The Shift to Value-Based Conversation

Interview by Polina Hanin, Principal, Aequitas Partners

For the better part of a decade, I’ve had the unique privilege of working with 300+ companies and 500+ entrepreneurs to solve some of the biggest health challenges of our time as the Portfolio Director at StartUp Health.

In that same time span I had the opportunity to work with Tim Gordon, who as the readers here know, is the Founder and Managing Partner of Aequitas Partners, a firm that builds leadership teams for high growth health companies. Entrepreneurs find themselves in a vulnerable spot when they’re bringing in senior execs – you’re putting your trust, and your company, in the hands of someone new. And in my humble opinion, there are few who understand and empathize with that position better than Tim.

Example? It starts with the company name. Stemming from Latin, Aequitas stands for fairness and integrity. In fact, it’s where the English word “equity” comes from. It is these values that make Aequitas a great partner for not just new folks like me, whose first day was literally the day NYC announced its shelter-in-place order, but for each of the entrepreneurs with whom we partner.

This is why I am particularly excited to have sat down with Tim virtually and reflected upon the last month together.

Polina: Tim, you have a lot going on. In the two week span of when shelter in place in New York City was instituted, you kicked off a number of brand new searches, brought in a brand new team member (hi!), moved your family, and then celebrated your son’s first birthday. Explain yourself.

Tim: It turns out I’m a glutton for punishment. The crazy thing, too, is that it seems like a long list, but there were actually even more things than just what you mentioned going on at the same time. I think historically I do better when I’m busy, but even I can admit that this was kind of bananas. Ultimately, it was about rising to this challenge on two fronts: do whatever it takes for your family, and also at the same time do whatever it takes your other family, for the company. I probably blacked out a little bit for the last two weeks of March, but we made it through all that and got the team distributed, and got you up and running very quickly, which I don’t know that we had as much to do with that as you did. But I’m grateful, frankly, that March is behind us.

Polina: It literally was a light switch of Aequitas being a team that was in one office, always together, to all of a sudden being dispersed across the entire country. As a founder, how was it for you to make that transition?

Tim: To be honest, it was hard. It was hard for everybody. It was very abrupt. To your point, one day we were all sitting together and getting ready for you to join us, and by the next day, no one was there, and everybody was in these unfamiliar working environments or trying to adapt their living environment to also be a working one. In New York City, me included, I was living in a one-bedroom apartment with my wife and a one year old…that’s not optimized for work-from-home. So the first week of that was an exercise in change management, and managing the distractions that came with it. It took us about a week, and then it felt like we were all settled. I think we were all sad, but optimistic that we could all be back together in the not-so-distant future, and in the meantime, there was work to be done. I was really proud of the way the team came together, and how much of an impact frankly you had on that in light of your experience working remotely from all over the world over the years. I think we benefited greatly from that.

Polina: Adaptability is key for any organization, coupled with a bit of reflection. Almost a year ago, you penned a great retrospective on the lessons that you learned along the way to Aequitas turning five. And one of the first ones was “always be selling like you’re going out of business.” You wrote about the nuance of selling a service, and the urgency with which you need to approach dialogues and relationships. In light of what’s going on today, has your perspective shifted?

Tim: In some ways it’s changed completely, and in others it’s exactly the same, but there’s some weird irony probably buried in that bullet from that retrospective. For now, if you take the thesis behind “always be selling like you’re going out of business,” we’re really swapping “selling” for “adding value.” That’s not to say that adding value isn’t always one of our primary objectives, but I think traditional “business development efforts” are – I won’t go as far as to say inappropriate – but not conducted the way they were on March 1st. And so, we’re a little bit less worried about selling like we’re going out of business, and more interested in driving value for our partners like we’re going out of business. It’s not really about new business and new clients right now, as much as it’s about being great partners to our current clients and making ourselves and our expertise available to virtually anybody that needs it.

Polina: In this environment, how do you define “value”?

Tim: In some ways it follows over a longer period of time what our search process follows over a shorter period of time, which is that sometimes you need to go back to the beginning based on whatever market forces you’re dealing with. I have, in some ways, dusted off the playbook from when it was just me, which is that you’re not going to win everything, and the best you can do, the most important thing you can do is be there for people, with no strings attached. The way that would apply to an existing client would be counseling them on how to run virtual interview processes, or giving them guidance on whether or not it even makes sense to follow a search through right now or whether they should sit and wait, or ‘hey, don’t rush this through because you’re afraid you’re going to lose somebody, trust the process.’ That’s the client side. The candidate side is the same as it’s always been: have a conversation with anybody who wants to talk to us and needs our help. More people than ever probably need our help, and that could be market intelligence on who’s hiring, it could be how to think through a transition when you’re laid off, it could be how to rewrite a resume, whatever that might be, just help people. Similarly, something I’ve done for as long as I’ve been doing this, is continue to connect. Make connections for people that don’t come with any expectations other than “I hope someone benefits from this.”

