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Hiring Disrupters in the Age of Disruption

By February 14, 2018Article

Change, as we love to say, is the only constant in today’s world. Young or old, big or small, the rapidly blowing winds of change demand that you constantly steer and correct your course to stay ahead of the curve. This requires leadership of a specific kind at the helm; somebody who has a clear vision for where the organization needs to go and knows how to lead from the front to get there. The accelerated change paradigm also presents enormous opportunities for growth. Look at how Amazon created a complete line of enterprise business with AWS, and a highly profitable one at that, in a matter of a few years. Of course, this kind of transformation can only happen with the right leader at the helm. Think Indra Nooyi. Jeff Bezos. Satya Nadella – these individuals are easily among the most successful business leaders in the world today. On the flip side of the coin, we have Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer as the latest poster child for failed leadership. 

In today’s world of disruption and change, Transformational Leaders are much in demand. Every investor wants a transformational leader…but the real challenge lies in FINDING that leader, and in finding that one person who is right for your company. After all, the right leader will make all the difference between success and failure for you. The quickest route is not the answer; rather taking the right path is critical to finding the right person. Let us take a look at what we need to do differently to uncover our change leaders:

Step 1:  Look Inwards First

The more time you spend figuring out who you need, the more you are likely to succeed! After all, as the founder, CEO or board member or key stakeholder, you know your company’s legacy issues, present status and what the future could hold, better than anybody else. You are the one who has a clear understanding of the challenges that are holding the company back from reaching its full potential. What are your strengths as a company, and equally important, what is your Achilles’ heel? What is the DNA of the company and therefore who will fit in? And who won’t? 

I find that this inner soul searching is critical to get to what you need in the person you hire, especially in terms of must-haves, and also some nice-to-have skills and expertise. It will also tell you the personality traits that this person needs to have to succeed in your company –Should he/she be a humble achiever? A micromanager? Great communicator? Aggressive go-getter? Should he/she be from Operations vs sales vs marketing? It is essential that you map all your thoughts into a document, which could eventually evolve into a job description. It will ensure that you do not go on a wild goose chase.  You will clearly spot the right candidate soon as you meet him/her, because you will have a very clear image in your mind, and on paper, on who you are looking for!  

I would hazard a guess that this is what happened when Lego hired its transformational CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp. Lego was staring at bankruptcy in 2004 when Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the grandson of LEGO’s founder, decided that he needed to step aside and bring in an outsider. While Vig Knudstorp, with his McKinsey background and youth (he was 35 when he took over as CEO in 2004!), looked a very unlikely pick for the big role, it worked and how! This is because what Lego needed was financial discipline and strategic focus. Jorgen’s analytical, strategic and financial skills turned out to be just the right building blocks for Lego’s spectacular turn around. He was a great cultural fit given his Danish background and exposure to multi-cultural work life at McKinsey. This was critical for him to get accepted as an outsider, and this is a pre-condition for any chance for success. We can say the Board got it totally right, seeing the heights Vig took Lego to during his 12 years of tenure – a 600% increase in turnover, and massive profits to the tune of nearly 38 billion dollars at the end of 2016!

Step 2: Invert the Hiring Pyramid!

Every organization, leaving aside the early stage start-ups, has a process in place for hiring at different levels. Typically, it starts with the recruiter sourcing profiles, evaluating and shortlisting a few. Then the shortlisted ones are set up for meetings with the interviewers who filter them further till the consensus candidate is bumped up to meet the final deciding authority.

I would argue that we need to invert this approach for transformational hiring. Why? Because this process inadvertently throws out the unconventional, non-stereotypical candidates early in the process. It is structured to bring up the candidate who ticks all the boxes, and that is not who you want if you are looking for change.

So, if you are serious about getting a transformational candidate you have to invert this pyramid. You as the Head of the Search Committee, have to be among the company’s First Interviewers.  This is the only way you can ensure that the right candidates don’t slip away or get dropped during the elimination process. This also becomes a quick calibration for your search partner to then bring forth the right candidates.  Investing that bit of your time in the initial screening, despite seemingly trivial, is an absolutely vital step and will pay rich dividends, as unconventional candidates, who have the best transformational DNA, are likely to surface at this point. Once you have the right person interested and excited about the role, you can move on to the regular process of getting the buy-in from other stakeholders. 

One of the best practitioners of this that I have seen firsthand is Azim Premji, the storied founder and Chairman of Wipro, a $24B market cap global company. Premji is known for his keen sense of spotting leaders way ahead of time, meeting them multiple times, evaluating them even as they too get to know him and warm up to the idea of working with him.  He is often a single-man search committee! Once he has made his decision, the candidate is invited to meet the executive team and at this point, it’s more about smoothing the on-boarding process by getting the relevant inputs and buy-in from all stakeholders and employees. His ability to wear the investor hat, bring in the best professionals to run his companies, changing them when he feels they need a fresh hand, is a tough act that very few have managed to accomplish as well as him! 

Step 3:  Search Unconventional Spaces

At its core, Transformation requires you to think differently in order to convert challenges to opportunities. This is best done by folks who have actually succeeded in doing this before, perhaps in a different context or industry or even in an entirely different geography. So, it is especially important to break conventional hiring silos and look around the edges – across geographical borders, across industries, and even across functions.

