Fly Fishing and Executive Search: Moving Beyond Intuition

by: Kay Francoeur


In 2023, I suggest that we retire the empty adage, “There are other fish in the sea.” Whether the goal is finding a romantic partner or finding the next CEO to run a PE portfolio company, there might well be other fish around, but the critical question is how do you find them? What is the best way to snag the one you want, quickly and effectively?  


I have learned a few things over the years about finding (literal) fish. When I’m not working as a Project Manager at ECA, there’s a good chance you’ll find me fly fishing. When I started spending time in the West a decade ago, I discovered my addiction to scaling mountains, and later to wading through the frigid, crystalline rivers that flow between the peaks of the Sierras and the Rockies. Little satisfies like the challenge of throwing tight loops of neon line from a light, 4-weight rod, coaxing fat rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout to the surface to sip the feathers and fur of my carefully placed caddis or Parachute Adams fly (to their immediate chagrin). 


I see a lot of parallels between the data-driven executive search work we do at ECA and what it takes to succeed in fly fishing. As ECA-founder Atta Tarki writes in his book, Evidence-Based Recruiting (EBR) is an effective method for finding the very best talent through making precise, effective decisions based on reliable data, creating scalable, repeatable processes that consistently drive results. I argue that fly fishing – in short, a technique that uses a fly line, fly rod, and artificial fly to attract fish by imitating the natural movements of insects and other small prey – requires the same dedication to creating and scaling dependable data. 


Another similarity is that you don’t actually need the deepest pockets to succeed in each of these endeavors. Fly fishing is often misunderstood as elitist. You can throw as much money at the sport as you like, but I’ve seen people kitted out in thousands of dollars’ worth of gear who can’t seem to catch a fish. They would have been better off spending their time researching trout behavior and getting their reps in laying line on the water. The key to success is accessible, but requires discipline: it’s about being intellectually curious, rigorous in your approach, and able to quickly adapt your strategy to address changes in your environment. 


In the same vein, EBR stresses the importance of creating positive feedback loops that allow you to outperform competitors who have way more money to throw at the problem – outcompeting them for star performers by using data-driven methods to hire the best talent.  


Both come down to one’s willingness to abandon reliance on intuition or “gut instinct” alone in favor of making decisions based on empirical evidence and taking the time to track and measure what happens when you put that evidence into action. As Tarki writes, “The more carefully you track your predictions, the better you’ll get at foreseeing things.” With due diligence, you manifest something like intuition, but better. 


I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s enjoyment of plonking down a lounge chair on the beach and drinking beer while waiting for the fish that you just know are out there to chomp the bit of shrimp or squid dangling from your hook. But personally, I’m a lot more intrigued by a process that requires you to solve an ecological puzzle by observing and measuring data and constantly adjusting your tools and techniques – your gear, the angle and length of your cast, the type and size of fly, and other aspects that you must adapt to reflect real-time changes in environment. In other words, maintaining the kind of openness and flexibility that Tarki also names as crucial to success: “We must be continuously open to revising our understanding of the world whenever new and credible evidence is presented to us.” 


The advantage of this method is that you can be much more targeted in your approach. It becomes less about a feeling, and completely about data and execution. Fly fishing is a data-driven endeavor, grounded in close observation and research on and off the river.  I’m no longer just waiting for any fish to come along: I’m targeting that specific, honking, fish-of-a-lifetime unicorn of a rainbow trout that – based on my detailed reading of the flow and temperature of the water, the season, and the time of day  – is most likely stacked up behind that boulder 30 degrees to my left, hungry and eager to eat the caddis fly I’m about to drift by its nose.  


As I track my data, my predictions improve, toward something that looks like instinct or intuition but is decidedly not. I’ve learned to support success from the outset by developing heightened awareness of trees and other obstacles that might snarl the line and ruin the introduction I’m about to make with that cagey steelhead that will most likely be hovering in the slacker part of the water between those rocks, right near the bubble line. With these techniques, I’ve made first contact with trout, steelhead, greyling, shad, halibut, and other species in bodies of water around the world. 


Likewise, with EBR we use a targeted approach to find candidates with unique profiles quickly. Even those needle-in-a-haystack types of searches become easier when you have data tracking in place from the beginning and honest assessment – and reassessment – of the metrics you’re using. This information also makes us aware of potential tripwires and red flags before they flare up, so that we quickly pivot our search strategies to make seamless matches between candidates and clients. 


The movement around “catch and release” is perhaps the only aspect of contemporary fly-fishing that doesn’t align well with executive search. Our goal (on the Permanent Search side of ECA at least) is “catch and keep” – finding and landing candidates who are the perfect fit to create value long-term for our clients.  



Kay Francoeur is a Project Manager at ECA Partners. She can be reached at [email protected]



Kay Francoeur
Project Manager

ECA PE PortCo Operations Whitepaper

The 2022
ECA CFO Report

ECA Mid-Market Transformation Whitepaper

Value-Creation Talent Solutions for Strategy, Finance, and Operations

Get in touch to find your next hire.

Get Started with ECA

Tell us about your hiring needs using the form below. One of our Managing Directors will be in touch to help.

Download our latest PortCo Operations Whitepaper

Download the latest CFO whitepaper, written by our finance practice lead

Download the Mid-Market Transformation Whitepaper by our private equity practice leads

Interested in joining us?

Enter your info to schedule an interview with one of our internship leads.