The star performer (aka diva) syndrome
By Serguei Beloussov March 1, 2016
- How to spot a leader who is all talk and no action
- Very easy to make the wrong choice in the selection process
WHEN hiring people for key positions, apart from the impression one gets during the interview, there are usually two main factors to consider that will affect the interviewers’ judgement: References and the candidate’s track record.
I hire a lot and often, and I can definitely say that neither of these factors are very reliable, even when taken together.
At any rate, they do not help to identify people who are focused solely on their career and are simply good at selling themselves by talking big, but who are short on substance in reality.
The top positions in multinationals are often held by people whose motivation is driven by their own career ambitions and who care but very little about how efficient their team is or how well the company is doing as a whole.
The problem is that when hiring a high-level executive, you expect him or her to be a top-performer and not just an average run-of-the-mill manager. And it is very easy to make the wrong choice in the selection process.
This situation is made even more difficult by the fact that ambition, which is generally a good quality, is at play. A high percentage of ambition-driven professionals whose sole motivation is personal achievement are high performers.
The real issue is making sure that their own goals do not take precedence over the company’s objectives.
These are some of the distinguishing features of someone who can project himself as a ‘star manager.’
Being thorough to impress
These people are very thorough in their approach to the employment process – they will put together an impressive and detailed CV (curriculum vitae) describing their achievements in detail.
They will learn about the people who will be interviewing them and will eventually be working with, as well as about the company and the product.
Ordinary people do not normally go to such lengths. But for the ultimate corporate climber, it is one of the priority skills that in reality may have little to do with his or her real intentions and the ability to manage, sell, or develop.
Since they rarely have more than one priority, which is rising through the corporate ranks, whatever it takes, they will meticulously choose the projects that stand a better chance of success.
Considerations of how they will personally contribute to the potential success or failure of such projects are irrelevant to them. All they care about is moving up the corporate ladder and not the contribution they can make to the company’s value.
This is precisely what accounts for their breath-taking CVs with a record of fabulous project management and hardly any mention of a single failure.
This warrants taking a closer look at such a candidate during the interview, as someone who has never had to overcome setbacks rarely has the potential to become a real leader.
Judging the candidate on his or her previous track record is no guarantee. Experienced professionals know that every successful project involves the participation of a maximum of three people taking all the decisions and responsibility (and often there is only one person who is involved in the process), while the rest just follow the lead.
And so the fact that someone has grown from a manager to a vice president by handling a series of successful projects is not sufficient proof of his or her ability.
Apart from choosing the right project, which is something I have already mentioned, there are lots of other strategies. One of them is promoting yourself with the boss and other higher-ups in the organisation, engaging with them, inviting them to birthday parties, and giving gifts.
This has little to do with work but definitely helps in working your way up. Again, you can simply steer clear of risky projects that can spoil your CV and go for those that are bound to go well.
The art of self-representation
As a rule, reference-checking with previous employers is of no use.
People are generally disinclined to speak badly of someone else in such cases, especially of someone who has steadily grown through the ranks and worked on good projects. Giving negative feedback would come across as somewhat odd.
But reference checking can sometimes uncover some strange inconsistencies, like these:
- A good person, but hires idiots;
- Seems to be a strong manager, but fails to pay attention to detail; and
- Is good at certain tasks but has weaknesses, so it depends on what position you are hiring him for.
This should be a red flag – a hint that something does not add up, especially in conjunction with a glowing CV and impeccable references.
There are quite a number of strategies for ‘going into hiding’ within a company after being hired, for example, by always presenting yourself in a positive light. In presenting their work, such people will talk up their achievements and skilfully disguise failures.
Devil’s in the details
Even if the project is a complete failure, there are plenty of ways of conveniently shifting responsibility by blaming it on somebody else, or hiding 10 important facts in a slide presentation that show that the project is a flop by burying them among hundreds of meaningless statements.
The audience will end up feeling that although nothing in it is clear, the speaker obviously works hard and it is too early to be unhappy with his or her performance so far.
You can only unravel this by going into every detail, but there isn’t always the time or the opportunity to do so, especially if too much detail is provided.
One of my co-workers once told me that some of the managers of a leading global IT company would use the following strategy: “If you cannot impress people with your performance, confuse them!” when compiling reports.
