It is late Friday afternoon Zoom-fest and my colleagues and I are commiserating about our struggles to find the ‘perfect candidates’ sought by 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 often 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 headhunting firm 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 regularly 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 Person.
Clients often direct us to find the ‘best of the best’. The client’s market opportunities are immense, the challenges complex 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 appropriate to maintain internal equity. Furthermore, the math behind the stock option program, where the ‘real’ gains are to 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 their entrepreneurial spirit and whether we have in fact found the ‘right’ person. Saying ‘no’ is evidence that the candidate ‘does not get it’.
Whether it is the compensation structure, the leader, the technology, the market, 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 not so attractive. 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 their self interest or 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 domain, someone who is a 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 rather 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 of the attributes listed, but the privilege of exercising those qualities, if they ever granted, will only come with trust which can be tricky to earn.
Since many ‘A’ players struggle with these requirements, it sets up the search for the outward-facing leader who knows how to be an obedient 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 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 pleasure at the other end. The pencils-in-the-pocket controller is rarely the strategic, corporate development-savvy finance executive. Yet somehow our client wants 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 chuckle at the seeming absurdity of searching 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 virtual beers 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.