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The Finals: How Clients Pick the Winning Candidate

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Understand the Process

Often, candidates hurt their chances or become frustrated by trying to move the search process along faster than it typically goes. Or, more significantly, they attempt to skip one of the basic steps, or take them out of sequence. The most common mistake is to begin the negotiation too early. They start playing coy or focusing on changing the parameters of the job as presented. Partners say that candidates often don't understand that, early in the process, they are just one of many alternatives. For a candidate who is ultimately selected as the target there will be opportunities later to negotiate and/or reshape the parameters of the job. But to attempt to do so while the candidate is just one of the many who may or may not be an attractive fit removes him from consideration or places a cloud over his candidacy.

Almost all searches follow a very similar pattern. In the second stage-getting on the radar screen-the consultant may contact ten or fifteen candidates based on research or referrals. They may conduct interviews with five to ten of those candidates, based on the criteria referred to in the previous chapter. At this stage the partner may conclude that some are not appropriate for the position. That can be because the fit to the specifications isn't good, or the skills required aren't in evidence, or a candidate "bombs" the interview. (See Chapter 6, "Sixteen Ways to Blow a Job Interview".)

For those candidates that the search consultant feels have a reasonable chance of becoming finalists, a presentation report is prepared, and reviewed with the client. It is a lengthy narrative that outlines the candidate's employment history in great detail, describing the candidate's specific contributions, achievements and the practical role he or she had in various jobs. It discusses the reasons behind changes in positions or moves from one company to another. And it deals with impressions, communication style, thinking, appearance, mannerisms, energy level and enthusiasm. It discusses background factors relative to potential interest: does the person feel this is the kind of job that might be attractive; is it a good or bad time to consider a move; are there personal factors that would influence an ultimate decision, e.g., geographic or family priorities, etc.? The report also discusses compensation history.

It is important for candidates to understand that, while they might have had several discussions with a researcher from the search firm, a phone conversation or even two with a search firm partner, and an extensive interview, they are still just one of a relatively long list of names about whom the client may not even have a great deal of information. To presume that one is being offered the job at this stage is a mistake. But neither should candidates feel that they are being asked to make binding decisions. At the end of the process, if there is some reasonable chance of interest, the conversations can be continued. No one expects a final response until a specific offer, with details, is pending. But similarly, you improve your reputation with the search firm community if, while being helpful in terms of providing other ideas, you are clear if and when you reach the point where there is no chance that you would consider this proposal if it were offered.

The next step may vary depending on the client and the nature of its relationship with the search firm. Some clients want to see all presentation reports and a specific recommendation for each candidate. The recommendation will tell the client whether this is someone the employer should definitely see, is someone who isn't going to end up as one of the two or three leading candidates, or someone who should be put on hold until the shape of the competing field becomes clear. In other cases the presentation reports are used as a briefing on those candidates advancing to the next step in the process, which is visiting with the client firm. Typically search firms present two or three candidates for interviews with the company. From a candidate's point of view, even after having spent a day or two, or even more, visiting with the hiring manager and/or board of directors committee, there should be a clear awareness that there are at least one or two others going through the same process. Being sensitive to perceptions of what the client views as appropriate at each stage is critical to becoming the top candidate.

Stage One Let's Look For Ourselves

The best candidates understand that most searches go through four stages. There is little to be gained, and much to be lost, in accelerating or rearranging these stages. In the first stage, the candidate is essentially an unknown even though the client might have read the presentation report, or has some background from the search firm or even from other sources. Firms know they must do their own due diligence. They want to answer for themselves the question, "Does this candidate have what it takes to succeed and contribute productively and harmoniously in our environment?" So while they are certainly willing to accept the search consultant's recommendation, until they see for themselves, the candidate is still an unknown.

The first order of business is to question whether the candidate meets the primary specifications of the position. Answering this question always means focusing on relevant experiences in industries or situations that are comparable or transferable, and finding a record of demonstrated achievement. Comparable position and reputation for results are the items that must be addressed first.

The reality is that search firms are good at what they do. Very few candidates fall out at this stage on those factors. This initial stage often serves just to reinforce the conclusions of the search firm that the basic specs have been met.

Stage Two Do We Like You?

