The War for Character


Hey are you still fighting the "War For Talent"? Dude that is soooo 1990's. At least according to Heidrick and Struggles.

"In the thriving '90s," he says, "we corporate recruiters engaged in what management consultants at McKinsey called 'The War for Talent,' but in the wake of Enron and the era of corporate greed, we now have a 'War for Character.'"

The "he" quoted above is Les Csorba a partner in the firm.

He continues:

Talent has become overrated, Csorba says, as so many companies have learned to their misfortune when talent wasn't accompanied by depth of character. Genuine integrity and compassion are the new watchwords. Machiavellian pragmatism and results-at-any-cost are out.

Well then...... Hurrah!!!

I feel a little badly for all the untalented yet ethical people that I neglected to present to clients over the years. I mean if talent is overrated....

Seriously how do you interview for ethics? Do you flat out ask the guy - hey have you ever cheated? Have you ever cooked the books?

I have interviewed people before where ethics were an issue. One client of mine was very sensitive about the ethics of its sales force so they wanted to make sure that no one was hired who might be more interested in closing deals than doing ethical business.

There is nothing wrong with this as theory. In practice however it is not always so clear cut. Most sales people (and all successful senior executives are sales people) are adept at selling themselves and even those who might have committed transgressions (major or minor) are often convinced they did nothing wrong. Or they are able to convince themselves that it wasn't wrong.

So by what scale are we judging ethics? Certainly the recent conviction of Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom qualifies as an ethical violation, of that very few would argue. However what about recently fired Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher? Would he pass the "ethics" test at Heidrick Struggles??

Maybe not, however plenty of companies would be happy to have a CEO who could create the type of results that Stonecipher did during his tenure. Hey some of them might not admit it but you and I know there are some boards out there that are thinking "look as long as he isn't committing accouting fraud we don't care who he is boinking".

I once did a search for a senior tax professional for a large consulting firm. Whilst checking references one of the people I spoke to ( a former boss ) said that this person wasn't a great fit because of his "risk profile". I took this as a code for "he wasn't willing push the envelope" certainly this was an ethics issue that placed the candidate in a positive light and in the end it helped him get the job.

But do we need to have such an emphasis on "ethics" from executive search firms? I don't want to speak ill of my betters - and lets face it Heidrick Struggles wouldn't hire me on a bet. But this sounds like a quick marketing ploy to capitalize on the sudden bout of morality afflicting publicly traded companies.

At the end of the day however there are already strict ethical controls in place. They are called laws. And since the Enron/Worldcom/ fiascoes the laws have been tightened (via Sarbanes Oxely) to make CEO's criminally liable for accounting frauds that occur on their watch whether they were directly involved or not.

So now most CEO's are in a state of paranoia about this. The huge demand for qualified internal auditors is a pretty fair indication that publicly traded companies are taking this very very seriously.

Even executives that might have been willing to play very close to line before are now well aware that they wont be given a fat bonus and a slap on the wrist for this type of behavior anymore.

So how would you determine if your candidates live up to whatever ethical standards your client is demanding? Only two solutions come to mind. The first is references however this area is fraught with some peril. If someone is willing to say on a reference that person A is unethical they might open themselves up to lawsuits. And if you are looking for a past track record that might not be an indication of future behavior. I don't think the Enron and Worldcom boys would have shown a record of fraud in their previous companies. At least no one is coming forward that I am aware of to say "hey these guys have been doing this all their lives". So references might or might not provide the information that you seek.

The other option you have is psychological testing. Psychological testing wont tell you definitively that someone is going to break the law. However they can in some cases point to a personality type that MIGHT be more disposed to shady behavior. However these aren't iron clad.

I do not believe that this type of personality can be evaluated in an interview. But a good interview combined with references and personality profiling might give you a better than average chance of doing so.

But it does beg the question. Why weren't search firms doing this all along?? At any rate I predict a return to a “War for Talent” in the not to distant future. How soon? Well when shareholders start making it clear that as long as the law is being obeyed they aren't interested in hiring CEO's whose only redeeming quality is being able to do a good Jimmy Carter impression.

Read more here including a list of questions that any good sociopath will knock out of park.

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