Thoughts about the Gulf and Executive Recruiting

Posted in Articles on July 12th, 2010
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The anger and frustration about the BP oil spill is a relentless torrent of finger pointing and recrimination. Oil executives, electioneering politicians, local business people, and environmentalists all have a view about why and how it happened. Rather than join the chorus, perhaps taking a step back and a looking at some broader principals might be of value. Here are a few thoughts I have about the disaster in the Gulf.

Just because you could do something does not always mean you should

Sounds pretty simple, but lately people and companies have been doing things because they could do them, not because they should do them. It reminds me of a recent conversation with a candidate about a position they were considering. The conversation did not focus on if the candidate could accept the position, but whether the candidate should accept the position. Although the individual was very excited about the role and the client wanted to hire him, accepting the position entailed significant changes for the candidate both professionally and personally. It was not clear if the candidate should take the position. By focusing on the “should” the candidate had to address the complex issue of long- term personal and professional fit between himself and the client.

Human Resource professionals often say that the “holistic fit” between company and candidate is a major factor in long term success. Just because you could do something does not mean you should. There is an important corollary to this idea.

Sometimes you should do something, even if you are not sure you could do something.

This is kind of like getting blowout prevention technology developed, proven and in place, before applying for a permit to drill. Similarly, in executive search, it is crucial to exhibit patience and discipline in order to ensure both you and your client are clear about the strategic goals and objectives of the position before moving forward with a search. Either way a lot of problems can be avoided.

The Black Swan always gets his man

In a nod to Nassim Taleb, it is not the probability of an event that defines the issue, but the severity of the consequences. There are approximately 3,600 operating oil platforms in the Gulf today, none of which have had an accident. Yet it took just one platform to cause a catastrophe. If the consequences of being understaffed in critical functions are sufficiently severe, it is important to get the right people hired now. No good CEO will accept a “systemic” failure because a manager thought the probability of a problem was too remote, almost zero, to warrant the costs associated with hiring. As Mr. Taleb says; “the Black Swan always gets his man.”

If you want to capture and enjoy the reward, be sure you can cover all the costs

The oil business is incredibly profitable, and deservedly so. While oil companies should be allowed to profit from their activities, they should also bear the full costs of doing so. Similarly, when a company wants to hire an individual to help build their business, market segment, or customer base, they want “only the best”, someone who will “beat their objectives” and “drive the business forward”. Although our job as recruiters is to deliver candidates who can clearly deliver on the objectives and bring real value to the company, we often hear “They’re great, but isn’t there someone cheaper?” You cannot drill for oil on the cheap, and, unfortunately, you can’t hire great talent on the cheap, either.

Systems, processes, procedures and controls are all very important, but they do not take the place of good judgment

This is a paraphrase of a comment by the CFO of a global financial institution. He is right. While there were countless systems, processes, procedures and controls on the Horizon platform, failure was a result of the compounding effects of multiple smaller failures to exercise good judgment. No amount of research, fact checking, reference checks, and multiple candidate interviews can take the place of fundamental judgment about either an individual’s or a company’s ethics, character and capabilities. Following processes, procedures, and controls, can never excuse ignoring the voice that says “this does not feel right”, “something’s wrong.” That little voice is good judgment speaking.

When I point my accusing finger at you, there are three more on my hand pointing back at me

Blame fixes nothing and rarely makes you feel better. What blame tries to do is move responsibility, but at best it can only temporarily shift responsibility. Over time, responsibility is efficiently allocated. When looking at the recent events in the Gulf, the financial crisis, Bernie Madoff, or Enron, there are more than enough people, companies, governmental agencies, and regulators, who failed to exercise their responsibility.

So, when something goes wrong, it is generally better to begin with; “I made a mistake, I will do my best to fix it.” Since I cannot fix a mistake I do not know about, I often ask clients and candidates to tell me when something is wrong. This allows the problem to get addressed and removes blame from the interaction. It is amazing how constructive people can be when they know blame is not part of the conversation.

Now what?

Over the last few years, we have had the rare opportunity to watch the world we know fracture and transform before our eyes. Much of this was because people and companies did things they could. They used a broad range of arguments to convince themselves and others that the risks were small and manageable, without knowing the full extent of the consequences if they were wrong.

Once things began to go wrong, they could not cover the costs of the consequences of their actions. When the systems, procedures, processes and controls failed, it became clear that judgment had been on a holiday for a long time. All that left was finger pointing and laying blame.

Now the time has come to pick up the pieces and start building again. To do this, we need people; good people, people who solve problems, people who build, people with experience, people with judgment, people with humility and empathy for others. These people are hard to find. But they are out there.

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