Stage two is what several partners characterized as the "do we like you, would we like working with you" phase, dealing with the broad issues of cultural fit. By the time someone has become a finalist, most of the sorting is done on cultural fit. The other factors have long been satisfied in the screening process, so this is where the game is won or lost. The dimensions are quite different from case to case. In some, fit is strictly the issue of "personal chemistry" between the firm and the candidate. But more often it is the much more complicated issue of fit with the company's "culture," is she "one of us"?

Stage Three Do You Like Us?

The third phase turns to the question of, "Are you excited about us, would you feel proud and motivated to work here, is this something that we both see is in your long-term interest to do?" This is just a variant of the wanting-to-be-liked issue. No company management wants to hire someone they believe will look down on them or the company. Hiring executives do not want to hire someone who will feel that he is too good for the situation or is looking past it as a stepping-stone until something better comes along. It is also the important stage of wanting to avoid rejection. If you have three candidates, all of whom are similarly qualified, your preference would be to make your first offer to someone who is likely to accept. Hiring executives do not want to report to the board of directors that the top candidate turned them down. There is also the important ingredient of confidence, enthusiasm and optimism. People understand that executive jobs are challenging, risky and uncertain. Enthusiasm, optimism and positive thinking are often critical factors. Some candidates come across as overly concerned about whether the job can be done successfully, or whether the company will support them, or whether it is the right thing for them to do. There is a tendency to assume that that same attitude will translate into a tentative approach to the job itself. This may not be true, but the "reluctant" candidate may never get a chance to prove it.

Stage Four The Object Of Our Affection

During these first three phases, if a candidate raises too many concerns or issues, even those that are appropriate, he can easily derail his candidacy. But the good news is that there is a time and place for raising them. The candidate who understands the process knows that issues can be raised at a time when the candidate has more leverage. That leads us to the fourth phase. The pecking order of candidates is now established. Individuals who, in the first three stages, are viewed as applicants, now become objects of affection and will be pursued aggressively. Understanding the psychology is important. Having invested all of the time and effort in the process and having committed themselves, the candidate is now endowed with the imprimatur of the client's own judgment. The client develops a sense that the world is now looking at them and deciding whether they are going to be attractive enough to land this candidate. In phase four, the tables turn. This is the point where discussions about compensation, benefits, and issues of authority, resources, job dimensions and future career paths can be raised without jeopardizing the candidacy. A little later on we talk about some of the negotiating do's and don'ts. We'll discuss the trade offs between having direct conversations and using agents or attorneys. But the key point is that all good candidates understand the grand sweep of the process. They realize that it can be dealt with only on its own terms. They realize that using the momentum of the process at the right time is as much an important skill as meeting the spec sheets and all the other explicit factors that go into an executive search.

Winnowing Down to the Finalists

Table 4.1 shows how the five factors rated most important in the final stage of a senior level executive search don't, in fact, change very much from the client specs. The most important factor is still a reputation for results. At this level and at this stage of the process, no one is going to take a chance on somebody who hasn't proved her capabilities in a comparable situation. The other top factors are again interpersonal and communication skills, and the ability to think strategically. Fit with the company culture rounds out the top five. The relative ranking really hasn't changed much. But in practice, the sorting has moved the important discriminating threshold away from reputation, through skills, toward cultural fit.

I asked why many search consultants stressed interpersonal and communication skills in the second stage and cultural fit in the third, yet the responses to the survey really showed them staying relatively constant. The answer was the logical one. In going through the three stages, they said, we are sorting in and sorting out. The first thing they sort for, in the research, is the comparable position and reputation for results. That is what gives them their targets. Then, in the interviews with the candidates, they are really trying to pick up on the communication and interpersonal skills. In stage two they sort out any people who really don't bring those skills to the table. So by the time they get to the visits with the client, if they have done the job right, all the finalists ought to be above the specs in terms of these first four characteristics. The principal issues left are cultural fit and chemistry.

Tables 4.2 and 4.3 show the clustering of factors in this finalist stage for the middle five and bottom five factors. The relative rankings don't really change very much. Some of the things that are somewhat more important in terms of putting people on the radar at the middle stage (like having an advanced degree, attending a prestigious school or having been active civically or politically) have diminished in consequence. Most candidates in this final stage have either satisfied these criteria or there is something specific about the candidate's background experience that overrides the "nice but not necessary" elements.

