New York City. So, I hope you’re staying safe, and we’re super excited to have you on the show today.
George McGehrin: Thank you, it’s awesome to be here. And, the one thing I want to say is that you and I have a very similar philosophy about people, so to me, it’s cool to talk to somebody that has that same belief system, so thanks for having me.
Karla Nelson: Well, thank you, sir. Yes, we do believe that in business, in life, relationships are everything. And that’s how you solve problems, right? You solve problems with people, and it really is the foundation of pretty much everything we do. Both in our business life, and in our private lives.
Well with that said, George, you’ve got to share with us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey. So how did you get started? And did you actually get started in executive placement, and working with companies and branding? Or was is something else that led you down that path?
George McGehrin: Right. Most of my life has pretty much been, if I were to paraphrase, would be mistakes turned into business models.
Karla Nelson: There’s plenty of those. Look at Silly Putty, there’s so many things that were an accident. Accidental on purpose, I guess.
George McGehrin: Right. That’s exactly … I guess, when I was a kid I was brought up in a household, and I don’t know if you were told this, but I was told go to school, do well in school, and then get a job, and hang out there for the rest of your life.
Karla Nelson: That happened to be exactly what I was told, George.
George McGehrin: Right. So, I did that, and I went to some decent schools, and I ended up at Price Waterhouse, as well as Ernst & Young, so I worked for them on the consulting side. So, I was hanging out in New York City, and things were fun. And some guy, actually a recruiter, calls me up from Miami. This was January, by the way, of 2000. New York City, you know … I know you guys in California get awesome weather all year around.
Karla Nelson: Except for the season of fire, that one doesn’t work so well.
George McGehrin: Well, this is true, right? Except for when you make national news about the fires.
So, I get a call and he’s like, “Listen, there’s an opportunity here in Miami, it’s a German firm. It’s a consulting firm, they just set up shop, they’d love to talk to you.” So, I interview with them, and January in New York City, it depends on the year, but it’s pretty rough, right?
Karla Nelson: Yes, it is! The only place that’s worse is Chicago because it’s windy in that cold.
George McGehrin: Exactly, exactly. Miami in January, especially if you’re from the Northeast, it’s paradise, right?
Karla Nelson: Yes, it is.
George McGehrin: So, I had never been to Miami, actually, and I show up. The German CEO picks me up in a BMW and brings me to the office. Next thing you know, five days later, I’m working and living in Miami. So, I was there, three months into it I walk into the office, and there’s a 30-person office, it might have been 40, the whole office was super sad. And I’m like, “What happened?” Well, Germany decided to close down the Miami operation, and that was the first time I had lost.
I had worked at these pedigreed places, I went to these pedigreed schools, that was the first time I literally ever lost anything that was significant. I asked one of my coworkers, “What do I do now?” She’s like, “Well, you can get unemployment.” I was like, “Okay, I can do that.” So, I go to the unemployment line, I’m at the office in Miami, and I’m sitting there and thinking I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do, and I’m still unemployed, this is terrible. I just thought if I’m going to fail, I’d like to fail on my own terms, because I did something wrong not because somebody in some foreign country decided that they were going to close the office.
That was it, I had this mental switch of I’d rather be unemployed, but unemployed because I was a terrible businessperson. You know, that’s terrible, I know that folks paint this entrepreneurial thing on Instagram, your first week you’ll be driving a Ferrari, and things like that. I mean, those things didn’t exist back then. But I went from broke to even more broke, for about three years.
But I started a recruiting business because I literally went into another recruiting agency and I thought okay, I could do this. Then, I worked at the other place for a couple months and just decided, okay I still need to do my own thing, and I started my own company. I built it up, up until … it was 2009, actually, from zero to 50 people.
Karla Nelson: Yeah, that’s just …
George McGehrin: It was great.
Karla Nelson: Yeah, it was great.
George McGehrin: It was the zero to hero story. But I made a lot of mistakes getting there, and one of the mistakes was-
Karla Nelson: Just like we all do, right?
George McGehrin: Yes.
Karla Nelson: It’s like fail forward, just the biggest thing is just fail quickly, learn quickly, get back on your feet. The old Chinese proverb, “Get knocked down seven times, get up eight.”
