Some years ago in my consultancy days I had a contract to work with a university in setting up a corporate structure to exploit technological advances being developed.
In essence there were five subsidiary companies each headed by a Managing Director who was the proponent of the specific technological advance.
My function was to ensure that any developments, joint ventures, agreements and arrangements with outside organisations were conducted with due regard to good commercial practice.
All very straightforward and I worked very closely and, I think, successfully with the MDs who, let it be said, tended to find the commercial constraints occasionally irksome. To give them their due their attitude and behaviour changed as they began to realise the importance of the commercial aspects as distinct from the academic.
The contract ran out after about six months and I felt that we had put together a structure with the right people in place that would certainly serve the university well in the future.
A month or two later I was rather surprised to see a recruitment advertisement for a part-time Chief Executive to undertake the overall leadership and describing the job that I had been doing.
Fairly obviously I fired off an application in the firm conviction that as I had already done the job and indeed had created the whole commercial function I would have at least a chance. That is, of course, on the assumption that I hadn’t actually made a mess of the contract and ddin’t know it.
Two days later I received a letter from a recruitment consultant to tell me that I was not considered suitable for the position.
Under normal circumstances I would have binned the reply, accepted the decision and got on with my business but this seemed, to say the least, perverse so I called the consultant to ask if he had actually read my letter. This explained in some detail how I had set up the structure, recruited people, and endeavoured to impart a commercial culture in the businesses.
“Ah yes”, he said, “but you didn’t go to University and you don’t have a degree so you wouldn’t understand how the business operates.''
I gave up and got on with my life. They eventually appointed a high-end academic, PhD of course, and I heard later that he had lasted less than 12 months.
The recruitment consultant had done his job properly. He had filtered the applications with the basic criteria for a start but had done it without sensible judgement.
I recall a speaker at my Vistage CEO peer group making the point that if we hire someone based on skills and experience, we are just as likely to fire because of inappropriate attitude and behaviour.
I am not by any means a recruitment specialist and I defer absolutely to those who are. However, I do believe that given a great attitude as a primary requirement the importance of skills and experience becomes less onerous.
It is glib to say that skills are often specific to any business and need to be learned on the job. Will and Kenneth Hopper in their ground-breaking book, The Puritan Gift call it domain knowledge and emphasise its importance by strongly recommending internal promotion rather than external recruitment wherever feasible.
In these days of exceptionally low unemployment we need to do all we can both to retain high quality people and to use promotion rather than salary as a career enhancing tool.
I do not need to emphasise that all our best people are being lured by offers of massive salary increases simply because that is an easy way to solve the problem. Easy maybe but the ramifications can be serious internally.
Finally leaders need to get over the “not quite ready for promotion” syndrome. Predatory competitors will take no notice and will try to seduce all your best people.
Go for it and prove to your people that you are prepared to take a risk with your great young people. It is one of the most compelling tenets of a go-ahead retention culture.
As the great medieval Rabbi Hillel said with exceptional prescience:
If not now, when?
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