Assessing Communication and Interpersonal Skills in the Finals

In Chapter 3 we talked about why these skills are so important. We also talked about how search consultants determine whether a particular candidate has the ability to think strategically. It is important to remember that, in this process (like a beauty contest), scores from preliminary rounds don't carry forward. You may have made the finals because the search consultant was impressed with your interview, but all you did was make the finals. You are starting over dead even relative to the other candidates. It is the score that you get from the client relative to those other candidates that matters almost exclusively. This is obviously a factor that candidates must understand. In the candidate's mind, she has told her story two or three times already. The candidate may feel that everybody has already heard it, and may therefore either truncate it or speak with less enthusiasm and energy. The result can easily be that the client goes back to the search consultant and says, "Boy I didn't see that energy and confidence you talked about in your report." The difference, of course, was that the candidate did not understand that the interview with the search firm was a rehearsal. It is only what the critics say on opening night that matters.

The other area where communication and interpersonal skills are tested and assessed is in the multiple interviews with company officials. Again, there is always the risk that the candidate will run out of energy or let down. This may be especially true with some of the people that he may think are less important. Candidates may believe that if they impressed the "big" boss, or the board of directors, that is enough. In reality, if it is deemed important enough for someone to visit with the candidate, that person's perception is included in the final decision. While those who interview the candidate may vary in importance within the company, even one negative vote or reservation can be the deciding factor when candidates of comparable background and skill are in the running. Search partners say this is one of the harder things to do where there are multiple interviews and multiple rounds involved. Candidates must find the right fine line between being confident but not condescending; being proud of achievements but not caught up in self-promotion. You must display that you are a good listener and that you are empathic. And you must recognize that in a relative short period it is your responsibility to do the sales job and not hope that the interviewer will somehow coax the data out of you by asking the right questions.

The assessment of strategic thinking skills is another key part of the process of selecting finalists. A candidate's strategic thinking skills are often judged by the nature of the questions the candidate asks. This operates in parallel to the notion of understanding which kinds of questions fit which phase. When you are still in the applicant phase, the questions you should be asking are about the company's strategy, opponents, opportunities, current strategic thinking and changes in the industry. These kinds of questions make it clear that you know how to collect data and assemble a strategic vision; that you can assess whether the company is in a place that makes sense; and that you know how to cope with shifting times and circumstances. It also is a good way to avoid getting into the "what's in it for me" questions. Those must be deferred until you have become the target of company interest. Without ever saying so, you must effectively communicate your confidence in the company-that it will know how to provide any manager with the right kind of authority, support, resources and compensation. Your attitude that these things do not need to be explored early or in depth is a compliment that must be paid.

Similarly, the way in which you describe your history is another important way that clients assess the strategic level on which you operate. Open-ended questions like, "What is the hardest thing you ever did?" "What is the thing that you felt most proud of?" "When you took this job, what did you think you could achieve?" are all trying to get at the same thing. As one of the partners said, "If someone can't describe his contribution concisely, in under five minutes, by starting with an overview of the situation, the strategic options, the ones he chose and why he chose them and how he moved the organization to implement that strategy, then the candidate has failed both my 'ability to communicate' and 'strategic thinking' tests." Partners have said the same thing by referring to the negative reaction they have to people who at 15 minutes are still reciting a sort of undifferentiated chronology of, "And then I. . . and then I. . . and then ..." This shows no ability to operate with strategic perspective. Even worse is the person who describes himself or herself as a passenger on a train of circumstances. When the connection between a candidate's vision and the company's results is unclear even in the candidate's mind, it can hardly inspire a sense of leadership.

Cultural Fit: "The Final Frontier" Why Fit Is So Important

We hinted at it early in the chapter. Everyone we talked to stressed how fit is, in fact, the principal task that both the search consultant and the hiring manager are ultimately paid to assess. It is important because, without it, the odds of the new executive's successfully achieving the goals that the company established for the position are critically compromised. But why is that so? Why is this "fit" thing so important to results? In some cases it is strictly the self-esteem factor. People want to be liked. If they are admired and they admire someone like themselves, it reinforces their own sense of self-worth. So at the simplest level, fit is just one of those things that makes the interactions among the leadership of a company run more smoothly.

