Do Zealous Recruiter’s Methods Expose a Business Fallacy?

An interesting blog item (and WSJ article) on a zealous recruiter gave me pause to think about some of the ways our business community regards the individual. Here’s an excerpt from the item:

You can run but you can’t hide when Perry’s on the prowl.

David Perry - The Recruiting Animal Show

According to Sarah Needleman of The Wall Street Journal, David Perry is a rogue recruiter.
I can’t see why. Just last week, I spoke to Jennifer McClure, a Cincinatti recruiter who insists that she only approaches potential candidates via members of their trusted networks. But if your network isn’t all powerful and you want to find someone special, you have to do some detective work and make a direct approach.

The thing about David Perry is that he’s so ballsy — and wily, too.

The first time I met him he told me that he had once rented a coffee truck and sold donuts at an industrial park until he got the name of a target who worked inside.

The “rogue recruiter” illuminates a frequently occurring flaw in Western business thinking. Reading how David Perry operates, I have to think there’s an ethical (and possibly legal) line there somewhere, and it sounds like David Perry may be crossing it at times. That’s not good, but his business is also evidence of the mistaken idea that some people are so superior to others that they are worth expensive and extreme efforts to recruit.

Is the “Star Player” a business myth? Certainly people have different abilities, personalities, etc., but to over-emphasize that point and ignore the impact of environment, corporate culture, business and market conditions, etc. on the individual is a mistake. Quite often the star performer achieves that status in a setting conducive to their particular attributes, before they are were identified as a “star”. Being regarded as a “star” may actually impede them from repeating previous successes. For instance, they may acquire an overblown ego, stress problems, or an oversensitivity borne of overly high expectations, with an attendant risk of frustration and depression.  Worse yet, once they are labeled as a star they can be promoted to a level or position they are not prepared for much more quickly. This kind of fast-tracking has produced mixed results in business, at best, from my observations.

There’s much more behind individual performance than the traits of the individual. In my experience the performance of any individual is as greatly affected by their work environment, the corporate culture, the expectations they perceive, and how they are treated by their superiors and everyone else around them, as by their personal skills, experience, and motivation. People who excel are often in the right place at the right time with the right stuff, a combination that may not exist elsewhere. Recruiters and others can lose sight of this and put people on a pedestal they don’t deserve, or in a new place that isn’t as conducive to that person’s success, with the kind of results we see in business all the time: the rising star winds up part of a business debacle of one sort or another.

Every recruiter has an incentive to behave as their client expects and bring back the best prospects, but that’s no excuse for compromising good principles. The best businesspeople achieve prolonged success because they stick to common principles of constructive, collaborative behavior and respect for others. Compromising good ethical and moral principles may achieve a short term result, but will create a bad image (self image as well as public) that will work against one in the future, and decrease the probability of repeat business and future successes.

The rogue recruiter may make money from clueless managers, but they may not be among his most successful clients. I don’t see David Perry as having any incentive to think about the understanding or motivation of his clients, and fully expect that some of the people hiring him are pretty clueless. As an experienced manager I believe it is far more important to concentrate on giving people the right environment, incentives, resources, training, and expectations. The results of doing this are usually far better than spending big money having people like David Perry run down a “star” who may not, in the end, perform as well as expected (or as well as a well chosen and groomed team). Most people have the ability to be stars when put in the right position and managed properly, pivotal skills for any manager.

Be wary of the “star performer” label, as it introduces problems into an organization. An organization that “fast-tracks” or otherwise glorifies what it sees as star performers risks demoralizing the rest of the workforce, which can cost far more than any gains to be produced by the “star”, though the losses may be difficult to measure. Fast-tracking often moves a prospective manager far too quickly through different parts of the organization, resulting in a person who knows too little about a lot of areas and may have serious misconceptions about important aspects of the business, often based on hearing too much of the top management view and not enough “in the trenches”. In general, a candidate for promotion is often evaluated solely on past performance instead of suitability for the job they could be promoted to – a major management mistake.

