Judith Von Seldeneck knows how to look for good leaders

Momma may have said, "Never ask a lady about her age." That goes double for Judith "Judee" von Seldeneck, chair and founder of Diversified Search L.L.C., one of the nation's largest executive search firms.

In Philadelphia, some of the region's top executives - Vikram Dewan at the Philadelphia Zoo and former Tasty Baking CEO Charles Pizzi - got their jobs through Diversified, which von Seldeneck began in 1974.

"I'm not going to tell you" my age, she said. "I've got a thing about that. If people see that age in the paper and with a woman, they come to conclusions."

Like what?

They say, "Gee, I didn't know she was that old. She's past her prime or something."

Do men have this issue?

No. People come to conclusions about women and about age that they don't with men.

Why is that?

I don't know, but it's been that way forever.

You hear of glass ceilings for women. Is there an age ceiling for executives?

It depends. If you're trying to move to another job and you've got a successful career, a lot of people say, "I've got one last gig in me." I think that you need to get on your last gig by age 59-1/2.

Diversified gets hired by a company looking for a top executive. What's the first step?

The important part for executive search people is to go to these client companies and spend the time, meet their top executives and get a feel for what the place is like.

So much of what we do is really confidential. We get told that a CFO is going to be replaced. They haven't told the CFO yet, and they want to talk to us initiating a search.

To what do you attribute your success?

I had a great mentor in Walter Mondale. For 10 years I worked for him as his personal secretary in the United States Senate. I mean it was during the riots, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. That had such an impact on me. Just seeing the way he dealt with it, it gave me a sense of purpose and how fragile life can be. If you want to really achieve something, you just can't do it yourself. You've got to be able to get other people to get energized by what you're doing and to feel like they're part of it. They take ownership of it, you're doing it together, and it's making a difference.

You've done so many executive searches. Ever have one go awry?

We had a situation recently where we were working with a health-care system, doing a search for a chair of medicine. They had a lead candidate they really liked. They were down to the finals. So, they went out to dinner with the CEO and other key people. This person brought his wife and the wife brings a little bag and it's her dog that goes with her everywhere. We had no control. We didn't even know the wife had a freakin' dog. Can you imagine? Does that show judgment? So they ended up with the internal candidate.

Don't companies sometimes hire you as cover, for a pretend search, so they can give the job to the inside protégé?

Yeah. I don't like that kind of stuff, but that happens. The other big thing now is diversity in candidate pools.

Is it diversity for real or just to claim diversity?

Both. It's both.

In your job, you evaluate leaders. How would you assess the overall quality of leadership in our region?

I'm very biased about Philadelphia. I think that it's really an exciting group of leaders here today.

Like who?

When you look around at what Amy Gutmann is doing [as president of the University of Pennsylvania] and John Fry [president at Drexel]. Steve Klasko, [CEO at Jefferson] is one of my most favorite people in the whole, wide world. What he's doing in this community as it relates to the future of health-care delivery is unbelievable.

What about Mayor Kenney?

I'm very excited about the new mayor. He's got a really good relationship with the business community. We've all known him for a long time. I think he's just got a great balance. He's got his ego in the right place. He wants to do the right thing. He's beholden to everybody, which is good. It's not just labor. It's not just communities. It's all of us.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769@JaneVonBergen