George McGehrin: Right. Well, I think I was good at sales, I was just terrible at spending the money that I was getting. But that eventually bit me pretty hard because all of my clients were banks and financial institutions, and pretty much …
Karla Nelson: Oh yeah, they weren’t hit at all in 2008, right?
George McGehrin: Oh no, no it was very rosy.
Karla Nelson: By the way, my background was finance at the time, so I know that. We did all sorts of if you need to find money, regardless of it was for any type of real estate or your business, and that was a very interesting time. Because we had to morph into a consulting firm because if your bank says they’re going to reduce their portfolio by 40%, just think about it, that means they’re going to find every reason, number one, not to lend. And it was interesting, because people in the financial industries all went poof! They just went to different businesses, everyone scattered.
I remember thinking oh my gosh, I’ve got to take care of these people that have taken care of me, for so long. It was a real trying time, there’s no doubt about it.
George McGehrin: I think you are the businessperson that you are because of that, right?
Karla Nelson: No doubt. And, the relationships, George, that I forged because I hung in there and tried to figure it out, to help them, because that’s when they needed me most. We built a consulting firm, we had consultants all over the country, and we would go in and just play, how do we figure this out on behalf of the business owner? Because a lot of times they had a couple businesses, maybe a couple commercial buildings, and some residential real estate. It was a really challenging time.
So, if your clients were financial institutions and banks, I can’t imagine. What were you …? Yes, you’re right, we learn so much more in the hard times than we do in the good times. But how did that hit you, when all of a sudden you had 50 employees, and then poof? What were you thinking?
George McGehrin: You know this, when you have people that work on your team, the most difficult part for me was letting everyone go.
Karla Nelson: Oh of course, they turn into family.
George McGehrin: Yeah, it’s terrible. I mean, it’s heartbreaking, it’s the equivalent of … It’s heartbreaking, right? It’s heartbreaking. I was more devastated about letting everyone go than the loss of the income, or the loss of the clients, right?
Karla Nelson: Well, it’s interesting you say that, George, because I can’t tell you, there’s numerous business owners I’ve talked to that said one of the reasons why they had such a hard time recovering after 2008 because they did want to let anyone go, so they held on, and held on, and held on.
George McGehrin: Right.
Karla Nelson: And it bled the company over time.
George McGehrin: Well, it’s one of those things, it’s like this very Darwinism theory. It really comes down to you need to be able to survive so you get up again, right?
Karla Nelson: Yeah, exactly. Well, that was the point, some of them didn’t survive. So, how do you balance that, right? You’ve got someone, you don’t want to let them go. At the same time, you’re making business decisions that you have to make, that are hard to make. But I would definitely agree with you, having to have those conversations with 50 different people that were part of your team must have been pretty challenging.
George McGehrin: Well, I would say that was my version of Coronavirus, right?
Karla Nelson: Yeah.
George McGehrin: The problem was that went on, in my case, for two years. In a 48-hour period, I got a call from Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, UBS, Wachovia whose now Wells Fargo.
Karla Nelson: I was just going to say, a lot of those, that’s not their names anymore.
George McGehrin: Right, exactly. They all said, “Hey George, we’re going to put this on stop, infinitely.”
Karla Nelson: Yeah.
George McGehrin: That’s the plan, and it was rough. But I was able to learn from that, and I did things differently. We talk about the people aspect, the people aspect in what we do, from the recruiting … I own a recruiting business, an executive placement business, as well as an executive branding business. But everything we do is people based, it’s all about relationships. That’s from if you’re a parent, if you’re a father, a mother, a coworker, everything is based around relationships. You’re right, if you took care of your clients, your candidates, later on they appreciate it.
But as a businessperson, I had to figure out what to do next. I said, “Okay, if I’m going to do this again, how would I do this?” I changed a lot of things that now has given us a very strong … Considering what’s going on in the environment right now, we’re in a very good position. As a businessperson, I’m convinced, and I think you’ll agree with this, very few successful businesspeople have not been knocked down two or three times in their lives. It’s almost impossible that you become successful without getting knocked down a lot and losing pretty much everything.
The thing I loved about one of your intros I heard, you love talking to people that risk everything, right?
Karla Nelson: Yeah, in pursuit of how they can turn thoughts into things. I just love people who are willing to know that they’ve got something inside of them that they want to bring outside, and turn that thought into a thing, is just pretty inspiring.