This is exactly what Sheryl Sandberg did when she hired Lori Goler as the HR Head at Facebook. Lori had not even done a single stint in Human Resources in her career, but she had extensive start-up experience and marketing expertise at eBay. Since taking up the role, Lori has positioned Facebook as an employer of choice and a company that is attractive to the new age millennial, by building a culture of connectivity and authenticity that truly reflects what Facebook is today.

And who can forget the legendary Louis Gerstner who left Nabisco Inc., the food and tobacco conglomerate, for IBM. Despite being an unlikely candidate from a completely different industry, he ended up being the architect of IBM’s truly historic turnaround!

Just goes to show how one cannot fish in conventional ponds – the right person will most probably come from the unlikeliest of backgrounds and geographies! 

Step 4: Finding Diamonds in the Rough

Conventionally, leadership search has been mostly about targeting the star performer at a competitor and snagging him/her to join your company.  The traditional modus operandi is to use a “headhunter” who is connected, plays golf, wines and dines and, basically, woo these stars.  

But in Transformational Leader Hiring, this strategy is likely to backfire! You have too much at stake, and you need to find that one individual who is uniquely qualified to transform your company and/or change the rules in your whole industry/market. You need a Disruptor, not a Star! It is not an easy task to find him/her, as such people tend to be hidden from the public eye- they are inclined to keep their heads down, deeply involved and focused in their work at hand! Even if you find them, they are also not easily distracted or lured by the usual temptations like fancy titles or eye-popping salaries. Finding these ‘diamonds’ is really like looking for a needle in a haystack… and getting their attention requires you to have the right message targeted uniquely to who they are.

Tim Cook may not be the flashy innovator and charismatic leader that Steve Jobs was, but he has proven to be the right leader for Apple since Job’s demise several years ago, and has steered the company to even greater financial success while maintaining its position as the world’s most valuable company. As the VP of procurement and product inventory at Compaq, he was very much below the radar, and hardly a star in the high-profile tech world, when Steve Jobs brought him into Apple as his COO. This is the essence of great hiring – when the person hired becomes a star for what he does in your company! In other words, avoid hiring off-the-shelf stars!

How can we spot these diamonds? How should we know where to look for these not-so-visible individuals? How do we attract these people to talk to and engage with?

These are some observations we have noticed over the years while working closely with transformational leaders.  First and foremost, we have realized that a razor-sharp focus is very critical. You have to disengage first from the general pool and ensure that every bit of communication that goes out is about transformation, innovation, and disruption to the exclusion of everything else. We interview and share the experience of transformational leaders so as to build a community of like-minded people who will self-select simply because they get what is being said. 

The next critical piece is the message itself. Interestingly, we find that the more blunt and honest we are about the degree of difficulty of the role (and therefore the uncertainty of success), the more excited and interested the right folks are in talking to us! Talking straight, without any sugar coating about the effort it requires, is important to unmask the right candidate. In fact, this may involve “de-selling” with questions like –Why do you want to do this? Do you realize what you are getting into? In reality, this will push away the wrong candidates and bring up the right ones for you to explore further! 

Another approach that works for us is engaging with people without a specific agenda. Sounds counter-intuitive? But in reality, we have often found the best candidates through serendipity. So, we listen; we listen to many stories and experiences. We read; we follow blogs and posts on various online platforms. And we meet. Eventually, we have a web in place to catch the right folks!

Step 5: Reeling in the Perfect Catch

Once you have found the right individual, it’s time to think of an attractive package – not just financially, but all other aspects as well – to hook them in. The goal is to get him/her excited about the opportunity and make it worth it all. Know that these kinds of leaders are not motivated just by the number of zeros in their salaries. What they need is a big enough challenge and complete empowerment to achieve those goals. It is very tough to get such people on board, and once you find the right candidate, it isn’t the time to nitpick or throw company policy around. Look at the larger picture, and the trick is to lead the negotiation as you would with winning a big strategic customer! Go a step further and make sure that no issue related to the hiring is too small or too trivial to receive your personal attention!

And no matter what, always remember to have some backups. Much of the hiring success depends on matching expectations correctly, both from the candidate’s and your side. But despite that, things can go wrong and they do, so it is good to be prepared with a fallback list of several other candidates. 

Step 6: After the Handshake

Once the candidate has formally been hired, the real work begins. Help him succeed; make it as easy as you can for him to adjust to the company’s culture. Get the support he needs from the higher levels, and put the right reporting structure in place to ensure that the hired candidate feels like he’s empowered to make the changes you are looking for. Keep in mind that this will be tougher than the conventional on-boarding as you are trying a different approach to hiring. Be patient. Transformation will take time but keep those metrics ready to measure performances!

This new world demands new ways of thinking and new ways of leading… and more than ever before, we need to find the right executive to herald transformational change in order to just stay relevant. The window of opportunity is so small, that simple mistakes can cost you big time. At the end of the day, the transformational journey is a long and exhausting one, and by making it a priority and assigning time and energy to it, you will be doing your job to give your business the best chance to succeed.

Follow the links to read more from AnuPartha’s “Hiring Disruptors in the Age of Disruption:”  “Reimagining Executive Search” and “Spotting a Diamond in the Rough

Anuradha (Anu) Parthasarathy is the Founder and CEO of AnuPartha, a retained executive search firm based in Menlo Park, California and exclusively focused on transformational leadership search, spanning multiple geographies including the US, Europe, and Asia.

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