Why Recruiting from the Best Companies is Perilous

September 26, 2009

If you long to be taken to Shangri-la, that fictional, mystical, utopian oasis of harmony and love, what kind of person do you hire to help you get there? Do you recruit a lifelong resident, intimate with the ways of the land, or someone trained in navigating the treacherous jungles to the western end of the Kunlun Mountains where it is said to be located?

A select few global companies are known both for their outstanding results and the management which consistently produces it. Mere mortal companies covet the lofty heights of these firms and often believe that recruiting their executives is the first step on the road to their own corporate immortality. But is it?

Coca Cola is a firm universally respected for its remarkably consistent, long-term growth and results. It also boasts one of the world’s truly iconic brands and a distribution network that is second to none. Organizations across the packaged good sector understandably long for the success of Coca Cola and look to its executives for counsel on how to secure it. But is a medium sized company which is distressed or undergoing change well-served by hiring a career Coca Cola executive? Does a Coca Cola guru in branding necessarily bring the ability to map and execute a corporate journey to a better tomorrow? Does he or she know how to rally an organization behind that journey and deal with the expected challenges along the way?

A recent BusinessWeek article titled ‘Where Headhunters Fear to Tread’ emphatically says no. The article correctly observes that the management of many of these iconic companies do not thrive when inserted in other organizations. It lists firms such as Oracle, General Mills, AT&T, Intel, Coca Cola, General Mills, Occidental Petroleum, British Airways as firms that should be viewed very cautiously when firms consider hiring their executives.

There are many reasons why these individual firms are included in this list. In some instances the firms are mature and bureaucratic or steeped in overly aggressive or idiosyncratic cultures that do not work well in other organizations. In other instances the firms are lead by world-class entrepreneurs with tendencies to surround themselves with weak or compliant executives who struggle to lead other organizations. But whatever the specific reason for including these companies, the underlying rationale is the same. If your organization is envious of Shangri-la beware the reflexive urge to hire one of its more prominent residents. Instead, hire an experienced guide who has led similar expeditions in the past and as a result has a much higher likelihood of getting you there. It is the journey not the destination that is the more important selection criteria.

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