Your feedback and creativity are needed

by Didier Marlier on Friday May 8th, 2015

In the recent months, still positively influenced by Nokia’s “Connecting People” way of life and belief, I happened to match executives needing to change horizon with clients looking for the rare bird. And it seems to have been happy marriages.

In each of the cases, our clients informally had turned to us, as they were unimpressed by the solution or candidates provided by official “executive search” companies.

Each time, though, the resumes which had been offered to them were first class. I did not even know someone could collect, in a lifetime, so many diplomas, degrees, masters and PhDs, visit and work under that many different latitudes, speak so many languages and have produced such outstanding results…

So, I wondered… How could it have gone so wrong? Why did our clients not feel totally convinced by the delivery of their consultants?

The discussions held let emerge similar story:

  1. The search had been done on with a transactional mindset. Rather than due to long term connections and relationships, the impression our clients were left with, is that the exec search firms had “gone on the hunt for cv’s”. As one client put it: “They most probably have an impressive data base and team of analysts! But they do not seem to intimately know the candidates”
  2. The clients felt that their own culture (and we please ourselves thinking that our corporate culture is so different from the others…) had not been well understood by the consultants nor well represented to the candidates. This, in the case of hiring, had rapidly turned the honeymoon into divorce. I remember personally being interviewed by McKinsey and Nestlé at IMD. It took five minutes to the interviewer and myself to realize, in a big laugh, that it was better to put an end to our otherwise agonizing interviews: I would never be happy there and they would always regret having hired me. I left the meeting with a solid respect for both companies, having such a strong and explicit culture that it was transpiring immediately in the interviews. On the contrary, I left, highly unimpressed a company with whom I must have worked five years and whom I had decided to leave, two weeks into the job, the day I would stop learning.
  3. Then there was something coming back, several times, under the heading “Not the right fit”… It did not have to do with the company’s culture (point no. 2) but rather with the candidates’ own belief system. We were half way between simple things such as manners and style (reason why high flying Private Bankers in Geneva and Zürich used to invite the candidate and their husband or wife to a private dinner in order to “smell” whether that person as well as her family background would fit, values wise with their partnership) and personal ideology (one of the most difficult, if not impossible trait to coach being a person’s private ideology).

Summarizing it, these incidents started to make me think:

Quid about an activity of “matchmaking” rather than hunting or search? What about something relationship based rather than transactional? What about an activity where I, as the intermediary, have as much a responsibility towards the person I am indicating for a position, than I have towards the company who contracted me to find the best person for the job? I have always been surprised, when much younger I was myself looking for a job (after my MBA at IMD for example or more recently, when trying to signal to “the market” that a brilliant personality was temporarily out of a job and looking for a new opportunity to join the labour maket) and turned down (or should I say “looked down at”) by the headhunting firms, proudly declaring: “We only act if we have a mandate from a client”. Well that may indeed be a bit late, and your like of open mindedness towards promising talents may be costly at the time you will have the mandate and desperately and frenetically will “look for a cv”…

But, on top of having that very different mindset, what about using our three Aristotelean levers to do the selection of right profile?

  • Logos: Indeed the “cv work” will have to take place. Checking the competence fit, credentials, experience, track record, content knowledge etc… is a must.
  • Ethos: What is the leadership/followership style? What behaviours (value destructing and value building) does the person display? What is their work ethic? What is their ideology about leadership and followership? Are they able to lead as much by the content that being true “context leaders”? Are they curious, explorational, determined, capable of taking difficult decisions and hold delicate conversations?
  • Pathos: What drives them? What are their personal values? Why do they work? What do they like in the company they are willing to join? How do they read it? Culturally are they fit for it?

I have witnessed so many sad stories recently: People deciding to take “the Call to Adventure”, leave a good career, lured by another job and… miserably crashing in flames, some months later. I have also seen wonderful organizations, equipped with a strong Ethos and Pathos, become totally schizophrenic when a new leader took over, seeking to impose his views and style, without any respect for the deep values on which the organization was built, seeing the good people leave in mass…

Please provide me with your feedback on these initial ideas. Enablers is considering to enter the field of “Match making” between brilliant leaders and organizations in need of engaging leaders. Are we on the right track? Any advice we could receive from you, with humility? Thank you!

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14 Responses to “Your feedback and creativity are needed”

  1. Dear Didier, I strongly believe in the view you take on this subject. I would even argue that leaders will have to dedicate considerable time and effort to actively engage in leadership programmes, coaching and mentoring of top talent. All this solidly based on a well thought through vision and mission. One language, one set of values which will have to be relentlessly applied whether it is to devise a job profile or to assess actual performance. Glad to discuss further ! With my very best regards, Paul Loven

    • Thank you for your feedback and comment dear Paul. Coming from someone who has your experience, it means a lot to me! I also read in your lines, the need for the “inviting executives” to be far more actively involved than by the past when recruiting or head hunting were/are still highly transactional. Heartfelt thanks and yes, indeed let us keep in touch!!!

