Wild applause for The Tribune’s editorial on the search for a new Cal Poly president, specifically their calling for the hiring of an executive search firm, an enterprise I hasten to add in which I have absolutely no vested interest (“Local and professional aid needed to hire Poly chief,” Feb. 21).
However, many years ago I was deputy director of the International City County Management Association and observed close-up the hiring and firing of dozens of urban chief executives.
Some have argued that hiring a firm would be a waste of a couple hundred thousand dollars. But hiring the wrong person can cost much more. Unless there is an escape clause that allows termination for cause (and there is in fact cause) a contract payoff can easily run a small fortune. And a termination for cause can result in a costly lawsuit, even if you prevail.
Spare no expense in hiring a president. Successful hiring is one of the biggest mysteries of organizational behavior with successful hiring of chief executives one of the biggest.
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Professionals can take some of the mystery and much of the misinformation out of the process. First, they can help those responsible for making the final decision discover exactly what kind of person they are looking for. Everyone starts out wanting someone who walks on water, appeals to virtually every constituent group and has at least one Nobel Peace Prize and a couple Pulitzer prizes in their résumé. But a selection committee can misunderstand its own values. A firm can help probe, refine and prioritize the actual criteria, a critical part of the process.
Based on the criteria, a recruitment firm can advise on where to place and what to say in job vacancy notices. It’s not always obvious where the candidates are reading or how the language of a notice might be interpreted.
As important, search firms can ferret out the people who might be perfect for the job but who just simply aren’t interested in making a move or whose current situation prevents them from expressing an interest in applying.
Firms of professional recruiters also know how to do thorough background checks on people. It takes considerable experience, knowledge, skill and intuition bred from experience to do a thorough check. Unflattering or unpleasant things are easily hidden from amateur sleuths.
And then there is the organization of the interview process. Professional recruiters know that dazzling short interviews don’t always translate into dazzling job performance. So they can set up a process that helps truly reveal a personality in a number of different settings.
This is not to say the process coached by an executive search firm is guaranteed to succeed.
No such luck. Plenty of executive search counseled processes have resulted in failure. But employment of a firm dramatically increases the chances of success.
Cal Poly: Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.
Larry Rutter is the former deputy director of the International City County Management Association.