A career-centric corporate climber will conveniently avoid taking any risks and taking up positions where the entire responsibility will lie with him or her by definition.
In point of fact, the job of a chief business executive can be described as catching the rain of falling balls, where each ball is a task.
In a large organisation, the number of ‘ball catchers’ is high enough, so if you catch a few balls, or even if you do not catch any at all, this may go unnoticed and you will continue to work your way up the corporate ladder.
But if you are at the top, this will not go unnoticed. This is exactly what happens when someone accidentally becomes a CEO (chief executive officer) or a regional manager, for example. Not surprisingly, such people end up being hopelessly out of depth in their role.
Spotting the ultimate corporate climber
I have no precise technique for identifying such people, but I do have some useful ideas.
In the first place, one should be aware of the fact that on the whole, the probability of making a mistake when hiring for a senior position is high. The mistake only becomes apparent during the first year of the person’s employment.
It is precisely because of the high risk involved in hiring for top jobs that whenever possible, I try to take on the people that I have already known for a long time – for example, those who have held less important positions within our company or in our partner companies.
This gives me an insight into their potential and what can be expected from them.
As for the new people, for example those headhunted by recruitment specialists, the key is making a real effort and spending a lot of time checking out the quality of the candidate and to what extent he or she may be suitable for you.
One of the main dangers for a company is not the competition or the market, the technology, politics or economy, but having C-level people who are not qualified and are not performing at the level needed for their position.
In my experience, they cause the greatest damage to the company, whereas the right ones make a real difference.
Our C-level candidates have at least 10 and often more than 20 job interviews to pass, especially with members of their future team and the board of directors.
This is precisely the case where directors and major shareholders, who are more experienced players, can do their bit. The interviews should be held face-to-face, not on the telephone or Skype, even if this involves intercontinental flights and complex procedures for obtaining visas.
During the interview, it is important to ask about all the team members involved in previous projects, their roles, their current involvement in the business, and details about what the candidate did as part of the project work.
Make sure you meet with candidates in an informal environment – try to meet with them when they are with their family or friends, and do not rush the decision-making process.
It is very important to understand whether the candidate has any substantial achievements that are not necessarily directly related to his or her professional activity – in sports, hobbies or in anything, i.e. significant achievements that demonstrate ambition, determination, a willingness to deal with difficulties and mistakes, and most often, a hardworking attitude.
In point of fact, a hardworking attitude is one of the key requirements for a C-level person.
A proper reference-taking process should involve not only references provided by the candidate but also blind references (taken up informally) by talking to several referees in person and face-to-face – not on the telephone, and certainly not via e-mail.
This is the only way you will be able to understand what you are being told about the candidate, and you can also receive some negative feedback.
We also carry out a full private detective background check (running an employment check on the candidate with a security service). In addition, we are assisted by a professional psychologist who will create a full psychological profile of the candidate after an assessment interview of three to five hours.
Although of limited value, a variety of IQ and specialised logic and maths tests can also be useful. The ability to understand facts and figures is important for virtually every C‑level position, as well as the ability to analyse situations and build a situational model.
You should also ask candidates to draw up and present a plan for the next 30/ 90/ 365 days. It does not bode well if the candidate has no time for a detailed plan and needs persuading.
A reasonable and responsible hardworking candidate understands that he or she is hired not as a mere position-holder but for the purpose of implementing a plan, and an agreement should be reached in advance about what you are all going to do and what resources and support will be provided.
It is important to have an on-boarding plan for the candidate, with details of the candidate’s transfer from the recruitment stage to the relationships level.
Throughout the process, attention should be paid to anything that does not add up or seems odd – even the slightest inconsistency may indicate that the candidate, who comes across as a superstar, is not what he or she purports to be.
A Formula 1 racing car can have no rough edges unless required by the design – if it does, it means that it is not a Formula 1 racing car.
Finally, you should also trust your instincts: Our subconscious plays a very important role in the way we understand other people.
Serguei Beloussov has a 22-year track record in building, growing and leading high-performing, multinational high-tech companies in North America, Europe and Asia. He is currently focused on Acronis, the company he founded and now returned to as CEO, and is a senior partner at the Runa Capital venture fund, and executive chairman of Parallels. He is also into quantum technology.
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