TYLER, Texas — When organizations err and hire the wrong executive it is surprising how little time and energy is spent on evaluating what went wrong, after the job divorce has been finalized.
For what it cost to make such a mistake you would think more attention would be paid to determine where, and, or why, the train left the tracks.
Rarely do the talent acquisition people talk to members of the interview team or even ask them to review their notes. It was a mistake, let’s move on and not do that again, is typically what happens. The ugly secret is that silently and collectively, the organization, in effect, dumps the blame on the recruiter, the candidate, or both. The truth is, as is the case with an actual marriage, when it ends there is usually blame to be shared by all sides.
Our friend Ben who I wrote about on Friday, was shocked when he was told that the “the organization was going to make a change.” When the news began to spread through the organization, there were plenty of executives and managers who thought, “about time. He was going to kill our company.” Others thought, “Well, here we go again. We can’t seem to get out of our own way.”
Ben’s shock shifted into high-gear embarrassment as a member of the organization’s security team escorted him to his office while the former Chief Operating Officer boxed his personal possessions. He was barely allowed time to tell his executive assistant, who seemed to be equally shocked and embarrassed, that he was no longer with the organization. Speaking to his direct reports to thank them for their effort was out of the question, HR had decreed. Ben was angry, but his severance package was extremely generous, 24 months of compensation and benefits, so he restrained himself and quietly left the building.
As he was getting into his car he thanked the security officer for his professionalism. “No problem,” he said, “Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience with this sort of thing.”
The irony of that statement was not lost on Ben, the last thing anyone with the company said to him should have been the first – we have a lot of turnover.
As he drove home to break the news to his wife, Ben began to replay the events of the morning and those of the past 10 months. What he quickly realized, and would more fully understand over the next several months of intense reflection, was that he was doomed from the start, the victim of misinformation, misrepresentation, and, to be perfectly honest, lies of omission.
Weeks later, when he compiled his “hindsight list” of the mistakes he made in the search process, Ben was startled at the magnitude of the organization’s structural and cultural problems that were churning just beneath what appeared to be the calm waters of a successful company poised to move to the next level.
Internal politics had dominated the recruiting process. Warring silos were fighting over turf control, something that had been going on for years. The CEO, aware of these disputes, flipped back and forth on whether to intercede, usually opting not to take action because the controversy might put his own job at risk. Besides, he told himself on more than one occasion, this type of internal competition can be good for the organization. Moreover, he was not about to tell his potential COO anything during the interview process that might make himself look bad.
When the CEO decided to bring in a COO, both sides of the internal conflict became angry. They told him that it was a good idea but underneath, battling parties hoped that the new person could provide a level of support that would propel their own points of view to dominance. The reality was that a COO was just a new obstacle that would have to be dealt with.
Ben called the recruiter who coordinated the search for the company but he refused to return the call. When he left, the CHRO was unwilling to provide too many details, sensing candor could be a career-limiting quality. The CEO, after all, was one of the most insecure people she had ever worked with.
After retracing his steps through the recruitment process, Ben had to admit that he had received mixed signals about the scope and pace of change that he was being recruited to implement. When he would ask about some of these discrepancies he detected, or outright conflicting statements during the interview process, they were always minimized, plastered over with some positive anecdote about the tenure and collegiality of the leadership team.
In the end, Ben realized some important lessons about himself, the search process and the company:
- There was no consensus about the scope and pace of change. In fact, many people felt there was no need to make any changes.
- The CEO thought his team supported his plan for a new Table of Organization but his insecurity kept him from being fully transparent regarding important changes he felt needed to be made to bolster declines in sales and customer satisfaction. His colleagues told him what they thought he wanted to hear.
- Ben’s inexperience in the search process turned out to be a critical burden that doomed him. He was so thrilled that such a major company would be interested in him, that he was going to make a long-planned step up from Senior Vice President of Operations, to the role of COO, a career goal, and that the financial package was staggeringly better as were the benefits and retirement, that his desire for the job, his focus on putting his best foot forward, suppressed the healthy skepticism on cultural fit that any executive candidate should have. He was reluctant to challenge with hard questions lest he be dropped from consideration. In other words, he did not want to play hard to get and his willingness to ignore issues made him equally to blame for this fiasco.