  2. Both employers and candidates do not have the courage to be honest about the required/offered Ethos and Pathos. Leaders think they are different than they really are, and consequently their company has a totally different culture than they wish. The same apply to candidates, all pretending they are expectacular, until the crash “suddenly” happens. What made your interviews with McKinsey and NestlĂ© so successful (really successful)? Let us explore more the behind the scenes of those interviews.

    • Thank you AndrĂ©… I can’t approve more! I guess that, simply, what made it different were the conscioussness of both interviewer about the strong culture of their organizations and that they were not a place for every person to be happy… They did not absolutely need me, neither did I, so that made our interviews “brutally honest” and I respect those institutions for that…

  3. Dear Didier,
    Very well found. Your thoughts arrive at the right moment to be integrated in the search process for the new CEO for the company where I’m currently board director and member of the HR committee. Thanks a lot for sharing it!

    • Thank you dear Francisco,
      Swords from someone with your experience and vast knowledge of the topic, are clearly encouraging…
      Happy to share some more with you by phone, if that may be of help. Will be a good training for me too…

  4. I can only share your views, but at the same time, can see some risk about: how can “looking for the right fit” may not become “rejecting the difference & challenge” and looking for “clones”?
    See you soon…

    • It is an EXCELLENT point dear Emmanuelle… You remind me about an old article mentioned by one of our IMD Professor and called: “The paradox of friendship”: Apparently, Bell Labs had discovered that the creativity of its teams started to nose dive after 12-16 months spent together. They discovered that, in fact, a “way we should act and think here” has sneaked in and emerged as the sole valid way of being. The management decided to “inject” very unorthodox personalities (and protect them against rejection by the team’s “body”) in order to shake them up.

      I guess that, match makers should as well be careful to your important point: the right fit should not necessarily be someone who unconditionally accepts the existing culture. THANK YOU!

  5. Interesting discussion around clowning or introducing leaders that will challenge the existing situation.
    I fully support that the cultural fit is important, not only for the company but also for the leader him/her self. But I think many companies are not very clear about their culture or about the few aspects of their culture they might need to change according to their strategy and that the new leader would bring. This initial reflection with these companies that wouldn’t have done this analysis, is probably an additional point were Enablers could make the difference compared to traditional headhunters.
    Let us know how your idea evolves !

    • Thank you very much dear Laurent… I like the equation Emmanuelle and you put in place: the thin rope of fitting in vs/and challenging the status quo… Two good friends and colleagues of mine (Carmen Migueles and her husband Marco Tulio) work on this in Brasil. As an anthropologist, she searches what the true culture of an organization is. I believe that this would indeed be useful.

      Thank you for your trust in us. I will get back with more matured reflections. Merci laurent

  6. Hi Didier,

    Excellent article and absolutely you are hitting the nail right on the head. I guess Executive Search firms or ‘headhunters’ are also companies in the end and have to make a profit. I believe the transactional part of the equation is often given more importance. I guess it is just highly commercial and there are revenue targets to be made. One could forget their client’s best interest…

    As matchmaker, but more as enablers, I would perhaps offer as part of the ‘package’ that you do some leadership and board work in the company upfront – rather than getting a retainer fee – and use that experience or the outcomes in your follow-up match making.

    In an ideal world you would then also get paid based on performance, e.g. after a person has been with the company for 1 year to prove the person has been successful wand was the right match.

    All the best of luck and keep us posted!


    • Thank you very much for your reflections and suggestions dear Ivo. As often they are excellent, provocative and very helpful. Thank you!!! I like the idea of the upfront “relational” work rather than the Logos and transactional one.

      Thank you very much. Have a good end of week

  7. Didier,

    Very nice article. I think you describe what is, unfortunately, a majority of companies in the the search space. With that said, there are a number of good companies (or more often than not, individuals) who provide great value in executive search. Exactly by doing what you describe. LinkedIn is going to continue to disrupt the model of transactional search partners, so I hope those that survive will be he ones that can act as true partners with their clients.

    With that said, I think you also describe something important in your article: the common lack of accountability of client companies, that don’t put the effort in developing strategic partnerships with their search firms and demand nothing short of true excellence. If the clients’ standards were higher. the industry would have no choice but to respond accordingly.


    • Thank you for that enlightening post Paulo. It draws on the possible disruption, on the focus of the search firms but also the responsibility of the clients. I find it most helpful. Thank you very much! Um abraço


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