George McGehrin: Isn’t it an amazing thing? If you think about this, let’s say you go to the store, or you buy something, or even when you pay another consultant, you’re paying them obviously with money, but that money was from an idea you started in your head. Isn’t it an amazing thing to be able to print money, to some extent? It’s kind of an interesting thing. And also, you’re able to help a lot of people. But it all starts with the idea. To turn that into movement is just super cool. I know we’re getting a little philosophical here, but I think it’s just a cool concept.
Karla Nelson: Oh, it is! Absolutely. And it’s inspiring, and that’s I think why we hear so frequently, George, in businesspeople … How can you overlay your passion with other things? Because it’s so interesting, I’ve seen people make money doing the most interesting things ever.
One of the most recent was a gal, all she does is teach people how to paint wolves.
George McGehrin: Wow.
Karla Nelson: She makes a really good living. I mean, she focuses and has clients all over the world, but that’s what she does. She loves to paint wolves, and she helps other people paint wolves. I was like if you want to talk about a niche, on a niche, on a niche, you can get any more micro-niche-y than that. But that’s what she’s passionate about, and I think that’s really interesting.
The opportunity you have today, that we didn’t have back in the day, that you can reach out and connect with so many people, you can create an online promotion and connect with the type of people that love #Ilovewolves.
George McGehrin: Right, right.
Karla Nelson: I’m dating myself here, but we used to actually have to go to a room and meet people. Remember that, George?
George McGehrin: No, I do. Then, I remember waiting for the contract via fax, but then somebody else was using the fax machine. And then it was like, “Wait a second, let’s send that again.” I don’t know if you remember those things.
Karla Nelson: I haven’t used one in a really long time.
George McGehrin: But it’s totally about that, right? I mean, I love the fact that she turned a business, she’s helping people paint wolves.
As a businessperson, my instinct says maybe she could help people paint bears, and ducks. Is that a stretch? I was just thinking about her…
Karla Nelson: You know, what’s interesting is then, all of a sudden, well you’ve got a following, you could expand into that regard. But can you imagine being so passionate about just painting wolves?
George McGehrin: Right.
Karla Nelson: I think it’s so cool.
George McGehrin: Yeah.
Karla Nelson: Because you’re passionate about it, you probably do it … it reminds me of Bob Ross. Jeez, the guy’s a legend and he painted happy trees.
George McGehrin: Right.
Karla Nelson: It’s so funny because I can’t tell you how many times, when I was a kid George, it was always said, “You can’t make any money if you’re an artist, or dancing,” or any of those things. I loved the arts, and I was like, what were all these things that we got told? You know, got to school, get a good job, stay there, retire.
George McGehrin: Right.
Karla Nelson: There’s no money in X. It’s like, actually, there’s a reason why it was written into you, so the whole focus is how do you get what’s inside of you to the outside, and help other people that are like you.
I think what’s really interesting here, and you’ll probably appreciate this with the work that you do, George, is that understanding what somebody is brilliant at, because most of the time we hold people in their smallness instead of their magnificence. The hard part about that, too, is people, what they do well and what they do easily, for them, that is just natural, they don’t value it as much because it’s easy, and it’s fun so it can’t be. It’s like, duh, why can’t everybody do that?
George McGehrin: Right. Well, sometimes you do take it for granted. Just from a personal standpoint, I run marathons, but I run ultra-marathons, so I run these 50-mile events, right?
Karla Nelson: Glutton for punishment. Well, you are an entrepreneur.
George McGehrin: Well, it’s a mindset more than anything. It’s more about in your head than physically. But, for some people it’s such an impossible thing to do. For others, like for me, 50 miles, there’s people that can do 100 miles. To me, the 100 miles is craziness. 50 miles is not craziness, but 100 miles is craziness. For others, it’s 26 miles is craziness.
Karla Nelson: Well, we were just talking before we got on this podcast, George, it’s been interesting shifting people to doing video calls, and video interviews, and recording because a lot of people don’t necessarily … Some of them have been speaking for a long time, but it’s different on video, in the midst of everybody going offline, and doing an interview that they’re uncomfortable with. The number one fear people have is public speaking, the second is death by fire. I look at that and go, what? How could that be? But that’s because it’s easy for me, I don’t value it at all. I look at it and, well that’s just communicating with somebody.
It’s interesting, because I don’t think we see those things. It’s easier for other people to see them in us, than for us to see them in ourselves. I think that’s really an interesting piece. How do you work that in, when you’re working and finding an executive placement with your search firm?
