After writing last week’s article summarising the lessons from George Anders’s fabulous book The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011), I re-read my favourite chapter of the book and I thought the lessons of that chapter were worthy of further analysis in these pages.
I am referring to Chapter 2: The Talent Problem. This is such a great chapter because it addresses the fundamental problem (in my view) of how so many people turn out to be mis-matched to the demands of the job they are hired to do.
Here’s how Anders puts it:
Peter Drucker, the legendary business-strategy scholar, spent much of his career studying the ways that organizations hire. His advice always flowed from the same starting point. Before you do anything else, he wrote, ‘think through the assignment.’ That sounds painfully simple. It seems so obvious that many leaders dash past that step. They prefer to get started right away on the high-stakes drama of grilling candidates and slotting them into a scoring system. Yet Drucker was right.
The chief blunder zone for the talent searches comes at the very beginning, when it is time to think broadly and clearly about context. Put simply: ‘What is this job all about?’ if that question isn’t properly resolved at the start, mission myopia ensues. And then the risk of trouble later on becomes catastrophically higher.
Such errors happen in one of three ways. The talent hunting framework can become unduly narrow or superficial, with assessors mesmerized by a few showy traits that are exciting to evaluate but aren’t really at the heart of success.
Other times, quests become so hazy that there’s no clear sense of priorities. That’s when hiring decisions are tinged by desperation, a dispiriting randomness and Oprah-sized paychecks for people who ultimately deliver YouTube quality performances.
Finally, there’s the special circle in hell for quests that become frozen in time. Yesterday’s formula for success begin to splutter as jobs and society change. The people running selection cling to tactics and mental models from a now-gone era, unable to adjust to changing times.
I was unfortunate to see this exact thing happen at close quarters in a previous life.
Many years ago I was employed at a recruitment company that was searching for a new CEO after the founding CEO had announced his intention to retire.
The incumbent CEO, although not a recruiter by training was smart enough to know what he didn’t know. He built a team of people around him that had strengths that he didn’t have. The company grew strongly and consistently. It developed and kept most of its key talent at both consultant and management level. It made very healthy profits. It had an outstanding reputation in the market. It looked set for a future of unlimited growth and prosperity.
In my view, the person being sought as the new CEO, although not necessarily having to have a recruitment background, would need to be a person that possessed the following competencies:
- Pick, encourage and develop managerial talent
- Provide a compelling future vision and path for the company as the founding CEO departed
- Be a credible front person for the company to clients, candidates and other stakeholders
- Have high personal integrity
- Be prepared to acknowledge when he/she didn’t know the best answer and seek information from those who did
In his favour was that he was well connected, spoke confidently and was a Chartered Accountant (like the retiring CEO).
However on the other side of the coin was that he had never been a CEO previously, he had never worked in recruitment company, he had never successfully lead and grown a team of predominantly sales people, in fact, most of his experience was of a consulting nature, not of an operational nature.
At the time I thought it a little odd that such a left-field background was considered suitable for such an important role at such a critical time in the company’s history.
Anyway, what did I know? I was just a recruiter in my early thirties, not a company board member or someone with a long history of ‘broad business experience at an executive level’ who is supposed to know how to select an appropriate CEO.
The appointment turned out to be a rolled gold disaster.
Within twelve months, all the best managerial talent was either forced out or they jumped before they were pushed. Many of these people had been the heart and soul of the company since the company was formed. They were the guardians of the strong (and rare) culture of being highly professional yet very competitive and driven.
The goose responsible for laying the golden eggs had been killed and it wasn’t long before the supply of golden eggs stopped. Sales stagnated, profit fell then collapsed.
All because nobody at the board level had ‘thought through the assignment’. The factors critical for success were not identified and as a result, the new CEO was totally unsuited to the job he was offered.
I don’t blame the new CEO. He was doing the best he could with the limited skills he had. He should never have been offered the job in the first place. The board was one hundred per cent at fault.
The outcome was that in a few short years, a brilliant company was reduced to a mere shell of its former glory and was sold to competitor for a fire-sale price.
All because nobody genuinely thought through the assignment to accurately identify the core competencies required to do the job successfully.