Fool or a Kingsman: Exec Misfits

I was recently part of an exec round table provocatively titled ‘Have you hired a brilliant jerk?’. A couple of CEOs and a slew of HR Heads were in attendance. The deliberate header had its desired effect. The debate – over a delicious risotto – was fun, engaging, and insightful.

Are senior level hires with increasingly shorter tenures a real problem?

By and large, executives make poor promotion and staffing decisions. At most one-third of such decisions turn out right; one-third are minimally effective, and one-third are outright failures. In no other area of management would we put up with such miserable performancePeter Drucker. “Getting Things Done: How to Make People Decisions.” Harvard Business Review, 1985

The problem is real all right. Nearly three and a half decades later mastery in the skill of hiring remains elusive. We often end up recruiting Tai Lung, not Po, Charlie, not Eggsy. How do we get better at spotting the dragon warriors then? No short answer and perhaps 33.33% is the best we will ever get; having said that, there are some out there who do it far better than others. Definite scope for improvement then.

So we put our forks aside and got down to business. Here is what emerged.

We dealt with the relatively easy one first: The Process

Psychometric and Personality Tests are often inaccurate indicators: Hardly surprising. In a Sep ‘13 article on the same subject, HBR warned

“…while the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is quite popular with many organizations, it should not be used for employee selection. The MBTI was not developed for that purpose ”.

Most of us do not know which tests are suitable/how to interpret the scores/ do culture calibrations for tests created and validated in another geo/ join the dots in the evidence gathered from various sources. Example: Red wine is best at room temperature. Average room temperature in summer in France is around 20 degrees, in India it is 33. A range of 18-35 will do or should it be 20-25? We go by instinct, not analysis; we adopt what is popular, do not check for fit. Change the method – nunchakus are out, dumplings are in.

  • Use tools to support discussion and probe, not as decision aids
  • Simplify the language – people in our culture find it tough to interpret the questions/contextualise the findings of western instruments
  • Simulations and cases are more useful: a simple one-page application questionnaire can throw up rich data
  • Surprise everyone. Get rid of all borrowed tests. Make your own

Reference Checks are ineffective: A familiar refrain. Ref checks are a fundamentally flawed yet critical element of staffing. If you do the exercise with the references provided by the candidate, chances are you will get a glowing report.


Who has the real masala then, eh? You go and activate your business and social network for the true story. While that is fine, be sensitive before going all gumshoe – if the exec hasn’t resigned already this might adversely impact his current employment and professional standing.

  • Speak to both internal and external customers
  • Be subtle. Be respectful.
  • Hear both sides before making inferences
  • Sharpen your abilities to assess anecdotes objectively
  • Observe behaviour when no one is looking. Check how he interacts with junior staff during the interview coordination phase, how he responds to the compensation package discussions and how he treats the waiter at the restaurant.

*Note: If the exec is moving cities or countries to join you, involve the family right from the beginning. These moves are stressful – anticipate the anxieties and allay them. These interactions will tell you a lot more about your exec than the tests, interviews and ref checks combined.

At this point, we were done blaming the tools of the trade. We realised that success or otherwise was attributable to a higher degree to the people involved, and less to the process. While we test the life out of the candidate, make him/her jump through hoops and break world records, it is perhaps wise to say, “Hey, step back a bit. Shouldn’t we be looking at the org that is hiring, its staffing managers and leaders?”

We need the Shifus, Oogways, Galahads, and Merlins too, to make this work. It is a shared responsibility.

Ergo, we, The People

Prepping the org for the new hire: As an exec commented wittily – We rush out to buy the perfect set of gloves without measuring the hand first!

Everyone has a role to play. Both pre and post need careful planning and consideration. For example, in making the newcomer a member of the club the CHRO and HR team, peers and in the case of CEO/COO hires, the Board  – all have essential parts. CHRO should be the chief mentor for people, politics, and culture during the transition period. Is s/he experienced and mature enough for the task? If not, the COO/CEO needs to step in.  Hence there is a ton of homework to do before we agree on DOJ. Much room for improvement for all of us in this department we acknowledged.


Designing a solid NMAP:  A powerful technique that can enhance the process significantly yet is often done too casually or not at all. Here’s how the typical reactions amongst the peers go when a new leader joins: ‘Hey you, the premier school wunderkind from marquee firms with fancy salary. Let’s see you do your magic.’ Snigger, smirk, shrug. Not a warm welcome. Understandable though. A new leader joining disrupts the flow – changes the current dynamics. A structured NMAP – New Manager Assimilation Programme – carried out over 2-3 months gives managers, team, and peers a platform to get questions answered, clear the fog and solve the mystery surrounding the newbie. The settling in becomes more comfortable for all.

And finally, this one got my vote for the best advice of the day

Open Position vs. Open Conversation

Most of us begin the hiring process when either a new position opens up or when a vacancy arises. Which means there are huge market and business pressures to close the hire asap and get someone on board swiftly. The process and final choice get compromised as a result. We do ‘gut’ interviews, decide in our heads (do not use the wealth of information available) and then find evidence to fit the result. Chances of error naturally multiply.

What if we hire all year round with or without a fixed designation or job description in mind?

What if we create opportunities for our leaders to have regular conversations with professionals across borders and industries, meet at roundtables, conferences, even one-on-ones and have the freedom to craft the position and role when we find the right man or woman of our choice? Make it a way of life rather than a reactive measure. Imagine the power of that talent pipeline – ready access to not one but a whole army of dragon warriors!

Then you can address the elephant in the room and say –  Sorry Lady Luck, we outwitted you on this one.

*Fool or a Kingsman is a lyric from the song Get Ready For It by Take That. It is the title song of the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service.


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