George McGehrin: Right. I think you bring up a very good point. My experience has been one of the differences between, let’s say, somebody … We’re dealing with people that are making, in general, from $300,000 a year, to sometimes $4 to $5 million, so it’s an interesting group. What I’ve noticed is that those types, the reason they do well in life, and the reason they’ve done well if they’re an entrepreneur, if they run a company, is because they know what they’re good at and what they’re great at. They’ve already accepted that.
One of the differences of people that are, let’s say they’re a director level, and they aspire to get to the C level but they don’t know why they haven’t, it goes to the same point that you bring up, it’s they haven’t really figured out … Let me do things that I’m terrific at, in environments that I’m terrific at, with people, it has to be the right culture fit. That’s one of the big differences is that somebody that aspires to be a C-suite player, let’s say, it seems like, and my experience has been, they really haven’t figured out who they want to be when they grow up. Have you heard that before?
Karla Nelson: Yeah, I think that’s just consistent. If you’re up for the challenge, you’re probably never going to figure out what you’re going to be when you grow up.
George McGehrin: Right, exactly.
Karla Nelson: You just keep on moving.
George McGehrin: Exactly
Karla Nelson: But you’re right. And they always feel like that, right?
George McGehrin: Exactly. I call it the bridesmaid, not the bride problem. You find that, like you said, a lot of it’s in their head. But I think being able to really focus on what you’re great at and what you’re not great at.
I had heard, by the way … I was going to say you had an interview, I think it actually played either today or last week, but it you had the military, I think it was Bill?
Karla Nelson: Oh, it was Bill.
George McGehrin: Bill DeMarco.
Karla Nelson: Bill is amazing!
George McGehrin: What a great guest. If you haven’t heard that …
Karla Nelson: Go back and listen to it, guys, Bill DeMarco. And of course, he’s the chair for the leadership training for all the officers of the Air Force. He’s so dang passionate, it’s crazy. I’ve got to go back and listen to it; it was the fastest interview ever. I think he’s my brother from another mother.
George McGehrin: First of all, you’re terrific at interviewing folks, but he gives a great interview. He hit upon something about … You had asked him a question about leadership, and I was like okay, this is spot on advice that he had given, and this is how we do searches as well. But, he said, “There’s people that are great at things, and there’s certain things that you’re not great at.” He lets people be great at their certain talents.
I think from are a recruiting standpoint, from an executive leadership, and from a C-suite level, in terms of matching the right candidate with the right companies, I think the companies that know those three things that they need in a leader, and the leader that knows what are the three things that they bring to the table, when it becomes a symbiotic relationship, that’s when the magic happens. And that’s when two people get married, right?
Karla Nelson: Yeah.
George McGehrin: When the one company, an organization is being something it’s not, and the candidate is being something that they’re not, or someone that they’re not, that’s where you see a lot of problems, and you see very short stints for certain people.
Karla Nelson: That, and identifying who you are, and who you need to surround yourself by, and how to facilitate and bring the best out of team, is definitely, definitely critical.
Well, this has been fantastic, George, I love it! Thank you so much for your time here today. And how can our listeners get a hold of you?
George McGehrin: Right. I would say normally, LinkedIn, but LinkedIn has decided that I’m maxed out on LinkedIn connections, I’ve got 30,000 LinkedIn connections. So, the next route is, for now, they can send an email to us, so it’s just email@example.com. So, it’s M-C-G-E-H-R-I-N Group.com. The easy way as well is also the Instagram piece, for now it’s Instagram. It’s just Exec Headhunter, that’s the Instagram handle.
Karla Nelson: Fantastic. Well, this has been awesome, George. We definitely have the same philosophy in regard to relationships, and we certainly appreciate you sharing your brilliance with us on the show.
George McGehrin: Karla, I appreciate it. And next time, we had spoken about this, but next time I think we’ll do a podcast with drinks and wine, right?
Karla Nelson: There you go, that’s awesome!
George McGehrin: We’ll do that.
Karla Nelson: That sounds like a great idea. Yeah, and we’ll have to shift it to video, too. So many of our listeners are asking us to do that, so that they can be behind their computers and see us. So, we’ll absolutely have to make that happen, sir. Have a great day, we’ll talk to you soon.
George McGehrin: Thanks so much.