February 5, 2020

The Forgotten Trait To Being A Successful Executive

In executive search, people are constantly asking you to convince them. Convince me you can find the talent. Convince me this candidate is the right person. Then there is the candidate, who says, convince me I will succeed.

People have occasionally referred to me as their “work Mom,” and I always accept it as a compliment. Caring, deeply and thoughtfully, for your candidates is key to success in this field. I was mentored by some amazing people, and I believe in paying that forward. We’re building leadership. That’s not a one-and-done process. Recognizing talent, drive, and potential in others and being a cheerleader to “push” them to excel gives me enormous satisfaction. I’ve developed a knack for having deep, soul-searching conversations with candidates as they explore their career direction. I have never really wanted to be the one center stage, taking the bow. I’ve always wanted to be the one identifying great leaders. I beam with pride as I see them succeed.

But you learn a lot when you live your life in the wings. You see everything. And what my years mentoring candidates has taught me most is that people seeking to climb the ladder often place too high a premium on the wrong qualities. Yes, organizations want intelligence. And drive. And confidence, expertise, and managerial and communication skills. But I’ve come to see it’s another quality that’s often a key predictor of who achieves high-flying success and who crashes and burns. And that is humility.

The thing that always amazes me most when I try to give C-Suite candidates constructive advice—and yes, occasionally criticism—is the amount of pushback I sometimes receive. We live in an age where individualism is king, where people want to express themselves however they want, whether that is via how they speak or how they dress. There is a feeling that talent is the be all/end all, full stop. Everything else doesn’t matter.

But it does.

I was a farm girl from rural Georgia who made it to Northwestern and graduated with a degree in computer studies. One of the first interviews I landed during my senior year of college was at IBM, which had a strict dress code. My sister bought me a nice “Dress for Success” suit and I wore it to my initial interview.  I didn’t want to wear the same suit for the next round, so I wore a bright red dress instead. IBM wasn’t impressed. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have anyone to coach me on corporate norms. So I signed up for an interview workshop at Northwestern’s placement center. Ironically, the interview coach who gave me all kinds of useful tips was…an IBM executive. Fueled with newfound confidence, I interviewed with Arthur Andersen on campus, then again at its corporate headquarters.  (I re-wore the suit for both interviews.) I got the job.

Years later, I provided some unsolicited advice to a young lady who was interviewing for a high-profile post. When she entered the boardroom, it wasn’t her talent that stood out, but rather her attire– an outfit that was reminiscent of something Erin Brockovich would wear. My “motherly” instincts kicked in and I gently suggested she rethink her wardrobe choice, but she didn’t like it. She was too wrapped up in her own identity, in her “I am who I am” mentality, to check her ego, tap into her humility, and take constructive advice.

It can be difficult when someone says your resume is wanting, or that despite what you personally feel, you’re not right for an opportunity. But true humility—acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers, that you are open to learning, that you can, and are in fact happy to, adapt to other ways of doing things and other corporate cultures—is something that is increasingly more in demand in leadership. When candidates accept my advice and demonstrate a willingness to engage in some deep soul-searching, we form a close bond and develop a sense of mutual trust. I have had candidates who are being represented by other search firms call me to discuss an opportunity they are considering because they value my advice. Yes, we are retained by our corporate clients, but I could not do my job if I didn’t take the time to get to know people and understand their careers, hopes, and aspirations. This insight enables me to make much better matches.

It’s always disappointing when a promising candidate drops out of consideration for a position. Sometimes they say, “I don’t really want this job,” for all sorts of reasons. Which is fine. And sometimes they say, “You know what? I don’t think I am the right person for this job.” It’s always impressive when someone can be that self-aware. That kind of insight comes from humility, and high emotional intelligence. And it translates into great leadership.

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