In all cases we studied, the position was for a senior executive. The issue of fit went beyond minimizing friction and maintaining a positive relationship among the parties. Fit is often a key part of the reason that the senior position is open in the first place. So, in addition to looking for an executive who can fit within an existing structure or style, the challenge is often more complicated. This element of fit means a fit with what the company is likely to become, or needs to become. Fit changes where the environment is changing, where the competitors are changing, where one generation may be retiring and a new generation moving up. There is often a clear understanding that the new leadership must be more in tune with a changing set of environmental demands and a new set of dynamics within the company. Often the target for the recruiting firm is to find someone who comes from a culture that has been through the kind of changes that are anticipated at the company.

This brings up the third type of fit. This is to find someone whose culture is what the company aspires to become. In these cases the client not only understands that change is occurring, but has decided that a certain style and approach will be needed to achieve success. An outside executive is being recruited because he likely brings the kind of cultural experiences and style that can reshape the company. Search firms will be told, "Bring me a new president who can make our culture like that of Pepsi." This is code for wanting aggressive, targeted, competitive, risk-taking, innovative executives. Or they will say, "I want somebody to make us the Motorola of our industry." This is shorthand for globally oriented, focused on product quality, product innovation and a sophisticated people-oriented leadership mixed with a fact-based, decision-making mind-set.

"I Don't Know How To Define Fit But I Know It When I See It"

This is what many executives and search consultants say when asked how they judge a right fit. One partner put it this way: "The most important dimensions to senior management are being a strategic thinker, a visionary and having people and team-building skills. But most finalists have those. The essence of what we do is chemistry. We find people who meet the specifications and we confirm that everything they say about their background is true. That's the stuff that's a mile wide and an inch deep. The art is trying to predict the chemistry between the candidate and the firm." As I pressed, some of the better answers are the simple ones. When I ask how partners tell if there will be a cultural fit, a number of people explained that it all starts with people who are relaxed with the search process. They understand fit; they know that every job isn't for them; they are not trying to be things that they are not. These people will pull away from circumstances that will be culturally uncomfortable to them regardless of what attractions there might be.

Many partners say that the most important thing is to encourage candidates to be themselves. They help candidates understand that a bad fit hurts everyone. But the reality is people want to fill jobs. Clients will tend to overlook cultural fit because the pressure of an unfilled opening is often severe. The fact a search firm is involved usually means that something has happened so that a normal internal progression is not available. An outside candidate may be unhappy where he is and may thus be inclined to take the first interesting offer without regard to fit.

The question of how you assess what the required culture is starts with the board or the CEO (if this is not a CEO position). Search firms try to determine the existing culture, especially that of the person to whom this position reports. Also important is where the firm wants to go. Does company management believe they need someone who can fit in, or do they need someone to be an agent of change?

What are the key dimensions of culture that search consultants and clients use in profiling a candidate? One partner said there were four key dimensions that he tries to understand when characterizing a company's culture. The first was energy level: is it medium, high or very high? This set a key expectation for a leadership style. Someone accustomed to a very hard-charging environment would create conflict in a company working at a more measured pace.

The second dimension is how much risk the organization will absorb. Within Pepsi, for example, which is a company viewed as aggressive and risk-oriented, the model is: "Get 80 percent of the facts and then act." People who need all the data before they can move will be uncomfortable. Conversely, a Pepsi manager in a company that wants to have every nuance buttoned up will be very frustrated. Similarly, as banks were given authority to enter the securities business they recruited investment bankers, only to quickly see them quit in frustration. The "ready, fire, aim" mentality of Wall Street collided brutally with a banking ethic that believes that 98 percent certain wasn't safe enough.

The third dimension is looking the part. In some companies a key ingredient is style, appearance and manner. No matter how talented or energetic, someone who doesn't fit the company profile will have a hard time getting along. Companies operate along a variety of points on this spectrum. In many investment banking firms, management consulting companies and some major consumer product companies like Kraft, managers say there is a certain look and style expected. Often that means having attended a "better" school, being athletic, social, expensively dressed and "well put together." Within the commercial banks there is a wider range of tolerance, but the entire range requires conservative dress and relatively high levels of decorum in style and approach.

Even firms that appear to have more tolerance for variations in dress, lifestyle and mannerisms have expectations that quickly become clear. At advertising agencies, for example, which value their nonconformity and creativity, casual dress and even wilder personal styles are all accepted. Strangely (except for the customer relations officers, known as "the suits"), the high tolerance of individual style would in fact reject someone who felt most comfortable dressing like an investment banker.

