Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

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We're-not-scared selection (but we're not stupid either)

By Douglas Board on July 1, 2022

Hacking Team

Science is what has lifted selection out of the dark ages for junior and mid-level roles over the past 40 years, but it's had virtually no impact on senior level (C-suite) hiring. That's partly because science-based selection has been anti-intuition and in denial about the political nature of all senior appointing decisions. Science is great but backward looking and can't solve wicked problems. Senior hiring processes (mostly done in secret) don't just cover over politics, they support illusions of rational control and cover over our deep fear of the unknown - key blockers to adaptivity.

Mini-hack: we're-not-scared selection says we change our paradigm for how to choose people, especially for senior roles, to embrace science, politics and intuition. It says we're not scared to go beyond science, and to see what our intuitions say. We're not scared to challenge those intuitions and each other. We're not scared to be politically incorrect, because our best, intuitive, future-oriented hunches won't come out clean and sanitised - and because we're also not scared to choose people diversely and boldly. Fundamentally, we see selection processes as needing to incorporate science but to go beyond it, to be socially disciplined and accountable ways of making us not scared to face the future. (Other relevant mini-hacks already suggested include experimentation, wildcat hiring, de-appliancize your employees)

Possible management hack: change succession planning so that for each role, a person specification comes with a risk appetite (low, medium high). Borrowing that concept from investment, it's not the purpose of business to take no risks; it is to take risks which are strategically worth taking. The board can accelerate diversity-with-a-business-purpose by requiring senior executive succession plans to show (with reasons) a significant proportion of posts for which the organisation should have high risk appetite when selecting.

Source for this hack: 18 yrs as headhunter + 'what the hell was I doing' doctorate = 'Choosing Leaders' (Gower applied research book 2012)

HR process being hacked:Talent Acquisition

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Douglas pinpoints one of the elephants in the room of executive management. The denial of the political dimension encourages political behaviour because it hands to the CEO a weapon to coerce the top team at times when dissent is most needed and forces a political rather than an open, issues centred response.

Where Douglas may be taking us is towards a discussion of whether by acknowledging the political dimension we can focus on how political power is being used and for what purpose rather than whether it is appropriate. That should then open up the debate about the use of social power as opposed to personal power within organisations and should encourage us to admit that at the top of organisations, as at Westminster, much of the time is spent deciding between opposing views about how to achieve generally agreed objectives. Douglas's introduction of ethics into the debate perhaps points towards a code that might help us to decide what we would find acceptable about the way such differences are resolved.

Douglas's final contribution is call for our sympathy for the poor benighted NED. What hope do they really stand. No wonder we see the behaviour we do and no wonder there have been the failures we have seen on the watch of very able individuals.

David Owen

douglas-board's picture

(1) Someone who already did 'hack' talent acquisition (or at least make a few millions out of it for himself plus two family members) is Bradford D Smart, PhD. Brad turns out not to be the key character in the Rocky Horror Show (shame) but the author of 'Topgrading' - which really did get out HR's in-trays into CEOs' in-trays: no small feat. We need to aim at least as high! The Financial Times tell me they are running tomorrow (11 July) with a piece from me on that.

Topgrading is a kind of well-intentioned, anal 'super-competencies'. Competencies has done quite a bit of good but is not the answer. I've put below something which tries to show why I think this. It explains why competencies belong in the Age of Cinderella selection (the age we live in now). It is an improvement on what came before (the Age of Caveman selection). But now we need ... well, read on at (3) if you're interested.

(2) What I feel most at sea on with this hack is how to borrow best to borrow the idea of risk appetite from investment management and put it alongside person specifications. I know why we should do it (it's about not being scared to face the future: all we can 'choose' in life is different risks). I know some of the benefits it would bring (eg diversity but not on a token basis: I love the idea of conservative executives being forced to - and held to account by their board - for making 'high risk appetite' hires when those fit the organisation's strategy). But how ... not so sure. There are different kind of risks. Maybe in a complexity world, distinguishing the different domains in the Cynefin framework, as to the different kind of uncertainties we think we're facing, might help ...

(3) This is the work-in-progress article for a magazine in Britain that expands on (1) (so not for reproduction please). Cheers, Douglas


How senior leadership roles are filled anywhere is crucial. Choosing a CEO or a chair is the pinnacle of this responsibility for a board, but the systematic scrutiny of succession planning, reviewing the board’s own composition and addressing diversity also matter. Of course many organisations have excellent policies on all these important matters, and sometimes practice is also exemplary. But let’s talk about how it is all too often, when the doors have closed and the private conversations about filling a senior vacancy take place.

An excellent starting point is Joseph Bower’s book ‘The CEO Within’ . Bower, a Harvard Business School professor with years of experience on company boards, describes with humility how a CEO search process which he himself led misfired twice, focusing on the wrong internal candidate and then an external candidate, before discovering potential for transformational leadership which had been sitting under their noses all the time. Would that more books on senior selection were written so honestly. Indeed, Bower describes the selection work which often goes on behind closed doors as ‘blindfolded parking’.

