A few years ago, I worked with a startup technology company. The company had developed a core set of values that were compelling and differentiated from competitors. In the early days, the company was extremely mindful of every new leader they hired into the organization. The search firm they worked with would do in-depth assessments. Candidates would have many interviews with potential co-workers. It wasn’t uncommon for a candidate to have 10 to 15 interviews. I thought that seemed excessive when I first heard about the practice. However, the new leaders I worked with all spoke about how valuable the process was because, when they joined, they felt like they had been with the company forever. They said it helped them hit the ground running in their new roles.
That company realized that every new hire, especially those being hired into leadership roles, really mattered in the early days. They were getting ready to drive accelerated growth, and they couldn’t afford to have any missteps along the way. Their values were fundamental to them, so they had put candidates through multiple interviews to gauge for culture fit. To me, that is an excellent example of getting it right and being mindful of whom you put into a leadership role.
However, after a few years, the company wasn’t as mindful as they had been in their early days. Growth continued to accelerate. Managers were under pressure to fill the many vacant roles; they started to take shortcuts. Speed was the priority now. Hiring for culture fit took a back seat. Over time, lousy behavior emerged. Things began to happen that the company never experienced before: leaders who bullied and demeaned others or who demonstrated a lack of collegiality. This problem kept coming up again and again. At the core, it was about leaders and their misaligned leadership behavior. Morale and employee engagement, which were always strong, began to decline.
This story has an important lesson for us as leaders: to be mindful of whom we place into leadership roles. If we don’t get it right, the costs can be significant.
A 2015 survey of over 2,000 chief financial officers found that all the costs of a bad hire may not be financial. Most CFOs were concerned about the degradation of staff morale and a decrease in productivity. A poor hiring decision has costs for any role, but when it’s a leadership role, the costs are exponentially higher. Also, those costs are not just financial, but also cultural in nature.
Sometimes an organization is experiencing hyper-growth, like the organization described above. As a result, it must hire a lot of new talent to keep up. The pace is so frantic that the checks and balances typically put in place when hiring new leaders go by the wayside. Alternatively, maybe you have weak leaders who aren’t committed to leadership accountability hiring brilliant jerks, without paying attention to culture fit or leadership expectations.
Regardless of the reason, it’s critical to be mindful when putting people into leadership roles. Sure, it may be easier to be expedient and to take shortcuts. It’s easier not to take the time to assess for culture fit. It’s easier to hire a brilliant jerk who may be a disaster with the team. It’s easier to promote someone when he or she may not be willing or ready to take on the role. These are all easy choices, but in the end, there is a good chance you, your employees, and your organization will pay the price.
You must be tough with yourself and resist the temptation to take the easy way out. Here are some ideas to consider:
Use your company’s leadership contract as a guide. Your organization’s leadership contract spells out the expectations for all leaders. Use this to determine fit and whether you are looking to bring a leader on board who is prepared to be an accountable leader.
Stay away from brilliant jerks. Many organizations have had a longstanding practice of promoting strong technical performers into leadership roles. An implicit assumption is made that exceptional individual and technical performance will translate to strong leadership performance. Indeed, this happens sometimes; but many times, it does not. Plus, when you have many brilliant jerks around, they can leave a trail of destruction to your culture and erode the engagement of your employees.
Make it acceptable for someone to say no to a leadership role. At times a candidate, especially an internal one, may feel tremendous pressure to say yes to a leadership role. In many organizations, people feel, when the opportunity emerges, the only acceptable answer is yes. We need to make it okay for people to say “No!” or “I’m not ready.” Employees must be able to say no without fear that they will be written off or taken off a high-potential list, or never asked to take on a leadership role in the future. You may be keen to put someone in the role, but if the person’s not ready, you need to respect that. Remember that saying no to a leadership role that one isn’t ready for is, in fact, a mature leadership decision.
This article is excerpted from the book Accountable Leaders: Inspire a Culture Where Everyone Steps Up, Takes Ownership, and Delivers Results (Wiley).
Vince Molinaro, Ph.D., (Ontario, Canada) is founder and CEO of Leadership Contract Inc. and is an author, speaker, leadership adviser and researcher. He is the author of four books: Leadership Solutions, The Leadership Gap, The Leadership Contract, and the Leadership Contract Field Guide. His work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes and the World Economic Forum.