A recent article I read raised once again the debate about hedgehogs versus foxes. In case you forgot, here is how it goes…
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that there are two kinds of experts: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs have figured out how the world works. They boast a focused central view, strong convictions and ideological leanings. They are certain about what they know and prone to argue in black and white terms. Donald Trump is a hedgehog as are most of news television’s expert-class, those know everything pundit types called upon by the networks for opinions on the issues de jour. Certainty is their stock, and as this is a very compelling quality in uncertain times, hedgehogs are often very successful people.
Many high-profile search consultants are hedgehogs. They are self-confident individuals with strong views about their profession and how to do it well. Their mental models are straight forward, simple and concise. They ‘know’ how to find winners who will thrive in your company and they are constantly in sell-mode whether it is themselves to clients, their clients to candidates or their candidates to clients. Hedgehog search consultants scoff at those who ‘over-think’ the search business, which they argue is nothing more than finding ‘A’ players for their clients.
Foxes see the world differently. They are more cautious and likely to adjust their views to changing information. They are more pragmatic, prone to self-assessment and doubt, and more inclined to see nuance and subtlety all around them. To foxes, life has far too many moving parts to be squeezed into one grand theory of how it all works. Foxes dive into the well of complexity where they look for understanding and meaning. In the US, Barack Obama presents himself as having the characteristics of a fox.
Executive search foxes hand-craft each search using the context, materials and tools at their disposal. They do not sell and tell, but rather ask, probe and discuss. While they believe broad themes and issues cut across certain types of organizations they eschew hard rules and facile solutions. Students of their field, they share lessons learned, the experiences of others, successes and failures, and processes and tools that help in effective decision-making. And as they try to reward clients with good search work, they also work to earn the trust of candidates through honesty and forthrightness. Trust lubricates much of their search success.
Philip Tetlock has studied both foxes and hedgehogs. In researching his book on political judgment he tracked some 82,000 predictions by so-called experts who self-selected themselves as either foxes or hedgehogs. Fox-like experts agree with statements such as “politics is more cloud-like than clock-like” and, “even after making up my mind, I am always eager to consider different options”. Similarly, foxes disagree with statements like “it is annoying to listen to someone who cannot seem to make up his or her mind” or “I dislike questions that can be answered in many ways.” Needless to say, hedgehogs take the positions nearly opposite those of foxes.
Tetlock found that on average the predictions of experts were only slightly better than random guesses. Furthermore, the data did not vary by specialization (ie. political pundits or business experts), education (PhDs versus high school graduates), age or gender. It did vary however between hedgehogs and foxes. Simply said, foxes get things right more often than hedgehogs.
Complex systems are by their very nature emergent and unpredictable. In executive search, companies describe themselves in aspirational terms, their needs are contextual, and individuals who thrive in one will often fail in another. No battery of psychological tests, competency models, or magic interview questions can ever guarantee anything. Hedgehogs get themselves in trouble because their certainty is built on broad assumptions about how people and companies behave and interact. Their models depend on predictability, linearity and simplicity. But as anyone who watched the experts rationalize why they missed Brexit and Trump and countless other events, life is rarely that predictable. So while their opinions may pile up more hits on Google, hedgehogs invariably make more mistakes when the complex world fails to align with their simple models.
Someone once said that ‘the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing’. Until such time as that one big thing solves the puzzle of marital bliss (corporate or for that matter personal) it is wise to be wary of executive search hedgehogs who peddle perfect solutions built on imperfect information. Your chances of a successful search is much better with the foxes.
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 [email protected] or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777