The fourth dimension of culture is the degree to which personal and family values are included in management's expectations. In some firms the spouse is expected to be an integral part of the management team. His or her willingness to participate and to be a capable "unofficial officer" of the firm can be a substantial issue. Similarly, there can be different degrees to which personal values are part of the corporate culture. It can be anything from attitude toward alcohol, tobacco, or physical fitness, to whether the political orientation of the firm is liberal or conservative. Or there's an assumed spiritual or religious orientation. In some entertainment industry firms, a free-market Republican with an assertive religious orientation would be decidedly uncomfortable. But no more so than a liberal, cause-oriented agnostic would be in one of the big service firms that grew out of a family company with fundamentalist values.

Culture Has Two Dimensions: Style And Decision-Making

There are several other considerations that need to be explained in assessing cultural fit. One is the level of a person's aggressiveness and directness in discussion and conversation. In some firms there is an understanding that the focus is on the facts, and disagreements are expressed with brutal candor. In such firms, attacking a different point of view is perfectly acceptable. Within Motorola, for example, it is understood that indirectness or obliqueness to spare peoples' feelings is not tolerated. At the other end of the spectrum is a company like Hewlett-Packard, where a style has evolved that is very polite and sensitive. The Hewlett-Packard executive notices nuances that to an outsider might sound like perfect harmony. The insider understands a direct challenge has been raised, but all in a very different style.

A second dimension is to understand how far down the chain of command real decision-making authority exists. Organization charts and reporting relationships do not clarify this key dimension. To understand culture one must understand how decisions are really made. This is a different dimension than how fast they get made, or how much risk is acceptable, or how much information is needed. This deals with how much red tape the executive faces. It concerns how much prior notification of superiors or peers is expected before someone pulls the trigger. Most organizations have official dollar and dimension limits in terms of hiring/firing and commitment of resources. The key is to determine if, in fact, those are the real limits. In some cases they can be pro form a, and while there is a process for sign-off, it is neither material nor distracting, and the real limits are much higher. In other cases there can be stated limits but, even below them, there are expectations for prior consultation that cannot be violated without consequences.

Are decisions made by individuals or through consensus? Some companies have a clear understanding that the chains of command are focused on individual positions. In those companies, decision-making is expected from those individuals. Seeking group support, broader consensus or the comfort of a shared decision will be viewed as weakness or indecisiveness. Many American companies have this as their primary mode.

As a generalization, companies with a European tradition tend to view decision-making as a shared responsibility. In those companies, decision-making authority is not granted by holding a particular spot on the organization chart, but exists through committees. For example, European companies often have both a managing board and a supervising or outside board. While there are line executives responsible for certain areas, it is in fact the member of the managing board and his colleagues who share the responsibility for each particular "portfolio" area of the company. The members of the managing board are really both the company's collective chief executive and the senior executives in charge of the various functions. The line executives are, in American terms, the chief operating officers of their business units. They are expected to direct and police day-to-day activities, but follow strategic directions from the managing board.

Another dimension involves compensation practices. Here the spectrum begins with direct linkages such as commissions or highly structured profit-sharing schemes, and runs the gamut to compensation that is determined by position in the hierarchy. Again, people accustomed to having their salary tied to production, or volume, or profit, will become very frustrated if transplanted to an organization where the long-term results of the entire enterprise and their own relative status in the hierarchy are the key factors. Similarly, individuals from a tenure-oriented culture will experience commissions or direct profit-sharing schemes as destructive, divisive and detrimental to long-term focus and teamwork. Neither is right or wrong. Both are a matter of perspective and conditioning that are key to any executive's sense of comfort.

Another key to understanding culture is how the company uses data. On one side of the spectrum, some companies are more intuitive, and even emotional. Data do not drive decisions. Decisions are driven by how someone feels, and whether someone can argue logically that a particular direction is consistent with a vision, a theme or a strategy. Factors such as "our principal competitor is doing it," "our best customer wants it," or "the board wants it done" override data. Objections about whether the impression comes mom an isolated case or is really a trend are dismissed as reluctance to act decisively or weakness of competitive spirit. At the other extreme are the data-driven companies. They view the intrusion of emotion, interaction or concern for what the other guy is doing as the useless and dangerous crutches of weak minds. A nothing-but-the-facts mind-set has its own risks. Human factors are viewed as suspect. At the extreme, of course, are those firms that suffer from analysis paralysis.

