In Hiring, the ‘How' Questions Matter… A Lot

May 25, 2017 at 1:24 PM

Within weeks of joining Alpha Industries, the new executive was being lauded by the CEO as ‘transformative’, an individual with not only deep industry experience but also a strong intellect, drive, process orientation and a sense of urgency. He made things happen, shook things up. Revenues and profits responded positively. One year later however the person was, as they say, ‘resigned’ by the firm. The issue was described as ‘fit’.

While introducing themselves to staff, the new owners of Beta Industries made it clear that every aspect of the business would be under review.  Improvements would be made to those areas found to be ‘wanting’. New executive talent would be hired using a sophisticated selection system. Only those who scored the highest, the best and the brightest, would be hired. Change was imminent. Beta’s new owners could not believe their good fortune when the now-available Alpha Industries executive applied for a key role. Scoring in the 98th percentile in the selection tests he had all the makings of a ‘star’. Two years later he succeeded the president. He proved to be a perfect fit.

I was recently reminded of this certain Alpha/Beta executive when I met with a company to discuss their need for a new CEO. The firm operates in a ‘mature’ sector with a high percentage of employees characterized as ‘long term’. The firm’s systems and processes, stitched together over time, were described as ‘tired’. Though still profitable the company is struggling to keep up with the competition. The board is seeking a president who can introduce more sophistication to the business. They want KPIs, metrics and a higher level of accountability. They want an executive with proven industry experience, a track record of driving growth and the requisite passion to ignite a spark within the somewhat moribund organization. As they stated, ‘we want a real leader’.

Companies reflexively focus their hiring thought processes around ‘what’ they need. They talk at length about requisite experience, skills and track records. They talk about destinations and goals. They generalize requisites around terms such as ‘leader’ and ‘change agent’ and ‘proven winner’. They are far more tentative however on issues of ‘how’ they wish that journey of change navigated and are forever surprised when they get it wrong.  Alpha Industries is a second-generation family business with paternalistic attitudes towards its extended family… its employees. The firm`s owners value the contributions of their key staff, their ‘just do it’ attitude, their loyalty …. and they give it back in kind. While management was struggling to keep up with the demands of growth and scale and the owners needed changes, they wanted it aligned to the culture. They neither wanted changes to nor through the culture. Their view of a change agent was a teacher, mentor, someone who could show the way. They wanted a leader who others would willingly follow. Changes to the team however were not envisioned. After all these are `good people`. The role was challenging enough but the context made it ‘artful’ to say the least. While the senior executive’s knowledge, experience and ‘sense of urgency’ were initially welcomed as assets, it was more push than pull. It soon precipitated a predictable push-back from the change-anxious ranks.  Whispers relating to the tactics, decisions and overall competence of the executive found their way to the owners…Not surprisingly, the owners sided with the team.

Meanwhile, Beta Industries’ new owners were a private equity firm. Their blueprints for change were clear and concise, timelines were compressed, and their patience thin.  A gentle pulling leadership style was a luxury they could not afford. They wanted results. While they hired the former Alpha executive because of his previous experience and test scores, it turned out that his more directive change management approach, occasional casualties and all, was in fact very well aligned to Beta`s new owners.  He proved to be a perfect fit.

While Alpha and Beta Industries both sought change agents, the desired approach for that change varied greatly. This had a material effect on the personality and operating style of executive who could successfully deliver that change. For our new client seeking a CEO, the question of ‘how’ matters a great deal and if they do not give it careful consideration the person hired to ‘ignite a spark’ might just as easily set the place ablaze.


About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 Ext. 777