Where does the “star performer” concept come from in our culture? The concept of the “star performer” is an aspect of the American/Western “gunslinger” fallacy. While gunslingers existed in the American West of the 19th century, and were glorified in popular culture through literature and cinema, they were never the as important as our culture would have us believe.  When you look back in history the big successes in the Old West were produced by communities, not gunslingers, and that lesson carries through to modern day business.

The recruiter can’t be faulted for being part of a system that may ultimately harm a company. Given that the recruiter may be only following simple orders, they may not be able to see what is behind their mission, and thus have no responsibility for the result and only an incentive to score their commission. If they work for the company, however, they have a greater ability to understand the dynamics of the situation and a responsibility to at least suggest more appropriate recruiting to their superiors and constituents.

I expect that recruiters like David Perry are a small minority, and that’s a good thing. Recruiting is far too important a function to be taken lightly. The long term view of business success focuses on building high performing teams from well-chosen individuals who will stick around and sustain the company in the long term, even as they advance their careers. The fast movers and highly visible star performers are not often the best people to achieve lasting success for a company. At first I was thinking that David Perry is an anachronism, but more likely his tactics will always be present in some form. In the end it could be said that he profits from clueless managers who gamble with their company’s future, probably based on a misunderstanding of some past success.

As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim


3 Responses to Do Zealous Recruiter’s Methods Expose a Business Fallacy?

  1. Hi Tim,

    You have an interesting argument. That solid journeymen drive success, not specially talented individuals.

    But, let’s look at classical music. Who do people go to see? Mediocre players or superstars? What about ballet? Nureyev and Baryshnikov or Joe Blow?

    They go to see people with special talents. And why shouldn’t such people appear in the business world as well?

    If they do, they will need a team of solid journeymen to support them but isn’t their special flair the stuff that makes a company great?

    Toronto had a good ballet company but when Nureyev adopted it to support his own productions, the addition of a superstar made it into something more. Because he could do things that other people couldn’t.

  2. timprosser says:

    Thansk for your comment, “Animal”.

    The difference between performance art and business is that, as has often been observed, business isn’t a popularity contest. While I don’t disagree that some people have talents for leading and organizing that are exceptional, I believe that many of the “journeyman” workers have leadership talent that hasn’t been revealed because they haven’t been in the right environment, under the right expectations and leadership, and with the right support. In the case of the ballet company, while Nureyev may draw in the crowds, the quality of the show is far more due to the skill of the choreographer and director than just Nureyev. Even in the case where Nureyev is the only performer to appear on stage, the lighting, scenery, etc. are all planned and created by others, as is the music to which he will dance.

    My own experience as an artist also suggests that there are many great performers who will never be “discovered”, and hence will never be known to many people. Correspondingly there are many star performers who are not of the highest skill or artistry, but were in the right place at the right time to gain widespread exposure and develop a popular following. This is also the nature of the business world, in my opinion, and many star performers are never discovered. Thus, it isn’t the special talents (the “gunslingers”) we need to seek, but creative, free thinking, savvy workers who have the potential to be great team members OR leaders, as the chances of a past “star performer” repeating again are only so-so. I also suggest that star performers are so dependent on the journeyman workers supporting them, that “repeat performances” are more traceable to those “journeymen” and similar factors than necessarily to the abilities of the “star”. This all makes me believe the pursuit of “star performers” is of limited value.
    Thanks again for your comment. – Tim

  3. Thanks for your long reply. I understand you to be saying that

    1. a considerable number of the journeymen are really potential superstars. They have simply been overlooked and undeveloped.

    2. There are no star performers. Just people who seem to be stars because other people who are not in the spotlight do such a good job supporting them.

    It’s like the singer in a band. She attracts the attention but the songs are written by someone else and the music is played by someone else. And, really, she could be easily replaced. She is not special in any way.

    It would be nice to see some examples from real life to support this idea.

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