Executive recruiting in desperate times

May 11, 2009
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Desperate times often yield more desperation and bad hiring decisions, but if properly managed, it can bring unforeseen opportunity and good fortune.

An old adage applies to both employers and candidates: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

As one who has worked in the executive recruiting business for 35 years, I have lived through several recessions (this one is the worst, by far), and I have witnessed the havoc wrought by horrible recruiting decisions made by desperate employers and even more desperate candidates.

Desperate employers have hired unemployed executives because they believe they are getting a bargain-priced leader who can help them quickly turn their business around. The candidate is out of work because his employer has hit hard times and had to cut top-level people. The candidate often had a long career with a large company and held several high-level positions. He/she was highly paid and had a rich benefits package. And the person is probably quite talented.

But the candidate has been out of work and is desperate to find a job — almost any job. Because the executive job market is very competitive, candidates make career compromises they never would have considered — and probably shouldn’t consider.

I recently witnessed such a scenario. A small family-owned manufacturing company was struggling and the aging owners needed a new leader to take over the business. They recruited a middle-aged executive whose career included VP level positions with both a Fortune 500 company and a well-established leader in another industry. This executive had a mixed career of accomplishments and missteps.

He was hired, lasted seven months and nearly sunk the company.

The owners believed they were getting a highly talented, experienced executive who could mend the ills of their company. The executive was confident he could lead this small organization and quickly restore it to operating health. The candidate had never experienced or led the most crucial elements of the business. He was the proverbial “square peg in a round hole.”

Owners did not have a well-developed business plan or strategy. They did not perform a basic SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) of the business. They did not have a written job description and list of candidate requirements.

They ignored the fact that all leadership is situational: A good leader at company A is not necessarily a good leader at company B.

Desperate times require even closer attention to the basics of recruiting. To do less will put both companies and candidates at great risk. Performing the recruiting basics thoroughly and thoughtfully can result in matching the right leader with the right organization.

John P. Sullivan is a principal with Dunlap & Sullivan Associates, Grand Rapids.

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