Polina: One of the things that initially attracted me to Aequitas is the dignity that you bring to the hiring process for both the organizations and founders with whom we work, and the candidates. It seems like both sides of that equation are in a really vulnerable position. In such an uncertain time, how does dignity and choice play itself out today?

Tim: I truly believe that we’ve infused a different kind of ethos into the way we partner with clients and candidates. And so, I hear integrity – which is effectively the translation of our company’s namesake – defined as ‘what you do when no one is looking,’ which for me translates into doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing. It’s easy to second- guess when and how you’ve done that in hindsight when we’re all under siege right now, but I wouldn’t change a thing. That’s exactly why we’re launching the Health Talent Exchange – it just seems like the right thing to do. It’s not about us right now, it’s about everyone. People are struggling, relationships are being stressed, there’s a lot of fear, and if building something like this helps some people get back to work, put food on the table for their families, get health insurance, that’s a big win. As a team, we’ll feel like we’ve done our small part, and it’s the least we can do because there’s just a bigger picture goal now. This is a humanity thing and if we do those things and if we focus on those things, it’s why we’ve built the company the way we did and built the culture the way we did. If we stick to that and stay true to that, everything will be fine when all of this is over.

Polina: Can you describe the Health Talent Exchange?

Tim: What we’re creating is an intellectually honest and democratized platform to connect people. The underlying principle for this exchange is what we’ve all been doing for a living as Aequitas Partners for so long, which is connecting. Connecting people. None of this will cost anybody a thing. It’s completely free, pro bono, and we just hope that it helps people. There are a few things at play. Firstly, certain companies are still growing and hiring right now, but they’re hard to find, or harder to find than they should be or would be under normal circumstances. We want to elevate them. We want to make them more visible to people who are looking, because they have growth objectives and they’re making an impact on healthcare. How do we help facilitate that? The first part is to aggregate the real opportunities that are out there, get them all into one place, and make them very searchable and very easy for people who are looking for new things.

The second piece is that there are a lot of people who have been displaced. And unlike other times, many of them are total rock-stars and their performance on the job had absolutely no bearing on being a part of a reduction of force. There are also lots of people who might see the writing on the wall and are worried that that’s coming for them too, and are starting to think about how they get out in front of that. There’s going to be an opportunity for those folks to announce themselves.

The third piece is that there are a lot of companies that are going to get squeezed here. They were getting ready to raise capital, or were in the middle of it, and those raises aren’t happening. But they still need to invest in certain things. Maybe they need marketing, and were going to hire a VP of Marketing with their Series B funds, but those aren’t available any longer.  What we want to create is a place where either volunteers or contractors or consultants can offer up their capabilities. So maybe the near-term solution for that Series B company is to grab a three-month consulting engagement from a really strong marketer and it bridges the gap.

Polina: As a veteran in the health-focused, executive recruiting space has your perspective on hiring processes and the recruiting industry changed?

Tim: I think if it’s changed my perspective, it’s changed it at a higher level. Maybe less specific to those things, but on the way we think of work, life, and family. I lived through the 2008/2009 recession as a twenty-something and I was laid off because I was in financial services. In my mind, I thought well, I’m glad that that black swan event happened when I was young, single, had no kids, and frankly had very little responsibility. This feels an order of magnitude worse, and only a decade has passed. So to me, this is a stark reminder that we really only have the illusion of being in control of anything. Mentally, the best thing for my general perspective through all of this has been to take a couple minutes every single day and think about what I have vs. what I don’t, and to be very, very grateful – out loud – for those things, because a lot have way less. That’s been one of the more acute impacts on my general perspective. I don’t think that there was a way to prepare for this. Shit happens sometimes. But what’s unique here is that this is happening to everybody, and I don’t know that there have been many events in the world where you can say that. The general empathy that this has created in the world is something that I hope we can hold on to when this is over.

Polina: It’s Rahm Emanuel’s “never allow a good crisis to go to waste” quote, right? I like that we quickly instituted “Silver Linings” happy hours and saying the things we’re grateful for out loud. And while there’s no way to plan for any of this, we can plan for the next time if something like this happens again. What are some of the other methods that the organization is implementing to come out of this stronger than we went into it?

Tim: Right from the get go – and most of the folks on the team would tell you – while also taking a real view on what was happening, I tried to harp on the fact that even though these are kind of crazy and wild times, there’s opportunity here. Obviously we have to keep delivering for clients, but we’re using any available time that’s not already dedicated to that to unpack, refine, and institutionalize our process, our workflows, our database integrity, general company infrastructure – the things you tend to kick the can down the road on when you’re growing and busy delivering for clients. I think it’s forcing us to think about how we communicate with each other. There are some illusions too, when you’re in an office. It’s open, you sit right next to people, and you think you communicate well, but it’s not always the case. We’re revisiting that and we’re being forced to be better communicators because without that, we’d be in trouble. And then obviously we’re thinking through how we train and onboard people. If we use this time to level up all of these things, the new versions of them that perform under duress will perform exceedingly well when we’re back in an office together, and I think that’ll be powerful and I’m really excited about it.