Recruiting for the 'Difficult' Leader

December 1, 2010

Over the past year, a steady stream of articles has commented on the leadership of RCMP Commissioner William Elliott. Depending on the source, Mr. Elliott is either an explosive tyrant who is destroying the storied culture and morale of Canada’s iconic national police force or a beleaguered change agent fighting valiantly to fix a horribly broken paramilitary-styled organization. Among the more interesting issues raised is Mr. Elliott’s leadership style, and in particular, his apparent lack of emotional-control. One newspaper article described the RCMP Commissioner as follows, “Elliott’s hot temper and repeated verbal explosions, followed by apologies and relapses, has turned senior management team meetings into places of unbearable tension, where people do not freely speak their minds. It has become a toxic environment few want to work in”

The debate over Mr. Elliott is a fascinating look into the full-contact world of organizational change. It is also a window through which to examine volatile leaders and the challenges they present in finding executives who will thrive under them.

Many companies undertake executive searches conflicted on how to deal with the ‘dirty little secret’ that is the explosive or leader at the helm of the company. How do they translate the leader’s ‘special’ management style into cultural attributes against which they can then hire executives? And how do they delicately broach the issue with headhunters and candidates?

Some firms work around the issue. One mid-sized Canadian tech firm has a Jekyll and Hyde-like leader well-known for a particular strand of venom which he spews and spits on eruption. Over time the firm has become better known for this individual’s near bi-polar tendencies than the undeniable brilliance and determination with which he has built his firm. As is often the case, this individual sees his leadership style as a ‘non-issue’ preferring instead to attribute the regular management churn to the frustrations of finding ‘good’ people. The ever-expanding executive alumni list would beg to disagree. For the beleaguered head of human resources, breaking through the cement that shrouds the entrepreneur’s low self-awareness is less inviting than finding executives willing to endure the pain and thus he undertakes a ‘work around’. He circumvents the leadership style issue by paying an above-market premium to attract and retain executives until they invariably disappoint their dear leader and are replaced

Other organizations address the issue obliquely using code-words to tip off potential employees. They speak of their ‘highly passionate’ leader, a term which is often code for ‘screams a lot’. Others will will use the term ‘Type A’ as a blanket descriptor (think Steve Jobs for whom many would say the ‘A’ refers to a-hole). Still other firms will speak of their ‘straight talk’ culture, which puts lipstick on the CEO tendency to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants to whomever he wants. And finally other firms will laud the genius of the leader while throwing in that he ‘does not suffer fools’. Unfortunately, in many instances, everyone in the firm, except for the leader, wears a fool’s hat in his or her estimation. And this makes him angry, rude and disrespectful…what is he do when surrounded by such people?

Finding executives to work for such leaders is neither easy nor inviting. Success, if it can be called that, starts with an honest, direct attempt to describe the individual’s personality, triggers and leadership style. It also involves a discussion with those subordinates who have survived and thrived under his or her leadership. What attributes do they share that have enabled them to succeed where others have failed? Recruiting executives who will thrive under volatile leaders is the art and science of finding executives who are strong and smart enough to effectively manage that individual or weak enough to take the abuse. For the latter think battered wife syndrome, for the former think of individuals such as Daniel Lanois.

Daniel Lanois is the Canadian producer extraordinaire who has worked with many of music’s biggest acts on their most successful albums. A recent article described these performers as not only among the world’s biggest stars but also the biggest and highest maintenance egos and tempers. While Daniel’s work is creative in nature (he is an accomplished writer and musician) it also involves editing, molding, buffing, stretching and even redirecting and the work of artists who are apt to take offence to, rather than embrace, any intimation of imperfection. Mr. Lanois’ is incredibly well-suited to the task with a humble, low ego, servant-like style that is an effective foil to his master-of-the-universe customers. When asked how he deals with challenging artists, Mr. Lanois says “I’ve never had a problem with ego, but I have worked with strong-minded folks. The best thing to do in those situations is to let their ideas be brought to a conclusion. If someone has an idea, never say no. You might try another idea or two beyond that, and then a few days later we listen back and choose the best one. I never tell people what to do. I may provide them with surprises sonically and give them a different way of looking at their work, but I would never say no to anybody”.

Mr. Lanois guides and gently nudges the artists to stretch without ever challenging or questioning them or their art. He supports from the shadows, helping and encouraging, but never getting in the way or veering too closely towards the limelight. Mr. Lanois takes this servant approach so far that some would question the financial cost he pays. When asked how he charges for his efforts Mr. Lanios says, “Usually, I negotiate an advance for myself relative to royalty income. Then the costs of recording are separate from that. I have a pretty good business sense, and have an attorney, but I have never audited anyone. I told a friend that and he said, “You’re crazy. You’re owed millions”. I just accept what I get and get on with my life”. When asked why, Mr. Lanois says, “I don’t want any enemies”.

It is tricky business indeed this finding executives to work for ‘special’ leaders. Anyone who tells you otherwise is destined to pay a price.

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

StoneWood Group is a Canadian executive search firm who specializes in executive recruitment by finding talented executive level candidates and matching them to the right organizations. Based in Toronto, Canada, we also have offices in Ottawa and Vancouver.