Hiring Tip: How to Identify Authentic Leaders

Last Updated Apr 20, 2010 7:04 AM EDT

It's been said that there are two basic types of people -- the ones who say that there are two basic types of people, and the ones who don't. My version of this classic theme is that people tend to either play to their own strengths or burn up an equal amount of energy trying to protect their weaknesses. The former is the better hire, of course, so part of my job as recruiter is to tell the two apart.

It's not easy. Candidates at the upper echelons of management all interview beautifully. Nearly everyone who makes enormous bucks will have crisp, compelling answers to all the toughest interview questions. And a powerful person with well-rehearsed, polished material is generally able to spin a story just about any way the situation requires.

So how do executive recruiters get to see the man or woman beyond the gilded resume and the facile business-speak? That's a topic for another post -- possibly a whole mini-series. For today, let's talk about what recruiters are looking for when we do penetrate the wrapping paper. We can start with our two types, the strength and weakness people. Forget the impressive track record of accomplishments and increasing levels of responsibility for a minute. Never mind how impeccably dressed, articulate and engaging the person may be. Here's an obvious window from which you can begin to look at whether an executive is operating from authentic competencies or attempting to mask vulnerabilities: who and how that person hires.

This takes me back to the summer of '84. Rocks were still soft, moss had just begun to grow on trees, and I was starting out in the search business. I don't recall whether it was during my first day, week or month, but at some point I was taught the Cardinal Rule of Search: "A" players hire "A" players - and "B" players hire "C" players. It made sense in theory. Until you watch it in action, though, the implications are murky at best.

Then I saw it happen once, twice, a dozen times. The hiring managers that my firm worked with would pass on the candidate who showed superstar potential and go with the predictable, boring choice. Low voltage, low risk, low return. Only a special breed of manager had the vision and the self-confidence to hire people potentially smarter and more talented than him or herself, and while those hires sometimes failed (like humans sometimes do), the dividends on the ones who succeeded were often spectacular.

Remember "Ozymandias" from high school, the poem by Shelley? If you've been in the corporate world more than 15 minutes, you know exactly how those "vast and trunkless legs of stone" block the road to progress. Enlightened, high-octane leaders capitalize on the innate talents and passions of individuals -- including their own -- rather than endlessly guarding "the lone and level sands."

They say no one ever got fired for buying IBM. I don't know about you, but sometimes I think it might be cool to work with a company where people actually did.

  • Mark Jaffe

    As President of Wyatt & Jaffe, Mark Jaffe has been called one of the 'World's 100 Most Influential Headhunters' by BusinessWeek magazine. His firm, Wyatt & Jaffe, works with a select list of financial services, high-tech and consumer companies worldwide and has been called one of the 50 leading retained search firms in North America.