Focusing on American business, Bower gives us a glimpse of selection in the Age of the Caveman. For example, how was Jack Welch, who went on to be one of the most canonised of business leaders, chosen by Reg Jones to run General Electric in 1981? . The process – extending over 2 years − turned on a succession of one-on-one meetings in which Jones (GE’s chairman) repeatedly asked internal candidates to analyse who should run the company in the event of various airplane crashes. To believe in this extended, not to say excruciating, process means believing in the intuitive judgements of the powerful. That is a selection best practice with a pedigree stretching back at least as far as bands of cavemen picking their leaders.

Happily, elsewhere there has been progress. Most of us operate in the Cinderella Age of selection. Cinderella contains all the beliefs which are likely to propel your organisation when it next has to fill a top role. Firstly, somewhere, someone special is waiting to be found. Secondly, when they have been found, things will end happily ever after. And thirdly, the key to finding the right person is not intuition but an objective device, a glass slipper. Objectivity will enable the right choice to triumph over misleading appearances (such as being a servant girl from an unlikely background).

The glass slipper is more commonly known as a person specification. The more objective and measurable it is, the better. The more evidence-based the selection process in which it is deployed, hurrah! What could be wrong with objectivity?

That the Age of Cinderella has been an advance on the Age of the Caveman is backed up by solid scientific research. For example we have decades of evidence damning unstructured interviews. These give free play to our intuitions about other people, which turn out to swarm with alarming fallacies and discriminations. Certainly the way people are picked to join your organisation even as a receptionist or graduate trainee, let alone a head of a professional team, is probably quite different from (and much better than) the Caveman procedures of 40 years ago.

The catch, which led me to turn from 18 years in executive search to doing a doctorate in senior selection, is that much, much less has changed at the top. The journey of doing research was scary. It’s one thing to acknowledge theoretically that research means confronting the unknown; doing it is something else. Progress came from bringing to bear on selection thinking from some fascinatingly distant places (sociology and philosophy).

Indeed, what could be wrong with objectivity? Reification, for starters. This is what we do when we wave a verbal wand and decide some ‘thing’ ‘exists’ and can sort-of be measured, like an object, when no ‘thing’ may exist at all.

For example, the Age of Cinderella is built transferable skills (or competences): person specifications, application forms, interactions with candidates must all be based on there. Let us leave out the egregious examples of wand-waving often found in senior person specifications (‘must have the ability to command the confidence of Council’). Even if we stick to relatively solid skills, such as building teams or strategic thinking, it turns out that at advanced and expert level, skills are highly intuitive and context-dependent. On closer inspection, Cinderella turns out to depend on several illusions: have glass slipper, will travel (see box for practical examples).

The central suggestion which develops from my research results is the idea that organisational activity at senior level (not only selection) needs to be understood as the continual interplay and contest between science, politics and intuition, in which all three are active and – as with the child’s game of stone, paper, scissors – none can have the last word.

Specifically we need selection decision-making in which:
• evidence and objectivity is energetically sought, but not allowed to dominate (the opposite of the mindset that only what gets measured gets done);
• intuition based on deep experience is listened to with respect – and then creatively challenged;
• political questions (such as who is loyal to whom, who has what role in the selection process, what are the current problems in the board’s functioning) are not denied.

Where senior selection decisions are already being made well, all of the above are likely to be present; however the process can be strengthened if we acknowledge its true nature, rather than trying to force it into Cinderella’s slipper.

I add my voice to Bower’s in saying that many senior selection decisions are not made well. The higher up any organisation we go, the less well Cinderella works (the Caveman is worse). We have too many thin, tetchy and rushed discussions, concluding selection processes which either did not assemble good evidence, or having assembled it failed to use it. Patient listening and creative challenge is avoided in favour of:
• HR departments who know nothing other than competencies;
• business big-shots with rampant, unchallenged intuitions (‘There’s only one possible candidate’, ‘X couldn’t do it in a million years’) while the intuitions of expert listeners go unheard;
• covering over politics rather than, with the board’s own skills or those of a trusted facilitator, bringing it to light.

We need the Age of Careful Listening and Creative Challenge. END

Three ‘glass slipper’ illusions which can particularly apply to the voluntary sector, given its ability to attract candidates from diverse fields.

• We can readily find candidates from a wide field: the illusion of transferable skills. In fact expert skills are particularly context-dependent. They are hard to assess from a distance and may not work in your organisation.
• The only relevant candidates are nearby/ already understand our specialism: the small world illusion. Both the organisation’s future challenges and the skills of candidates nearby seem straightforward to grasp. But a complex world is unpredictable and the assessment of individuals nearby is affected by political distortion.
• It’s obvious that no-one in our organisation can do the job/ someone in our organisation is the right person: in either case, the small world illusion intensified to an alarming degree. Read Bower’s Brown Shoe case study!