Profile of an Executive Recruiter: Mary Wheeler’s Career in Search

Jun. 18, 2019

Debbie Katz

In 1980, when Mary Wheeler left fundraising to try her hand at Executive Search, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President, John Lennon was shot, and disco made way for Devo.  The world’s first “Personal Computing” unit had been sold only five years earlier, in the form of a DIY kit.  Working women with well-paying positions or prestige were often made to feel guilty.  Wheeler was told, “You’re taking work from good men who could be doing your job.”

That world has seismically shifted, and Executive Search has come along for the ride. People and data are the crux of the business, so more than many fields, it is sensitive to the constant revamping of cultural norms and technology.  Forty years later, on the eve of her retirement as DRG Search’s Senior Vice President, few can speak to those changes like Wheeler.  “It’s a whole new world,” she says of the business, then corrects herself.  “Not new but evolving.”

Married at twenty-one and fresh out of Smith College, Wheeler had three children over the next decade. And, like many of her former classmates, by her early thirties, she was divorced.  “It’s the typical story of my generation,” she says.  “I had to sell our apartment at the height of the recession of the late ´70s. The kids were all in private school.”

Now the primary breadwinner, Wheeler needed to work.  Most of her friends were stay-at- home mothers or held jobs with little future. “One became a court stenographer,” she recalls, “but where do you go from that?”  For the next seven years she worked to support her family, first as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood and then Phoenix House.

In 1980, Wheeler was introduced to the world of Executive Search.  “A friend of mine who was a partner at Boyden Associates recruited me, thinking I’d be good at the search business,” she says. “They were so busy when I joined, that I immediately, in my second week, started interviewing candidates not having a clue what I was doing.”  Within a few years she was doing well enough that the president of the firm asked her to pitch a search at Covenant House.  “That’s kind of how it all started,” she says.

Wheeler became and remains a specialist in the nonprofit space, working primarily with human services organizations that serve the disadvantaged and disabled, the same populations she supported as a fundraiser.   She built her practice at Boyden over the next twelve years, followed by a shorter stint at Lamalie Amrop International.

In 1996, Wheeler joined DRG Search where she rose to become Senior Vice President. DRG was a technology early adopter. LinkedIn, a primary tool for today’s recruiter, wouldn’t be launched for another six years.  But even back then, Wheeler says, DRG relied on an online candidate database.  Not so when she started in the field.

At that time, her primary work tools were a phone and a typewriter. Jobs were listed in the “Wanted” section of print newspapers and trade magazines and candidates mailed in their resumes.  Fax machines wouldn’t become widespread for a decade and the “answering machine” had yet to catch on. Reaching candidates could be tricky.  Things took time.

Without the internet for research, the majority of new candidates came from personal referral and Wheeler dragged home candidate folders most nights to make phone calls. “Even though a lot of people have retired, and new generations are coming along, I still depend a lot on referrals,” Wheeler says.  Winning clients and managing searches took more legwork. Interviewing trips and meetings with candidates or search committees could last for days and Wheeler traveled a lot. “We didn’t have Zoom or Skype. We would go from airport to airport.”  Wheeler is quite comfortable with virtual meetings but from her perspective, something important is lost. “Zoom is not a substitute for face-to-face,” she says.  “I think it’s faster, but you miss the personal connection.”

About a year after starting in Executive Search, Wheeler remarried.  “I didn’t have to work anymore but I wanted to.”  It was a male dominated world and “this was a male dominated field,” she recalls. She was one of just a handful of women in the industry. Even so, “I never felt that being a woman was a detriment.”

These days, when she enters a room, the seasoned search executive’s reputation precedes her. Making the right match is an art and Wheeler is well regarded for her track record.  “If you look at the CEO searches I’ve handled over the past ten to fifteen years, most of the candidates are still where I placed them,” she says.

Then, as now, Wheeler has worked to broaden her clients’ perspective on what excellent leadership looks like, starting first with herself. It is all too easy to discount a candidate based on preconceived ideas and first impressions, Wheeler acknowledges. “I’ve been fighting this my whole career. I still do it, and I still fight it,” she says.  This kind of baked in bias has become even more important to acknowledge and resist as technology has advanced beyond the paper resume.  As Wheeler points out, “With LinkedIn, there are pictures.  Now you can see the candidates.  You already have your bias before they walk in.”

Wheeler says her clients have gradually shifted over the years from being noncommittal to actively seeking diversity in their candidate pools. But there are always holdouts. Recently, one of her candidate pools included only female candidates. “This guy on the committee, he was probably my age, he said, ‘Do you really think a woman could do this job?’ I said, ‘Well, all your candidates are women so what are you going to do?’ I couldn’t help but laugh.  It seemed the best way to defuse the situation.”

Wheeler has often presented and placed candidates over sixty, despite pressure to do otherwise.  “Age has always been a big factor, especially in the ´80s and ´90s,” she says.  “When I first started at Boyden, we were told to throw out all resumes of prospective candidates over fifty.”

Wheeler joined DRG Search in her own mid-fifties, looking to work on her own terms.  It was a “nine to five,” suit-and-tie work world with little flexibility, and Wheeler had an active family, cultural and social life.  Her second husband was quite a bit older than she and was retired. They wanted to travel.  But Wheeler was passionate about search and certainly not ready to give it up.

Her conversation with David Edell, DRG’s founder, went well.  Wheeler had her deep network and excellent reputation to bring to the table and DRG was a firm that appreciated the concept of work-life balance

For the next twenty-three years, Wheeler would become an integral part of DRG’s growth and expansion, adding her expertise and best practices the boutique firm. Now owned by CEO Dara Klarfeld, DRG Search ranked as one of Forbes’ “Best Executive Recruiting Firms” for the past two years and has since doubled in size, now includes a dedicated Research and Outreach Department and has expanded into Talent Advisory services like organizational design, talent audits, and executive coaching.

Over the course of her nearly forty-year career in Executive Search, Wheeler has dedicated herself to caring for our society’s most vulnerable members by ensuring that the nonprofits who serve them have the visionary leadership they deserve.  There is no way to calculate the full impact of her life-long investment in the sector, but Wheeler estimates that since 1980 she has partnered with more than two hundred organizations in the U.S. and abroad, many of which reach tens of thousands of people: families in need of shelter, children with intellectual disabilities, the homeless, addicted, impoverished or abused.  Wheeler, in her own way and on her own terms, has touched each of their lives and made them better.