Several years ago, a major company trumpeted the hiring of its new CEO, describing the executive as “a star – unshakable, self-reliant, passionate about the big picture, a leader who really embraces change”. On the same day, a second firm said of their newly hired CEO, “We set out to find a winner and we did. He will elevate our company’s fortunes and take us where we need to go”.
Generalizations are the default setting for many organizations when talking about leadership attributes. They are safe, bordering on unimpeachable. Who doesn’t want an ‘A’ player, a ‘rock-star’ or a ‘winner’ in an important role? Such terms punctuate the desire to hire someone better, more accomplished, or perhaps of a higher caliber than what might be considered ‘average’. They make the statement that the firm has set the bar high and will not compromise.
Unfortunately, generalizing leadership requirements is fraught with risks. Rather than focusing the selection process on identifying candidates with specific experience solving specific problems or managing in specific contexts, the generic search for stars becomes a beauty contest where the best educated, best looking, best sounding candidates from the most prestigious companies have the advantage. And since no one will ever lose their job hiring from such organizations the strategy has the added allure of defensibility.
Inconveniently, many such well-publicized ‘stars’ have proven to be less than sparkling in their new roles. Remember Bob Nardelli from GE? He was one of the prized GE executives made available after Jeff Immelt won the internal competition to replace Jack Welch as company CEO. Described at the time as ‘can’t miss’ by many, he was hired by Home Depot to bring rigor and discipline to the fast-growing global concern. But excellence in one sophisticated, world class multinational is no guarantee of excellence in others. As Home Depot and other firms such as the GAP came to realize, retail has unique drivers and leadership requirements. Retail is a very fickle business embodying elements of art as well as science. In what became the lasting image of a failed experiment, Mr. Nardelli’s drive to implement GE styled efficiency and profitability led to some unintended consequences. For example, replacing the retired handymen/women who could be found in every Home Depot aisle with younger, quicker ex-military customer service personnel in every 4th aisle, while cost effective, had a severely adverse effect on customer experience and ultimately brand. The stores found themselves efficient and empty with customers having crossed the street to Lowes.
While searching for generic leadership excellence may be on the surface an appealing strategy, it is always prudent to let the specific needs of a specific business guide the specific requirements for success.
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.