The superhero hiring game and why everyone loses

April 5, 2010

 When it comes to recruiting leaders, companies continue to search for those Steve Jobs-like characters that can single-handedly turn around a company’s fortunes, blaze paths of innovation and market their wares like no other before them. From well-established firms to small angel-backed start-ups, and from up-and-comers scaling the walls of success to those on bankruptcy’s doorstep, companies keep their specs simple…..one all-purpose superhero to go, please.

It should come as no surprise that job-seeking executives have long figured out the demand-side of this employment equation and package themselves accordingly. If companies want superheroes then superheroes they shall be. In interviews they present themselves as flawless leaders with success after success to their credit. They are builders, turnaround experts, detail-oriented visionaries, leaders one and all. Large or small firms, in sickness or in health, it does not matter…. their powers transcend all contexts, companies and industries.

In a world where only superheroes need apply, candidates carefully shield their vulnerabilities. Careers arc only upwards and any dip or blip, however small, is invariably attributed to circumstances beyond the candidates’ control. Since the executive performed so admirably as head of Canadian operations, a head office-based role south of the border beckoned. However, family circumstances prevented relocation at that time, leaving the star performer with no choice but to resign from the firm. Or, despite a brilliant plan to save the ailing firm, a misaligned board of directors and an untimely funding squeeze conspired to leave the executive no choice but to place the firm into receivership. And on and on and on…

While the superhero game appears easy to play, it actually produces few winners. By failing to tackle the complex beast that is matching specific situations with the executives best suited to address them, companies dramatically increase the likelihood of hiring Spiderman instead of Aquaman to deal with their deep sea problem. Similarly, by positioning themselves as all-purposed stars, executives set themselves up for the likelihood that circumstance after circumstance will inconveniently sabotage each of their roles. After a while the market will conclude that this superhero is either ‘Un-Lucky-Man’ or just some regular guy in a funny, puffed up costume.

A writer once suggested that superman is a tulpa, a Tibetan word for a being brought to life through thought, visualization and willpower. Organizations continue to wish and hope that the answer to whatever ails them can be found in one generic super star. And candidates are happy to play along. But as the late Peter Drucker once said, “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.”

About Author

Robert Hebert, PhD is Managing Partner of Toronto-based executive search firm StoneWood Group Inc. He can be reached @ rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or at 416.365.9494x777