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Recruiting Leaders: Nothing to do with carefully weighted competencies

January 29th, 2008

There are a huge number of vacancies at the executive leadership level in museums around the world. There is no guarantee that they will be filled in a sensible manner.

In a commentary on Business on the BBC World Service in January 2008, Lucy Kellaway, a columnist for the Financial Times, recounted her experiences spending a day with Korn Ferry pretending to be a headhunter. “I raced around London in taxis, sat in on interviews and drew up lists. When it was time to go home, I asked the woman I had been shadowing if she would give me a job. No, she replied after an indecently short pause. The main problem with me, she said, was that I said what I thought.”

Acknowledging that Finding the right person for the right job is more important than most things, and anyone who can do it deserves not only a place in heaven (or similar) but also the thwacking great fee they extract for their efforts”, Kellaway went on to describe how one large executive search firm provides their clients, amongst other things, with a “Leadership Advantage Toolkit ” to assist them to define the kind of person they are seeking. “Included were 66 characteristics that might be desirable in a leader, including “dealing with paradox” and “organisational agility” to be rated according to “mission critical”, “important” and so on.

“This is a low trick. It is about making clients think they are buying rigour in the hope this will make them less likely to protest when presented with the inevitably disappointing shortlist of candidates.”

Kellaway says, “In fact headhunting is both simple and difficult. The theory is simple: there are good managers and not-so-good ones. Alas, most are fairly mediocre, as managing isn’t easy. Choosing the good ones has nothing at all to do with 66 carefully weighted competencies: it is more a matter of finding three. The ability to think, the ability to act, and (most important) the ability to get others to act.”

Recruitment of leaders often is still being conducted in a formulaic and unthinking fashion. The vast majority of us pay the price of that. Taking on board what Kellaway so succinctly says, we can also observe that the appropriate way to go about recruitment is fairly clear. People like Fernandez Araoz, Warren Bennis and Nitin Nohria spell it out. Appointment of people to leadership positions is amongst the most important task of all employers, as Jim Collins points out.

It is the rigmarole of bureaucratic rules, the gobbledegook of recruitiment consultants and, most of all, the failure of boards and department heads to carefully think through what they want the person to do and what the appointee is actually likely to do that gets us into a mess.

There is potential for a mess at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with the impending departure of Phillipe de Montebello, about whom there are very many recent articles. Then there is the Smithsonian Secretaryship. If the recent history of appointments to that position and the very recent comments about the Smithsonian being made by people like Senator Diane Feinstein are anything to go by we could well end up with more confusions or worse. We should watch it all with interest

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