Searching for that Stay-At-Home Rushing Defenseman
August 1, 2017
It is late Friday afternoon and my partners and I are commiserating about our struggles to find the perfect candidates for our clients. Since wallowing in self-doubt is far less enjoyable than attributing our woes to others, we eventually agree that our clients’ specifications are the source of much of our angst.
Now before you get the wrong idea, we are immensely appreciative of the work we receive and understand the desire of organizations to recruit the best possible executives. We also recognize that the bar is often elevated when a company pays the ‘big bucks’ to retain a head-hunter to go searching on their behalf. And while we work with our clients to sort out the ‘must-have’ attributes from those that are ‘nice to have’ it seems that we are often asked to search for candidates who embody equal portions of opposite qualities. Let me explain by using a few of the more common examples:
The Stupid/Smart Guy.
Clients often direct us to find the ‘best of the best’. The client’s market challenges are daunting, the solutions complex, the potential enormous and only the smartest, most competent of executives will do. After said superstar has been identified, vetted, and found to be worthy, the parties invariably get down to negotiating the terms of employment. The client extends an offer that proves to be ‘modest’ in substance yet defended as commensurate for a firm that values internal equity. Furthermore, the math behind the stock option program, where the ‘real’ gains are supposed to be realized, shows a long line of preferred beneficiaries before the candidate will ever realize any material gain. If the candidate pushes back or expresses doubt, the client questions the entrepreneurial spirit of the candidate, whether they truly ‘get it’ and whether we have in fact found the ‘right’ person.
Whether it is the compensation structure, the team, the technology, elements of the corporate culture, or basic assumptions built into the business plan, candidates analyze and weigh opportunities and sometimes judge them attractive, and at other times lacking. This sets up the somewhat challenging situation where the candidates coveted by our clients do not covet them back. As this is an unacceptable interpretation of reality for the client it sets up the Alice in Wonderland search for the superpowers-blessed candidate smart enough to accomplish great things yet dumb enough to overlook why their assessment concludes it won’t be possible.
We work for a great many entrepreneurs. When they describe their ‘ideal’ candidate, they often use adjectives such as ‘take charge’, ‘action-oriented’, ‘strategic’, ‘self-starter’, ‘driver’, and ‘high performer’. They paint a picture of the prototypical ‘A’ player, master of the organizational universe, a true shining star.
Unfortunately, the prototypical star being recruited must thrive in an organization which already boasts a supernova who happens to be strategic, take-charge, hands-on (“I am not a micromanager, I just like to know what is going on”), controlling and a driver. And they happen to run the place. The entrepreneur knows where he or she wants to take the business and while truly desiring a great team, brooks limited talk-back in executing on that plan. Many also take criticism personally and can be a tad volatile at times (“only when people make me angry and it is never personal”). The well-intentioned entrepreneur sincerely wants executives with all the attributes listed, but the privileges of exercising those qualities, if they ever come, will only be granted with trust which can be tricky to earn.
Since many ‘A’ players struggle with these requirements, it sets up the search for the strong outward-facing leader who knows their place internally as a follower.
The Stay-at-Home/Rushing Defenseman
In this scenario the client starts at the far end of one skill set spectrum. For example, they may ask for someone who will take on a series of strategic initiatives, business development, corporate development, M&A or some combination of related duties. Alternatively, the client asks for someone willing and able to sort through and fix a series of very tactical, detailed-oriented issues, processes or systems needed for the business to thrive.
At some point during the search, the client adds that the successful candidate should also be able to contribute at the other end of the spectrum. The big-picture person should also be detail-oriented, and the back-room analyst should also boast the appropriate attributes to venture out with customers. For those who visualize best with sports metaphors this begins to take the shape of the fabled stay-at-home rushing defenseman. The reality, of course, is that executives who function most effectively at one end of the spectrum, rarely find equal pleasure at the other end. The pencils-in-the-pocket controller is rarely the strategic, corporate development-savvy finance executive. Yet somehow some clients want equal quantities of both.
There are many other such archetypes. There is the workaholic with strong family values, the mercenary-missionary, and the executive who is intuitive, creative and of course, highly process-driven. And while one can laugh at the challenges of searching for equal quantities of such opposites, the reality is much more serious as organizations try to reconcile their needs in a world which expects everyone to do more with less.
The answer usually lies in working through the competing issues and priorities, weighing tradeoffs and integrating careful considerations of time. Timelines are often the source of some of the issues discussed. While a highly strategic finance executive may well be important for the organization, the reality is that those skills are irrelevant if a highly process driven, detail-oriented, problem solving finance executive cannot get the house in order first. Sometimes the focus needs to be practically directed
Such a discussion is less fun than whining over a beer on a Friday afternoon…
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777