Hiring for expertise or attitude at senior leadership levels in the Caribbean

Vincent Gordon

Monday, April 17, 2017

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Recent and imminent leadership changes in the Jamaica Constabulary Force, Sagicor, and I hear Jamaica Public Service, have brought to the fore the question: Which is more important, hiring for expertise or hiring for attitude?

Looking back, we can recall that it took General Electric (GE) and Jack Welch all of 15 years to prepare Jeff Immelt (plus McNerney and Nardelli) to be its next CEO, after Welch retired. Yet almost everyone would agree that GE got it wrong. Just look at where the company is today – unfocused, unsure how to grow, and somewhat stripped. In the 15 years since Welch retired, revenues are down 20 per cent, profit (EBITDA) down near 50 per cent, and earnings per share down 25 per cent.

GE transitioned its leadership based on "attitude" (a better descriptor at the senior level is: leadership skills and cultural fit) and expertise (to wit: a sound understanding of the business). When both come together, the leader selected is able to drive growth and improve business results through others.

Why is GE even relevant to this discussion? Because their approach is still the best way, and even then, the best way might not work out. It did not work for GE because, despite its best intentions, the company promoted someone who had a totally different view of where growth should come from (what should be its business model) and a board that supported him despite the challenges. I think they both got it dead wrong.

Still, most organisations would always want to be in GE’s place – three first-class leaders, rigorously prepared and each capable of taking over. But why can’t they?

Consider this recent conversation that I had with a client:

Client: We urgently need to fill this key leadership position and we must go outside as we do not have someone ready to move into the job...

Consultant: What exactly are you looking for?

Client: Someone who can hit the ground running. We are in a ditch…and it is widening as we speak…

Consultant: So someone with expertise…experience…familiar with your systems and processes?

Client: Yes. But our culture is very peculiar. Most persons who come from the outside are challenged by it and often do not do well and do not last…

Consultant: Ah…So in order to perform they must also be adept at navigating and leveraging your culture, correct?

Client: Yes.

Consultant: Based on your earlier comment, you have not been finding candidates strong in both areas. So…

Client: Sigh. I guess it is tricky to find the ideal candidate. I know I must fill the vacancy ASAP – we cannot wait for nine to 12 months to find the right person. And we know that that person might not even be "right" anyway despite all the assessments we do before hiring. And yet…attitude is the killer. We can develop the expertise as long as the person has the attitude…

Consultant: (in my head) Sigh

Why did I sigh? I see five different issues; and only one relates to the matter being discussed:

1. The company seems to be operating at the level 1 stage of succession planning – filling vacancies. No company worth its salt wants to be at that level as it will only be fighting fires and recruitment is always done in a rush. At best it is at level 2 (having named successors for key positions) but something has gone wrong because it cannot identify a replacement. Which means that its named successor is not ready – perhaps a flag on how effective its leadership development programmes.

2. The human resource team is not as influential as it needs to be. The company really needs a pool of high potential leaders (not the same as high performing) on its leadership bench. It should have a robust programme in place to identify and develop core leadership competencies, as against strengthening the functional competencies of business heads.

3. The culture (in this case the power structure) in the organisation needs to be tweaked to allow HR to do its work .

4. The performance management system also needs to be reshaped; leadership competencies are not being weighted appropriately and that is why performance (achieving business results) rules. High performing vs high potential: That is a culture issue and can be a big risk if not properly managed. It is the kind of culture which gave birth to the recent Wells Fargo imbroglio.

5. Whether you fill the vacancy based on attitude or expertise, the rhythm of the organisation is going to be interrupted, and on boarding is still costly at the senior level.

So the real opportunity? Fix the succession planning programme. It is the only way to avoid future dilemmas such as the one it now faces.

Vincent Gordon is a consultant in turnaround management and principal of OrgStrength. He is the former general manager of 3M Jamaica and is a former vice-president of American Chamber of Commerce of Jamaica and JEF. Send comments to the Observer or




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