A Profile in Success

kim shanahan chro executive search

Kim Shanahan, Founder and CEO of accelHRate, shared her professional journey with Profiles in Success, an online publication designed to inspire current and future small-business owners with it’s collection of profiles that highlight personal stories and words of wisdom from a diverse group of business leaders in and around the Washington D.C. area. Cases cover a wide and varied array of successes and innovations with an emphasis on entrepreneurialism and a positive spirit. Below is an overview of the article about Kim, published in Volume 8.


Even when she was fresh out of college, Kimberly Shanahan was never one to leave the office at 5:00 PM. She would watch peers and even superiors clock out as soon as the technical end of the workday rolled around, and would find herself wondering, shouldn’t there be more? “I yearned for the kind of work where you’re really tied to what you’re doing,” she remembers now. “I wanted to be staying late because of some deadline—something important that couldn’t wait. I learned I really needed to reach for more.” Thanks to this lifelong drive to push the envelope of success, Kim was promoted three times throughout her first four years in the professional workforce. That drive and determination have carried her throughout her career so that now, from her first working days as a recent graduate, to Senior Client Partner and Managing Director of Korn/Ferry International’s Human Resources Center of Expertise in 2006, to starting her own HR Executive Search Firm, accelHRate in 2014, she strives each day toward success.


As part of the Korn/Ferry team for almost 8 years, Kim placed executives in organizations with the full business, personal, and industry impact of those placements in mind. It is a 3,700- employee global force that garners $812.8 million in 2013 annual revenue, and Kim was running its 19- person Virginia office and the global HR center of expertise. Making critical placements in companies like Western Union, Humana, Macys, and Under Armour, she thrived on the diversity and challenge of the work.


Her path to HR began in an unconventional way, with her initial career dream being advertising. She was admitted to Vanderbilt University but declined so she could attend Virginia Tech instead, believing that a liberal arts education wouldn’t take her where she wanted to go. Kim connected with the school and the people there instantly, transforming from a shy introvert to an outgoing student with a large circle of friends. “Tech was a perfect fit for me, and I have zero regrets,” she says. The school didn’t have an advertising major, so Kim instead majored in communications, and although she found some of the courses less interesting than expected, she wasn’t going to give up. Instead, she added a finance major to her curriculum. It meant she would have to retake several math classes, spend a couple summers studying, and stay an extra semester, but she graduated as a double major and was hired immediately by the NRA, where she excelled in financial operations and took the initiative to implement some financial planning strategies that hadn’t been tried there before.


After four years garnering incredible success in that capacity, Kim decided to switch tracks and took a position at DFI, a management consulting company in D.C. There, she worked on market entry strategies and the commercialization of defense products, starting as a research analyst and moving through the ranks to become senior associate. “I loved the diversity, but I was the only person in the company who had started a family and was living in Virginia,” she says.


As Kim’s father considered a transition in his own career path, he introduced her to Korn/Ferry, opening her eyes to an entire industry she hadn’t known existed. “I thought it would be fascinating to take the things I was learning about businesses—where they were going, what the competitors looked like, and where they could go—and blending them with an understanding of people and who would be the right person to take a company to that next level.”


Kim had grown comfortable connecting with executives at a young age and was offered a position at Korn/Ferry, but she decided to check out the company’s competition, Heidrick & Struggles. Heidrick made her the same offer, and she decided to accept because the culture of teamwork it boasted at the time held more resonance with her. With that, Kim entered Heidrick’s technology practice as an associate, and four years later, she was running its telecom practice as a senior associate. “I remember not knowing anything about telecom when I started, and being frustrated in a good way,” she recalls. “We were building the telecom practice during that time, and the partner I was working with had a great network and could readily solve searches. I was desperate to find my way to add real value.” Thus, Kim built a spreadsheet of every telecom company in the world, allowing users to sort by company name, revenue, state, person, and skills. Thanks to this tool, she was able to quickly come up with top candidates, transforming the practice’s business development strategy in the process.


Kim’s reputation of success spread and she received a call from MCI, which was about to emerge from bankruptcy and needed someone to build out its global executive recruiting function. Kim hadn’t yet worked at a corporation, so she accepted and spent the next two years learning and building. Having done some M&A work at DFI, she also talked to the company’s strategy team about an acquisition, impressing the leadership team so much that they transitioned her to Director of Strategy, responsible for building out wireless capability. “It was a big fork in the road for me, and while it was hard to leave HR, that move was part of my original plan,” she explains. “I had wanted to go into a role I knew well and then move over to strategy or business development.”


When MCI was acquired by Verizon, leadership asked her to stay on the strategy team, but Kim felt the new environment was too big. Turned off by the idea of being a cog in a wheel, she considered her next move and found herself missing the executive search side of her work, in which she had excelled. “I liked the impact piece, the intellectual side, and not feeling like I was trapped in a bubble,” she says. “You get to learn so much about so many different things, putting it all together to see the fabric of what’s going on in an industry. And beyond that, you develop incredibly deep relationships with people, who become friends and clients. That’s when I made a conscious decision to go back in for the long haul.”


Kim looked at a number of different firms and chose Korn/Ferry, joining the team in February of 2006 as a client partner. She was immediately struck by how welcoming the culture was, and she was promoted from client partner to senior client partner within a year. Though she had started in the firm’s technology area, she saw a considerable need in the HR space and steadily transitioned over, so that before long, it was all she was doing. She made a name for herself and others in the practice, and is considered a thought leader in the field.


In 2009, the head of Kim’s office left the company, and the person she was reporting to asked if she had interest in assuming the role. “I said I would be interested at the right point in time, thinking that point would come sometime in the future,” Kim reflects. “But they ended up promoting me, which again was earlier than expected.”


Now, Kim brings a boldness and determined spirit to her work. She can step back to analyze any situation, keeping her own concerns off the table to determine the best business move. This steely will is coupled with an infectious enthusiasm for the success of her colleagues that makes for an exceptional team atmosphere; “…I’m seriously passionate about rewarding hard work and watching my team succeed.”


This approach speaks to Kim’s leadership style, which is more participative today than ever before now that she heads her own company. “I like to provide direction and then be hands-off unless I am needed,” she says. “I love to give feedback, support, and credit where credit’s due, publicly and sincerely and in a meaningful way. Some people might say I’m challenging to work for, but it’s just because I want people to care. I want good work product, and I want my team to learn. The other side of that coin is the fact that we laugh a lot, remembering that we can only control so much…”


In advising young people entering the working world today, Kim encourages the use of contacts—something she purposefully avoided because she wanted to do everything on her own. “That was silly,” she laughs. “Be humble yet confident. Seek healthy mentors early, because people want to help. Be bold but not too fast that you break things. It will all come—just don’t expect it too early.”


Beyond this, Kim’s story demonstrates the power of reaching for something more. “I’ve always had this compelling drive to understand more, help more, and see more people succeed,” she avows.


To read the full article, download the PDF .

accelHRate is a well-known and trusted retainer-based executive search firm that places CHROs and their direct reports across all industries and geographies. Started by the former Head of Korn/Ferry’s HR Practice, we partner with companies to identify and attract the HR elite.