Cultural fit also has to do with personal styles and values. In addition to looking the part and the degree of conformity expected in values and lifestyle, it is often important to understand the dominant background or mind-set. Is it engineering or sales? Is it product-oriented, or financial and strategic? Different dominant backgrounds affect decision-making and are important to understanding the hidden biases and priorities involved in how the firm is run. They also color the expectations of success. Someone with finance and accounting background, even if possessing all of the values and styles of their peers, will be viewed with suspicion in a firm where all the senior executives have come from sales. Similarly, firms that have an engineering mentality will tend to be suspicious of sales- and marketing-oriented executives. Often these expectations are nothing more than ingrained biases built up in the normal dynamic tension of company interactions during the executives' formative years.

The challenge is whether or not the company understands that its culture has become too dominated by one point of view and needs leadership with a different perspective. In today's environment in particular, there is a great need to inject global perspective into companies that historically have been able to compete well on a national or regional basis. Companies like Otis Elevator and Whirlpool have made this transition as they realized that most of the growth opportunities for elevator and home appliances would be outside the saturated U.S. market.

There is obviously no one right culture. Understanding the balance between the existing culture and the one that should be created is one of the most crucial factors that participants on both sides of the executive hiring desk need to evaluate. That, of course, raises the question of how, even if you understand the elements of culture, you get a handle on it.

Taking the Cultural Temperature

Remember, search firms see their most critical function as insuring a good cultural fit. Companies are often not objective about their culture, and candidates are often tempted to describe themselves based on what they think the client company wants to hear. So it is the search firm that is often the best source of objective judgment.

Our search firm partners all say there are four or five elements to getting a handle on a corporate culture (see Cultural Snowflake box on page 61). It starts with understanding the hiring manager and her style and expectations. But all also say that you need to meet with a variety of people beyond the person responsible for the engagement of a search firm. That means the search firm must spend enough time with peers in the company and listen to what each thinks the new occupant of the job needs to bring to the table. Clearly, conflicting expectations are something that both sides need to be sensitive to. It all starts with knowing enough of the senior executives of a firm over a long enough period to have an informed sense of these cultural factors. Without the opportunity to take this cultural temperature, the search firm won't be able to identify and recognize the key style and decision-making issues that make or break a placement.

In addition to having exposure to a range of individuals, it is useful to understand the career paths of the people who made it to the top, and understand what they believe were the key factors in their success. Many of our partners said that people who were uncomfortable talking about culture and fit as explicit topics were very willing to talk about success factors for themselves. Another way at getting at the same information is to ask about cases where someone has failed and why. This is especially important to understand if the search is occurring because of a termination. This perspective is an important part of understanding how success is measured and what drives advancement.

The search firm should also get outsiders' perspectives on the company. These are useful because there is a certain amount of self-delusion that contributes to a company's description of itself. Talk to people who once worked there and to both customers and suppliers.

Ex-employees will tell you whether the company lives up to its mission statements for empowering employees and valuing diversity. They'll tell you whether the rank and file really understand the company's strategy and feel like they are involved in making decisions.

Suppliers will provide an honest perspective on whether quality or cost is the company's focus in relationships and/or transactions. Search consultants also know they have more homework to do when external descriptions contradict the company's self-image. While getting references on the company sounds a bit unusual, getting references on a candidate is a nor-mal procedure. In fact, many feel referencing is most useful in the context of culture. People are not likely to provide a negative reference. In today's climate even people who tend to be candid will be cautious about describing serious problems or concerns. Giving a negative reference can now be grounds for legal action. But people are willing to talk about culture. If you ask questions like, "How effective do you believe this person is; do you think he or she is a strong leader?" or "Do you see any problems that the candidate would have in doing this kind of job; would you have any concerns?" you're going to get evasive answers. But if you say, "In terms of decision-making style, did this person make rapid decisions, or did he want to see all the facts first?" "Is this a person who is comfortable with authority, or is he inclined to want to build consensus?" you avoid the sense that any particular response will hurt someone or come back to haunt him. At this stage of the search, companies say their number one issue in working with search firms is not how fast they can fill an opening, but their sensitivity to the cultural-fit issue.

