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New boss at Diversified Search after rapid growth and Chick-fil-A connection

The dispute served to underline strains between what insiders called the mission-driven nonprofit culture and the mainstream corporate staff, where Chick Fil-A’s policy change was readily accepted.

Diversified Search CEO Dale E. Jones at the Four Seasons Hotel, Comcast Technology Center, Oct. 22, 2019
Diversified Search CEO Dale E. Jones at the Four Seasons Hotel, Comcast Technology Center, Oct. 22, 2019Read moreJoseph N. DiStefano

Dale E. Jones, who oversaw growth and mergers that quadrupled sales at Philadelphia-based Diversified Search Group to more than $100 million a year, but attracted protests from some staffers after he joined the board of fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, has stepped down as CEO of the executive placement firm after nine years in the top job.

Aileen K. Alexander, a former Army captain who worked in Congress and served as managing partner at placement giant Korn Ferry before joining Diversified as vice chair in June, has succeeded Jones as chief executive officer, reporting to founder and chairman Judith M. von Seldeneck, The Inquirer has learned. The company confirmed the moves in a statement Monday.

In a statement responding to The Inquirer, the founder praised Jones, 60, as a “transformative leader.” On his watch, and financed by an investment from Minneapolis-based ShoreView, a private investment firm, Diversified added BioQuest, in San Francisco, which recruits life-sciences professionals; St. Louis-based Grant Cooper, which focuses on health-care executives; Storbeck Search, based in Media, which specializes in colleges; as well as Koya Partners, which recruits nonprofit leaders.

Alexander, 45, was hired as a potential chief executive, but the move was speeded up when Jones was sidelined by heart trouble that twice landed him in a hospital earlier this year. “His family has confiscated his cell phone” while helping nurse him back to full health, said von Seldeneck. Jones will remain senior adviser to corporate directors and CEO clients.

A Morehouse College graduate active in Christian organizations, Jones has written moving accounts of personal trials, including an earlier hospital stay. He first joined the board of Chick-fil-A in April 2019, and was a longtime friend of the family of S. Truett Cathy, a Baptist Sunday school teacher who founded the chain that made him a billionaire.

Cathy contributed to campaigns opposing gay marriage before his death in 2014. In 2012, his unwavering stand sparked calls for boycotts by marriage-equality activists, including by Philadelphia elected officials, and counter-protests by the company’s fans. The company has since distanced itself from that position and pledged not to donate to certain organizations that had been called anti-LGBTQ.

But that didn’t quiet discomfort among younger members of Diversified’s own staff, especially in the nonprofit office, based in Boston, according to sources at the company.

After Diversified bought Koya in June 2019, von Seldeneck found herself dealing with internal discord that recalled what her corporate clients have encountered when business leader goals conflict with staff or client values and agendas, sometimes resulting in calls for the firm’s own help in sensitive recruiting efforts.

To help keep the peace, Jones reluctantly stepped down from the Chick-fil-A board. But after checking with von Seldeneck, he rejoined that board early this year, sparking renewed protest from some of the nonprofit staff.

It was an unanticipated result of Diversified’s own diversification: The dispute served to underline strains between what insiders called the nonprofit-oriented culture and the mainstream corporate staff, where Chick-fil-A’s change in policy was readily accepted.

“Like many companies going through change, we, too, are addressing a workforce with differing values and expectations,” Maureen Alphonse-Charles, senior vice president for talent, diversity and equity at Diversified, said in a statement. She added that the firm has hired its own outside consultant “to actively engage with our colleagues” over “integration” issues.

Von Seldeneck said the internal discussions were unrelated to Jones’ medical issues and his retirement from the top job.

“Nobody has been more committed to diversity than this company,” she said, noting that much of its work includes recruiting hires from diverse backgrounds.

Von Seldeneck said the rapid pace of growth established under Jones will continue, with two more acquisitions likely over the next several months.