I had to wait a while before I could write this blog post because I wanted to obscure the identities of the people involved, but I am just flabbergasted at the ineptitude of some highly-paid, blue-chip recruiting firms in recruiting C-Level executives. It just goes to show you, just like in the big consulting firms, it’s not the “brand” you hired that gets results but the individuals assigned to your project, so it is with the big recruiting companies, it’s not the “firm” but the individual recruiter that makes things happen, or not. Two different situations, two different big name firms, both with the same result!

Case One – A very large corporation (over 300M in revenue) needed a new CEO to replace a very successful retiring CEO. After the obligatory consideration, and anticipated rejection of all internal candidates, based on the advice of the recruiting company, a search was initiated for an outside candidate. I was aware of the search because I was approached by a board member to see if I was interested, but, because of the relocation required, I passed on it. But, I kept up to date with the developments through conversations with my board member friend, as well as a couple of other executives from one of their competitors, who I happen to know well. The, almost three month long, search process came to an end with the announcement of the new CEO. Let’s call him John Doe; he was an executive from a large company in a similar business. I have to admit that initially I was impressed. The new guy had what appeared to be a stellar career with three companies over twenty years, and was a high visibility executive in his industry. I was planning to call the board member and congratulate him on the selection but Ideasphere work got in the way, so I forgot. Then a couple of months later I had a conversation with the CEO of the company’s largest competitor that just blew me away. The conversation went like this:

Me: ….So what do you think of JD taking over as CEO at your competitor?

CEO: I love it. Christmas came early this year! We will be eating their lunch within the next twelve months.

Surprised at his reaction, I probed further. Here is what he said (which I verified with a few other people, including ones who have worked for JD before). JD’s nickname at his last company was “The Suit” (I changed it from the exact name, but you get the idea). In every company he worked, he deployed exactly the same approach that generated short term results and showed well, but gutted the management team of anyone he considered a potential threat, or anyone who disagreed with him. JD then left right before things started to fall apart for a bigger job at another company. The competitor’s CEO told me he sat next to JD at an industry conference and was surprised how little JD knew about their industry, as well as the lack of any interest in learning more about it. In his last company, he was so disliked by his staff, for his pompous and condescending nature, that one of his direct reports told me he would go to great lengths to avoid traveling or spending any time alone with him, as not to be subjected to his self-idolizing monologues. The funniest line I heard from another of his direct reports was a joke about him having to choose between sex and hearing himself talk and picking the latter, but that’s a joke I can’t repeat publicly. As it turns out this executive was a classic self-promoter with little to show in long-term results, but lots of high profile activities tied to his name, a mastery of the industry buzz words, public appearances and grand speeches carefully prepared by his staff that had no connection to actual projects, etc. His “I don’t need to understand the details” attitude was so frustrating to the product development team that within two months of his arrival, the top two engineers below the CTO had already approached their competitor’s CEO for jobs, and were in the process of negotiating their compensation package before switching camps. That’s why my CEO friend thought Christmas had come early. How could a competent recruiter miss all that? How much due diligence did he/she actually do on this individual before packaging him and presenting him to their client? It looks like the recruiter talked only to people who had nice things to say, or did not read between the lines of what people said. Of course, the board is also to blame! Once the recruiter provided the short list of candidates, they should have done their own research. If I, with a peripheral interest at best, could find this information out, so could they.

Case Two – A mid-sized company (80-100M in revenue) in transition was searching for a CEO and hired a “blue-chip” recruiting firm to conduct the search. I don’t play in that industry, but I spent time in that geography and have a good network there, so a recruiter called me to see if I had any ideas for any local candidates. I could not think of any one off the top of my head, but I offered to call a few contacts I have in that industry, and I came up with three names that I forwarded to the recruiter. After a month or so, I heard there was a new CEO appointed, let’s call him Doe John. It wasn’t one of the suggestions from my contacts, and I had never heard of DJ before, so I just filed it away in my “I wonder how this will play out” file. Here is how it played out over the first six months. As soon as DJ arrived, he asked the head of HR to put together a travel plan that took him around the company on a “listening tour” for a month, made some superficial changes on the org structure after sixty days on the job, visited a few token large clients within the first couple of weeks of his arrival to “get their input,” and in general appeared to be driving change in the organization. Unfortunately, that was it. Since the initial moves he hasn’t produced any visible changes, assigned resources to research or launch any new strategies, added significant value in any way, or appears to be anything more than a care taker CEO. Exactly what the company does not need. During a casual discussion with a retired executive from DJ’s last company I happened to meet at a networking event, he recalled him as “a nice guy, kind of unremarkable, who never made any waves, but did OK so we moved him along.” If meaningful change is coming for this company, it is well hidden! What was that recruiter thinking? Why recommend a care taker CEO for an organization that needs a strong change agent leader? What was it about this particular CEO that made the recruiter select and present him, instead of any one of the three executives others in the industry thought would be a great choice? For the life of me, I don’t know!

So, the moral of the story…. Make sure you:

  • Select your recruiter not on the strength of their firm, but on the strength of the individual recruiter
  • Select a recruiter who understands how companies work and can dig below the surface of someone’s background, rather than just how to run a query against their company’s candidate database or parrot what he heard from the candidates’ references
  • Ask the recruiter to present you, in addition to the top three candidates they considered, the top two candidates they rejected and have them explain why, along with the most “unconventional candidate” anyone recommended
  • Describe the results you want accomplished in addition to the “position requirements” and “credentials” you are looking for and ask the recruiter to research how the candidate delivered those results in a previous situation

And above all, DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH! Hiring the wrong C-Level executive has too many serious negative effects on any company to be left to a recruiter.