With every big bet, there comes that moment of truth. Is this going to work? Will it pay off? As Oxeon Partners passed its 4th birthday last November, we prepared to make one of these big bets: hang a shingle in Washington, DC and see if the company could fulfill the elusive promise of scale.
I joined Trevor and the Oxeon team back in February of 2015, hell-bent on assisting in this process of growing the business. In order to do so, we had to tackle several important issues, beyond the brick and mortar challenge of standing up a new office in a new location. Could we successfully transition to a broader leadership team beyond our founder-led history? Could we transplant our unique culture to a new location? Could we prove out the hypothesis that a local presence would give us better access to, and increased credibility in, that new market? And finally, could we document what we learned in the process – using our business as a lab of sorts, to lift insights and experiences that could then be shared with our clients in similar positions?
In addition to the questions we could anticipate, this experience has delivered lots of "firsts". Some important – the first new employee we intentionally hired into an expansion office, and some less so – the first 100K Amtrak rewards points credited to an Oxeonite! Probably the most exciting "first" however, was a curious meeting I had at DC’s most famous address last month.
In the course of our many networking calls for a biotech company COO search we're running, my colleague Annah (the aforementioned DC employee #1) had a conversation with a gentleman called Tom, who happens to be the Deputy Director for Science and Technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (yes - his title is very consistent with his department's raison d'etre). As my early-tenure and fearless team is inclined to do, she just called him up one day and asked for a chat. Why not?
For those of you not familiar with the culture of DC, it's very much a small town. Everyone knows everyone. There are only two types of people: those who participate in the business of the city (politics, government) and those who observe. The two groups don’t often mix. It's also important to note that in the insider crew, there are certain key people around whom everything orbits. Tom is one of these people. EVERYONE knows him. Or knows someone who knows him. And thanks to Annah, now we know him, too.
In the course of Tom and Annah's initial conversation, Tom became very animated about Oxeon's business model, and asked to speak to me to bounce a few ideas around. One thing led to another, and I found myself with an invitation to the White House. Tom wanted to talk about how the Administration could do a better job attracting talent for shorter-term project work that didn't fall neatly into scope for Appointees or the stability-craving careerists who make up the (stereotyped) group of government bureaucrats. A "third way" as it were, for sourcing government talent.
I arrived at the (heavily secured) entrance to the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB) a few minutes early. I snapped a few selfies, mostly just to try to impress my kids, and then fumbled the entry process spectacularly, needing several attempts to sync my passport and meeting badge. The Secret Service guys could barely contain their laughter. I've never felt more like a tourist in my own city. On that note, during my visit I did learn that we bought Alaska for $7M – $3M less than the budget for the OEOB renovation. Another story for another time.
Tom and I sat down for an hour-long discussion in his cozy, cluttered office. In an attempt not to look amateurish, I tried to keep my eyes from wandering, but I couldn't help but note the dozens of pictures of Tom with Presidents—both sitting and former—as well as many other famous government officials, only some of whom I recognized. This is the way it goes in DC. This is our version of star sightings. Who you know is the currency of power.
We proceeded to discuss many things. He asked me to explain Oxeon's search process, and our means of sourcing talent. He asked if we’d be open to "tours of duty" within the White House, to help train his team to be more proactive in recruiting talent. He also asked how they could create those same tours of duty opportunities for outside hires – quick turn, deep impact projects that were not born out of crisis. Yes!
He asked my take on industry-specific hiring, and how to be more focused in acquiring specific skills. And he asked what I thought about the value proposition of working in the White House—or in DC more broadly—for recent graduates, mid-career and longer tenured individuals. We talked a bit about other firms like ours (those who serve specific industries) and how Oxeon and the White House recruiting team might potentially work together in the coming year.
My takeaway: for all of my wide-eyed wonder at being invited to the White House, I was actually the one sharing best practices and imparting knowledge. I was the expert, and our firm was being held up as a shining example of success in attracting and hiring talent. The Administration was asking us how do we do this better? How do we operate more like you – building strong partnerships in the private sector and successfully attracting stars to our team?
Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my day. I felt really proud that our new team was making in-roads in our new city. And I felt pretty sure I couldn't have asked for a better brand-building experience in the local market. There's still a ton of work to be done for sure. But I'm buoyed by our progress thus far.
PS. If you're wondering about your invitation to our DC office launch party, it's in the mail, as they say. We'll throw something together after the (slightly more important) "party" is decided on in November. Stay tuned.
Alissa is Co-President of Oxeon's executive search business. She joined the team after spending the last 20 years in the health care services business, working as a consultant and sales/marketing lead in firms such as McKinsey, the Advisory Board Company and Evolent Health. Alissa has completed CEO, CFO and COO searches, and is focused on leading the search team, building an office in DC, and expanding Oxeon's network into innovative and integrated provider systems across the country. Alissa is based in Washington, DC.