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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.