The risk is that at this stage everyone is on their best behavior. Both parties need to make sure they are getting a sense of culture as it is every day, as opposed to when guests are around. For the search firm, that often means finding some kind of a "godfather" within the firm who is able and willing to escape the constraints of "corporate speak," someone who provides perspective on the real practices and priorities. The challenge is that this is hitting a moving target. It may be relatively easy to assess how good the fit is between the hiring manager and the candidate. The tougher part will be assessing how the candidate fits into the company's broader culture where it is harder to identify a single pattern. But it is to understand these unwritten rules on behavior and success paths that can make or break an executive's move from one company to another.

When Culture Clashes Become Culture Crashes

Despite all this, a substantial percentage of executive searches don't result in a good fit. People become too eager and overlook issues, or clients too eager to attract a candidate say the things a candidate may want to hear. Or candidates profess to be comfortable with a cultural pattern, but deep down inside harbor the belief that once they get inside, they can change it. The reality is that when cultural fit is ignored or faked, it's like what Woody Hays said about the passing game in football- when you throw the football there are three things that can happen, and two of them are bad. There are four things that can happen when the cultural fit is either ignored or faked by one party, and they are all bad.

The best case (or perhaps more accurately the least bad case) is where the candidate joins the firm and feels like a pretender, an intruder or an outsider. This cognitive dissonance can drain the enthusiasm and joy from her work and separate her from a sense of belonging and commitment. While there are many people who remain in this position, it is not a prescription for satisfaction, advancement or achievement. Both parties to a cultural misfit will unconsciously build protective barriers around themselves to reduce the irritation of this cultural clash. These barriers cut communication and reduce the ability to move with speed and confidence.

The next worst outcome is, as the result of this kind of isolation, the candidate's career stalls. The candidate not only fails to develop a sense of being on the team, but is viewed as not effective. He is not promoted and becomes at best a slot on a chart around which people maneuver. Behind this person, people feel blocked, and those above view him as part of the corporate deadwood.

The third outcome is the candidate quits in desperation, or is continually looking for other opportunities. The candidate's time with the company clearly will be seen as a resume plateau. It will raise questions about ability or judgment. Even worse, references that originate from that period will be weak and pale. This brings out one of the important rules all people considering a job change need to keep in mind. The payoff from a change that is a promotion doesn't happen when you make the change; it happens when you successfully achieve the objectives of the new position. It is a mistake to make a change when there is a high risk that the cultural fit isn't there. It's not worth the initial monetary gain or tide change. If you do take a new position even though you know the fit isn't right, you misunderstand how much progress, achievement and satisfaction in the most recent position weigh in the evaluation of executive candidates. If you stall your career by risking a bad fit to get a pro-motion, you may have won one battle but lost the war.

The fourth bad thing that can happen is an explosion that results in expulsion. People become so frustrated with one another that there is a resignation or termination. Both sides feel the time together was a disaster. From company's side, nothing got done and the time was wasted. From the candidate's side, a cloud covers her career. Even if she is not fired, the jargon of the trade is that she "resigned over philosophical differences." You can be somewhat off in terms of how relevant the prior experience was. Somebody who has good basic executive skills will find that those are things that will cure themselves with time. Cultural misfits, on the other hand, not only don't cure themselves but they become more chafing with the passage of time.

Search consultants say one of the top things they want to know about candidates is what they are like when the pressure is on, when not in an interview mode. How do they behave along these cultural dimensions? The best advice I give candidates is understand what the cultural rules of the company are and be honest as to whether it is a place that will perceive you as a winner and friend, and where you will feel comfortable and happy. If you don't see that, the risk isn't worthwhile.

The Lessons in Action

A teacher, your goal is to actually achieve learning; that is, to have Mother people reach understanding. And the secret is not what you say but how you say it. Good teachers understand that people learn in different ways and listen in different ways. So they repeat themselves. But they don't say the same thing over and over in the same way. They make the same point and offer the same perspective but in different ways. A good teacher recognizes when that light goes on and someone reacts by saying, "When you say it that way, now I understand."

In this section we are not going to say too much that isn't inherent in the previous chapters about how executives are selected and sorted. But we will be displaying these points in a different format. We will be taking the perspective of our readers' circumstances as opposed to how the issues were identified during the study. We will also be a little more casual and use some slogans and exaggeration to make a point. Be prepared to react, at least in part, to some of this next section by saying to yourself: "But you already said that." Yes we did. If it registered with you the first time, all the better.
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