Power: The Headhuntress

Judee von Seldeneck, Michael Nutter’s point woman to fill top-level city posts, has built a worldwide executive recruiting company with her Southern sass and fierce intellect. That’s made her one of the most powerful women in Philadelphia

I AM BEING seduced by Judee von ­Seldeneck.

This comes as something of a surprise, considering she is probably 20 years my senior, is married, and — ­perhaps most important, since I’m gay — is a ­woman. But as I gaze down to the other end of the long, highly polished conference table at Diversified Search Ray & Berndtson, the global recruiting firm where Judee (pronounced “Judy” — more on that later) serves as chairman and CEO, I still feel like I’m being teased, flirted with. I’m most definitely being charmed, something I strongly suspect she knows. It is, after all, the point.

“Now, Maaak,” Judee is saying in her buttery North Carolina drawl, her eyes beckoning over her reading glasses at the opposite end of the table. On either side of us, executives from Diversified — one of the city’s biggest corporate power players, a firm that often decides who gets a CEO post and who doesn’t — sit bemused, watching Judee toy with me. “I think you’re likin’ what you’re hearin’ around this table, aren’t yeeww?”

I am. As they do every week, the senior recruiters from within the firm have gathered to issue progress reports on various placements, usually at the senior VP level or higher, at companies around the city, region and world. Listening in on these updates, I’ve just gotten a view of the salaries corporate America offers to its top-drawer executives, and the only thing I can think of, sitting here being studied by Judee von Seldeneck, is, God, there are a lot of people who make a lot of money.

“Are you excited about this guy?” Judee asks one staffer. To another, piped in on an intercom: “What do we need to do? You need to take some leadership here with the client. Tell me what you’re going to do.” A dizzying array of résumés, Cadillac compensation packages and varying opinions collide in this room to determine who will be our next business leaders.

In February, Business Week named Judee von Seldeneck one of the 50 most influential headhunters in the entire world. Last year, Diversified Search, in its global partnership with Ray & Berndtson, billed fees in excess of $282 million, and employed more than 1,000 people in 58 offices worldwide. Yet it wouldn’t appear likely that a woman with the brashness of a belle and the moniker of a prison matron would have ended up as a kingmaker in, of all places, Philadelphia. When she arrived here from Washington, D.C., 30 years ago, her claim to fame was that she had once been executive assistant to Walter Mondale, when he was a ­standard-issue U.S. senator from Minnesota. But people with the most humble beginnings often end up as the biggest surprises, and that can certainly be said of the woman I’m still locking eyes with, the one in the bright ­bumblebee-yellow jacket and gold jewelry who looks like Miss Ellie settling down J.R. and Bobby at the dinner table at Southfork. I can’t decide whether she’s overwhelming me with Southern charm or playing me like a fiddle.

My confusion is understandable. After our first meeting, some weeks back, she’d walked me out to the elevators, smiled, and said, “Now, the next time, we have to talk about yeewww. I want to know what your story is.” I demurred, reminding her that the purpose of all of this was for me to learn about her. A few weeks later, I sat next to her at an awards luncheon with the city power crowd. Retrieving my coat afterward as I left the Wanamaker Crystal Tea Room, I realized with horror that she had extracted almost my entire life story by dessert — including my stint as a PR writer at the Gas Works, an embarrassing résumé pit stop I admit to almost no one. “Her ability with people is to disarm them,” Rebecca Rimel, president and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts and a longtime Judee confidante, tells me. “To bring out the best in them. And if there isn’t a best to be brought out, she has a better chance of finding that out than most people.”