September 30, 2021

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #87 – Understanding the Parallels between Dating and Hiring will Make you Better at Both

By Rob Andrews

With paraphrased content from Michael O’Brien’s Knowing What We Want, published September 17, 2021

I have long lamented that executive hiring looks very similar to dating and marriage with nearly identical results. Global stick rates among executive placements are dismal, and the statistics have been consistent for thirty years. Almost one in every two executive hires goes awry within two years, at an incalculable cost. Until recently, the marriage failure rate was roughly the same. The reasons for failure in both categories are strikingly similar. A recent post by my colleagues at The Pacific Institute caused me to stop and reflect on the parallels.

Are there any keys to finding that “special” person, to fulfill a long-term relationship or marriage? If you are having a bit of a challenge finding a partner or spouse, here are some suggestions for you – and they don’t involve an Internet site or smartphone app to swipe. They do involve two vital points: truly knowing yourself, and clearly knowing what you want. First, do you know specifically what kind of person you are looking for? What qualities do you value in a mate, and how do you judge whether a person has those qualities?  

Sage advice from our friends at TPI, and the same line of questioning is appropriate when you decide to fill a key position. When starting a search, resist the urge to start with a boilerplate list of “haves” which may or may not matter. Start with a clean sheet of paper and develop a description of precisely who you are, what you are trying to accomplish, and who and what you need to get there. Marriages and relationships often fail because the partners’ values are misaligned, and the same is true of failed hires.

Roughly half of the failed placements I’ve studied since 1994 result from cultural misalignment.  Take the time and effort to clearly define your existing culture and paint a clear picture of the culture to which you aspire. Prioritize culture fit when vetting and selecting new entrants into your organization. Fast forward the tape, define success upfront, and assess whether the person you hire embraces your purpose, your vision and your values. If they don’t, regardless of how wonderful the person is, the hire is destined to fail. Avoid the scenario in which the selection process becomes a beauty pageant and a chemistry contest. Avoid the temptation to hire a new executive because it feels right; he or she looks good, sounds good, smells good, and is oh so charming.

Do you have a clear picture of what your relationship with your partner will be like, including how you will treat each other, how you will divide responsibilities, how you will deal with money issues, how you will deal with conflict, what your social life will look like? You see, the clearer your values are, and the clearer your picture is of the kind of person you are looking for, the likelier it is that you will end up with what you want. 

It is difficult to attract anyone who is better or more successful or kinder than you are comfortable with – or believe in your heart of hearts you deserve. If you work on your mental pictures and your growth as an individual first, you will recognize and be ready for the right person when that person comes along. Incidentally, this same process works when we are looking for business colleagues or business partners. We need to understand and live our corporate values first, and have a clear, concise picture of what we are looking for in a business partner. Then we will be ready to engage with the best possible partners on our corporate path forward.

As is the case in any relationship, it’s not about good or bad, right or wrong. It’s about fit. The behavior that’s revered in one company may get you fired in another. Many searches are executed with little more than a job description. The typical job description is nothing more than a list of attributes all based on background, experience, and credentials, i.e. ten years of this, an MBA in that, etc. The job description is an important component of a comprehensive search specification. It does not, however, provide an adequate or appropriate roadmap for an effective search.

The second major component of a solid hire is specific performance expectations. Once you’ve nailed the culture fit, zero in on how you will define success in the specific role. Ram Charan, global advisor to CEOs, HBS professor, and bestselling author says “When it comes time to make the critical call, it is vitally important to think from a clean sheet of paper and identify the current and future performance expectations of the job, zeroing in on the critical capabilities that will make or break the company. The result is not a long laundry list of every trait that all great CEOs should have, nor is it one single item. It’s a strand of two or three capabilities that are tightly interwoven and absolutely required for the new leader to succeed, given the market conditions, current and desired states of the business. This is what should make the decision turn toward one candidate or another. That’s why Ram calls it the pivot. Each situation is distinct. And so is each executive role’s pivot.

It is critical to identify the pivot in very specific terms, and to get it right. For example, many retailers today must be capable of going up against Jeff Bezos, focusing on the end-to-end customer experience, digital innovations, and to be able to shape the retail ecosystem or supply chain of suppliers, consultants, and delivery services. Boards who get this right work hard at getting the pivot right, talking with customers, insiders, consultants, and analysts to expand their thinking. They go deeper and broader than most board members do. They don’t dismiss complexities or complications, they cut through them and deduce what skills, attributes, and experiences are essential, iterating until they’ve arrived at the right combination.”     

According to the Harvard Business Review, two out of five new CEOs fail in their first 18 months on the job. Further research shows the same pattern globally. CEOs and senior executives are routinely hired based on their drive, IQ, and resume. They’re fired for lack of emotional intelligence, poor cultural fit, poor performance, poor people decisions, cluelessness, and being totally out of touch with their workforces and customers.

There are many similarities between dating and hiring. Stack the deck in your favor and take a systematic disciplined approach to your next hire. Give us a call and let’s have a conversation about sharpening your hiring approach.

Warmest Regards,

Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory