When Goliath Wants to Become David

There’s been a stark  trend in career transition over the last 25 or 30 years. Many mid and later career executives in “Goliath”-sized companies have decided that often it just makes more sense for them to work for “David” -sized firms. Call it “Career Downsizing”.

Why would this be? There are many reasons, most having to do with an increasing emphasis on the “values proposition” when it comes to making career choices.

In the immediate wake of World War II, it was typical that business executives felt lucky to have a job, particularly with a large multinational company like Boeing, GE or IBM; and believed that if they kept their nose clean and head down, they would be at the company for many years. They may have suffered at the hands of abusive bosses or enervating work, but they stayed, they persevered- mainly in the interest of a committed work ethic and belief in the corporate mission.

In the mid to late 1960’s, this attitude began to change along with a change in cultural values. The “me generation” held that it was more important to focus on internal satisfaction, quality of life, and the pursuit of whatever personal values one held as paramount than to simply have a job for the sake of working.  A sense of frustration with the big, slow moving and impersonal bureaucracy associated with big companies  began to creep into worker’s consciousness.

This trend has only intensified and expanded  as we have moved into the first part of the 21st century. Gen X’ers and Millennials are increasingly demanding when it comes to locating those jobs and companies who cater to their specific value system,  or which validate their view of what is important in life. Some of those values include the ability for  personal development, autonomy, time flexibility, impact, and involvement in mission strategy.

Big corporations and multinationals are often slow to recognize and adjust to these changing values. Some of this is simply the result of the limitations that go with size- it’s always harder to turn a battleship than it is a row boat. Impersonal boss, peer and subordinate relationships are simply more often a fact of life in multinationals and large corporations where policies and layers of matrix mitigate against forming intimate partnerships and mentoring situations.

Younger employees recognize the “belt notching” value of working for the big Goliath companies early in their careers–  some of which are great training programs, resume building, future connections with prominent thought-leaders, etc. It is assumed that a stint with Microsoft, Boeing or General Electric will help catapult them into bigger and better positions.

If these blossoming executives have any entrepreneurial instincts at all, however, they begin to quickly realize the limitations to their career growth associated with being wedged into a multifaceted, bureaucratic structure. They want to get noticed, make things happen, have more impact. Additionally, as they start families,  smart executives realize that a long career with a multinational is likely to require multiple geographic relocations with the associated costs to family and pocketbooks.

So,  at around 40+ years old, and increasing into their 50’s, these executives decide it is time to make the necessary trade-offs to get more influence, autonomy and impact by searching for a new position in a smaller company- becoming a bigger fish in a smaller pond. They come to the conclusion that the resultant give back in terms of compensation, benefits and perks may be worth it to finish off their careers in jobs that are more fun, with people whose values they embrace, and where they can make a real difference.

As Lee Corso, the former football coach and commentator on Game Day might say: ” NOT SO FAST!”

Job seekers seeking to downsize would be well advised to understand and confront an uncomfortable truth of the modern labor market:

The same perceptions about the failings of large corporations that drive aspiring executives to seek a change from Goliath to David firms are the very same perceptions, held by many owners of smaller businesses,  that render them resistant to hiring employees from large corporations! Ergo, a classic Catch-22.

Many of my small to mid-cap clients demonstrate great reluctance to hire candidates who come out of large national or multinational corporations. While they may not articulate it, they harbor a deep-seated belief that candidates from such companies will likely not be nimble, entrepreneurial and aggressive enough to succeed in a small company culture. Hiring managers believe they will be much too used to having big staffs to whom they delegate everything, and will over-analyze every bit of available data before making a critical decision.

Given these and other perceptual hurdles standing in the way of top candidates making an effective transition from Goliath to David cultures, here are some suggestions:

  1. Emphasize, in resumes, cover letters and during interviews, that despite being part of a big company, you have operated as if you were an entrepreneur who could be depended on for nimble decision making and creative thinking.
  2. Work to convey an active embrace of autonomy and independent action, albeit within a team environment.
  3. Convey enthusiasm, a penchant for directness and lack of patience with political posturing.
  4. If you have stints with smaller companies, even if these were not completely successful, suggest that these were beneficial for exposing you to the different demands of start up or fast growth organizations, and what you learned from it that experience  that positions you for success.
  5. Work comments  into the interview about your impatience with bureaucratic dithering and lack of direct action, and how this is leading you to seek a change to a more entrepreneurial environment.

While the impulse to downsize is laudable and likely sensible in late career, job seekers need to be prepared to meet and overcome the natural resistance of small and mid-cap business owners to taking a risk on hiring executives they perceive as too steeped in big corporatism.





Words That Sink Like Stones

When beginning the often arduous process of searching for a new job, it is a critical to spend a certain amount of time and effort thinking about and arranging for references from  prior bosses, colleagues or subordinates.

Even if your departure from your previous employer was amicable, and certainly if it was contentious, approaching people at your old work place and asking them to act as a reference can be emotionally stressful, and sometimes even demeaning. Asking the boss who just terminated you to please, please speak well of you to a prospective new employer is almost always necessary, but never easy.

One of the easiest vehicles for getting around this tough conversation is simply to ask for a reference letter,  and then let things take their course by passing along whatever your reference has written about you to either recruiters, networking contacts or potential employers.

There are several problems with this approach. One, knowing that the written word can create a permanent record and come back to haunt people, employers tend to avoid being honest with any comments that might be perceived negatively, and thus tend toward fulsome, vague or studiously neutral comments. This does no one any good, and does not materially advance your goal of impressing potential employers .

Additionally, everybody on the receiving end of a reference letter assumes that the document will be crammed full of praiseworthy recommendations, or why else would they be passed along. Nobody hands out a letter which highlights your tendency to alienate your colleagues and supervisors on a regular basis.

It is almost universally understood in the workplace that reference letters are nearly useless as accurate reflections of past performance. Unless they are exceedingly well written, specific and fact-based in terms of comments, or otherwise compelling, a letter from a boss or supervisor is  summarily ignored, and the word of praise sink like stones in a pool of indifference.

Any self-respecting recruiting professional or hiring executive will not be satisfied until and unless he or she has an opportunity to speak directly, either face to face or by phone, with your previous supervisor. It is likely also that previous peers and subordinates will be contacted and asked about their relationship with you.

So skip the reference letter, suck it up and devote whatever time you can to speaking with your boss about the subject of references– and as soon as possible after the decision to leave is made, or made for you. It’s important to know early in the job search exactly who can be contacted for a reference, and to “manage”, if that’s possible, what is said about you. This will be a delicate conversation, admittedly, but if there are going to be problems in what people say about you to prospective employers, you will want to know that up front.

If you are leaving voluntarily, and did a good job, there may be some resentment on the part of your supervisor as someone who jumped ship. A meeting with him can be couched as part of an “exit interview” that you initiate to be helpful to him and the firm. At the end of the meeting, after establishing a amicable climate and sharing your wish of improving things,  you slip in a mention about the hope that any future reference checking will be handled positively. Ask if that is a reasonable expectation.

If you have been terminated or are leaving under less than positive circumstances, your supervisor is likely to be somewhat guilty or fearful about potential litigation or other fallout down the road.  As cynical as it may sound, you need to take advantage of this as early as possible so that there can be at least minimal alignment between what he will say and you want said.

You might want the conversation to go something like this:

“We’ve discussed our disagreement around this termination and the reasons for it , but I respect your decision to move on, and accept it. I’m sure you will be willing to assist me going forward when someone calls for a reference. Can we discuss what you might say?”

The concept here is simple- good job search technique involves managing expectations. Smart executives  in transition recognize that prospective employers will want and even demand a conversation with previous supervisors, and they therefore plan accordingly and leave as little as possible to chance.





The Salary “Two-Step”

Many a productive job search voyage, sailing along smoothly toward a much sought-after interview, has run aground on the rocky shoals of a seemingly simple question like,

“tell me what kind of compensation you need?”

This question, and others like it, amount to the Scylla and Charybdis of job search- with an incorrect or inappropriate comment wrecking the candidate’s  planned cruise toward a new career goal.

My experience over three decades suggests that the first place this monster rears its ugly head is in discussions with search consultants. One of the responsibilities of any ethical recruiter is not to waste either his time, or his client’s time, in protracted discussions with prospective candidates whose current compensation levels are far out of the range of his client’s capability to pay.

At an early stage of the recruitment process therefore, a recruiter will likely ask about the candidate’s current compensation level- including bonus opportunity and other perks.

Sounding like a presidential candidates during a televised press conference, I have heard candidates respond with things like:

“At this stage, I choose not to disclose that information,”

or “I don’t believe that information is relevant to our conversation.”

Sorry, wrong answer, and likely to inject negative dynamics into a relationship that a candidate wants to establish and maintain as universally positive, if admittedly only for selfish reasons.

Like it or not, recruiters are gate keepers and possess a certain amount of control over who gets interviews and who does not. Resisting their need for information about compensation levels, or anything else pertinent to the search for that matter, is likely to backfire on candidates. Candidates need to understand that a recruiter who presents a candidate whose current salary is $250,000, for a job which rates a compensation level of $100,000, risks embarrassing himself and possibly getting fired.

Standing on principal is just fine as long as the risks of doing so are clearly understood– no info revealed, no interview, no new job.

Later in the process, post interview and at the stage where offer letters are contemplated, the same dilemma will raise its head. Either the recruiter or the client himself will ask the identified candidate what his or her “expectations are” with regard to salary and incentives. “What’s it going to take to get you into this job?”, or something like that.

Candidates then face the conundrum of asking for the moon, and perhaps risking turning a a positive dynamic with the hiring manager into a negative; or selling themselves too cheaply by undershooting a competitive compensation level.

I am frequently asked what to do at these critical stages of the the job search. Here are some suggestions:

* When asked by recruiters about your current level of compensation, it is often worth emphasizing that your interest is more about the challenge than about the money, and your approach will be flexible based on what is fair to both sides, or words to that effect.

*If pressed (and you probably will be), however, have in mind a bottom line salary below which you will not even consider an opportunity, and provide the recruiter a range with that as your floor.

*As much as it may rankle, keep in mind that refusing to answer the recruiter’s questions, or excessively playing rhetorical games around compensation, can and likely will prevent you from getting an interview– particularly if there are multiple qualified candidates!

*When you finally approach an offer of employment, the employer will want to know something about your salary expectations. Again, it makes sense to stress flexibility with regard to expectations, but a candid discussion about an acceptable “range” of compensation is the best approach.

*Most employers recognize they have to be competitive and are often willing to stretch at this stage (they have psychologically committed to you), if they sense honesty and forthrightness in your approach to establishing an acceptable range.

*After an initial offer, most employers expect and are tolerant of “countering” (asking for more money) by a candidate. However, be aware that a positive climate can be quickly soured by candidates who approach negotiations as an endless game of chicken. Smart candidates intuitively sense at which point they are risking pushing the prospective employer beyond a breaking point. Employment offers are sometimes rescinded in such circumstances.

In today’s labor market, candidates who adopt a posture of authenticity and directness in communication when dealing with potential employers are more successful than those who are perceived as devious or excessively manipulative.

When in doubt, err on the side of candor and save everybody’s time.







Handel’s “Messiah”-great music, but terrible leadership philosophy.

Business man standing at conference table Recruiting for fast growing, early stage companies, headed by brilliant entrepreneurs, can be a blast. Lots of energy, enthusiasm, passion for the mission and a heady sense of being on the cutting edge of something really big.

There’s a big downside- call it “The Messiah Complex”.

Entrepreneurs who are smart and motivated enough to conceive of a new product or service, start the business, arrange the financing, hire the key executive team and launch the products into the market are, of necessity, high energy, high ego drivers who are used to making things happen– and FAST.

Such people are individually responsible, when successful, for providing employment for increasing numbers of people, all of whom are swept up in the euphoria and imbued with awe at what they and their leader are accomplishing. It’s intoxicating.

If the owner is also personally charismatic, the sense of commitment and allegiance grows even deeper. Before long the Founder/CEO starts to feel that everything and everyone associated with the company flourishes because of his or her superior leadership and keen intellect. A feeling of omniscience can creep in, even if the CEO never verbalizes it and attempts to avoid it.

When the organization is successful it often experiences explosive growth, and unless the founder is a truly exceptional executive, the scope of management responsibility required to be all things to all people outstrips the entrepreneur’s ability or interest. Things start to fray, people become disgruntled, customers complain, business is lost.

At this stage, somebody, typically a board member or investor, suggests that the CEO probably needs to step back, step aside or otherwise remove himself from the day-to-day running of the company. The one-way conversation usually goes something like, “You need to do what you do best (whatever that may be), and we should bring in a COO to oversee the everyday running of the company.”

This helpful suggestion is often met with resistance, anger or resentment, but is eventually grudgingly accepted in the interest of peace in the business family and appeasement of investors.

Now that the business illness and its symptoms have been properly diagnosed, in comes the doctor (read:recruiter), to cure the patient completely. But malpractice is a real possibility in this scenario.

Entrepreneurs suffering from the messianic syndrome don’t often let go easily. While they may understand intellectually that there is a need for someone new to take over the day-to-day, the emotional integration of this understanding is another matter. The company is their baby, and you want to raise your baby, nourish it and watch it reach adulthood.

Any recruitment project at this stage is often doomed to failure, with everyone involved (board, CEO, Recruiter, candidates) resentful and unhappy about the outcome. If someone gets hired under these circumstances, they frequently are not allowed to succeed because the entrepreneur just can’t or won’t let go of the reins.

Savvy search consultants heed the warning signs associated with the messiah complex if they want to avoid becoming embroiled in a project likely to cost them money, unproductive time and ultimately, diminished reputation:

1) When pressing the CEO to describe what specific responsibilities he will be surrendering to the COO, there is vagueness, ambiguity or deadly silence. This is red flag country.

2) After inquiring what led the company to add this new new position, the answer from the owner/ CEO involves a comment like “The chairman of the board felt”, or “the investors suggested”.

3) If there seems to be fuzziness around defining what the CEO’s new role will be after the COO is hired, or the consultant hears comments such as “well, I know that I should relinquish that responsibility, but the customers expect me to continue”, or “the employees will lose enthusiasm if I pull back.”

4) If the Founder/Owner can’t adequately describe the kind of person who will make a good business partner and the personal qualities with whom he or she will mesh well.

5) The answer to the question, “how will you measure the success of the person you hire in the position?” involves comments such as, “less pressure from the board” or “not as much interference from the investors”.

No matter how effectively the recruiter performs with regard to attracting first-rate candidates to a company going through this leadership transition, there is little to no chance of success until and unless the founder/CEO enthusiastically embraces sharing the power and influence that goes along with being the father of the chil


Beware of the “Spanish Inquisition” approach to Interviewing.

Two Business Executives Sitting in Armchairs on the Grass Talking to One Another

Nearly 40 years ago, back in the dark ages when I first began recruiting executives, the interview process was fairly straight forward– one hiring manager spending maybe an hour with one candidate at a time, and then passing that candidate on to someone else. It usually started something like this:

“Let’s review your work history?”

No longer. Over the last four decades the job interview has become extremely sophisticated, with a myriad of new tools and strategies employed to help ferret out whether a given candidate fits the culture and is qualified to perform the job.

One of these tools is group interviewing– sometimes call “structured interviewing”, “values interviewing”, or “behavioral interviewing”.

The process involves a group of representatives from the hiring organization, typically between 3 to 10 participants, gathered together in a conference room and tasked with spending several hours asking prospective candidates a series of predetermined questions. The questions are based on competencies identified in the job specification, and the candidate’s responses to the questions are typically given a value and rated at the end of the interview.

This structured interview has several advantages. All participants in the decision-making loop get to hear the same candidate asked the same questions, and providing the same answers in real time.

Because everyone participates at once, the process is more time efficient and downtime is reduced. Responses to questions can be checked, compared, discussed and refined, i.e. “Did you all hear what I think I heard?”

Questions are typically less open-ended, and the interviews therefore are less prone to manipulation by glib and practiced interviewees. The process is standardized, and thus theoretically less susceptible to claims of favoritism.

Handled improperly, however, which they often are, these structured interview processes end up being excessively intimating, one-sided, skewed, and downright destructive to the recruitment process.

Candidates have told me on more than one occasion that their experience with this kind of selection process was like a “Spanish Inquisition,” during which they were summoned before a tribunal to be tortured with obscure and excessively complex questions, and then summarily dismissed, sometimes bloodied and emotionally spent.

What do you imagine the chances are that a good candidate will respond favorably to an offer of employment after an experience like this one?

I recall one candidate who endured an interview much like the one described here calling me from the airport and saying “Never, ever refer me to that company again. I don’t care if they are a Fortune 100 company. I haven’t worked for 20 years to be treated like that!”

While I remain an advocate of structured interviews and devising questions that provoke a deep dive into a candidate’s suitability for an important position, there are several crucial rules of the road that need to be followed if this type of interviewing is to yield productive results:

1) Be sure to explain clearly to the candidate, prior to arriving, what will transpire, who he/she will be meeting, their roles in the organization, and what the various segments of the process will involve.There is nothing worse than having a candidates blind-sided by one of these sessions when they expect a one-on-one, casual discussion.

2) Develop an interview process that includes both an informal opportunity for information exchange between interviewees and panelists, and a more formal group of structured questions. Balancing the two is mandatory.

3) Include panel members in the process by having each them pose many of the questions. This invests some energy into what is often a lengthy, intense process, and provides the candidates being interviewed a glimpse of the individual styles and personalities of those evaluating them.

4) Be sure to leave significant time at the close of the interview for the candidate to engage the panel in a Q&A session. You will discover that this is often when the interview takes off in terms of energetic involvement, and both sides learn the most about the other.

5) Never attempt to crowd more than two structured interview sessions into a single day. If done properly, these interviews require several hours and tons of emotional and intellectual energy. The panelist’s attention and interest will wane if required to spend all day in a conference room. I once had a board member actually fall asleep during one of these over long interviews– not impressive to the candidate and embarrassing for everyone involved.

6) Ensure that the interview panel understands that candidates will be probing the group with questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones, when their turn arrives. Help the group develop a plan which anticipates what the tough questions might be, how to tackle the answers, and who will give the lead response. Good interviews are thrown into chaos when several panelists answer candidate’s questions at the same time, and frequently give conflicting responses.

7) Above everything else, remind all participants of one enduring truth: These interviews are inevitably “mutual selling opportunities”. Of course the candidates are under scrutiny, but so equally is the hiring organization. Grilling candidates under harsh white lights, as if they were suspects in a criminal case, without correspondingly displaying some sense of humanity and sharing of organizational values, culture and goals; is a gross misuse of the recruiting tool.

The best companies understand intuitively that the free and enthusiastic exchange of information between a candidate and the hiring organization, thereby establishing a human connection with a good candidate, is at least as important as probing relevant experience and skills.

It does no good to have successfully identified the right candidate if you haven’t been able to communicate to that individual what an outstanding culture your company possesses and why the position is an exciting opportunity.

If they don’t understand this intuitively, it is the job of the HR professional or recruiter to impress upon them how critical this is. Otherwise, everyone involved will be committing a big chunk of their time to a potentially wasted effort.

Don’t Ignore the BSDM (BS Detector Mechanism)


Abstract Image of Business People Walking on the Street

Long ago, as a very young and green Human Resource professional in a giant manufacturing complex, I was part of a department that routinely conducted work climate surveys to gauge the attitudes of the nearly 2000 employees working on the shop floor.

The survey results at this particular complex consistently demonstrated distrust and dislike of the senior management at regional headquarters. There appeared to be a widely held feeling that the Regional Vice President “just doesn’t care about us.”

Like all diligent HR professionals, we fed the information back to the Vice President in as constructive a format as we could devise. The theme we promoted, back then, was known as MBWA, or Management by Walking Around”. There were many earnest discussions explaining the value of making casual visits to the plant floor, asking employees about their families, their favorite sports teams, or soliciting their ideas on business improvements. The VP indicated an understanding and acceptance of the concept, and immediately attempted to internalize a change of behavior.

One year later, as was typical, human resources initiated another survey. The results: not only was there no improvement, but the VP received even lower scores than before. HR next engaged groups of employees from different departments in focus group sessions to ask one question: Why?

The feedback varied somewhat, but can be largely characterized by one person’s trenchant comment:

“We knew Mr. X was doing what would impress us, and could tell that he really didn’t give a damn about whether our kids had a cold.”

All of us, including the human resources department, failed to take into account the little noted, but always present, BSDM- the BS Detector Mechanism.

Almost all people, regardless of economic status, education, class, race or any other marker one can name, possess a fairly well honed antenna for “authentic” behavior on the part of their co-workers, colleagues and, particularly, their supervisors in the workplace. They know, although most can’t identify how or why, when the person with whom they are interacting genuinely cares about their comments, feelings and opinions, and when that concern is feigned.

Employees will tolerate, and even embrace, vast differences in values and lifestyles between themselves and their bosses if they viscerally sense a human connection between them- a sense of the shared humanity that bonds all of us in the experience of living and working. What they will consistently reject is even a faint whiff of what they deem as faux concern and interest, particularly if delivered with a slick smile and fake bonhomie.

Leaders should assess whether they can identify what attributes and interests their employees possess with which they can genuinely, deeply identify, and focus on those when developing a relationship. Otherwise, the BSDM will kick in, all efforts to lead this way will backfire, and the delicate supervisor/subordinate dynamic may be irreparably damaged.