How I Changed My Mind
It was Aberdeen in 1995 and me and my then MD Fred* were eating lunch in the office kitchen. We’d recently purchased at eye watering expense a new PC for me – I forget the model but it was great for playing Minesweeper on and came with a CD-ROM drive, a trial copy of the Encarta Encyclopaedia and some sort of Lotus package that didn’t do what you wanted it to do.
Other than electricity the PC wasn’t connected to anything– the Internet and Email were all some way off (later on, after we’d parted ways the company did start using email but their conclusion was that it was a Bad Idea). However it had dawned on me that it would be desirable to keep and shuffle project records on these more powerful PC’s rather than the papyrus scroll system then in use**.
That day, my suggestion to Fred was that, “Computers might actually be useful in recruitment”. This proposal brought on what I felt then was an overreaction. He responded, quite forcefully, that, “Computers have no place in recruiting”.
From that moment on I thought that he was an idiot. What he thought of me isn’t difficult to discern given that he fired me later that year. His parting words were that “You’ll never be able to run your own business”.
Anyway, fast forward through three subsequent companies and then running my own head hunting business for 17 years. I’ve come to understand that Fred’s opinion on computers is fundamentally correct.
Back then I was a Researcher*** working in Oil and Gas. Being a Researcher then took a bit of imagination and quite a lot of low cunning. Pretty much all our new material came from trade directories, brochures, collecting business cards at conferences and random phone calls.
Aberdeen is a small place and my bosses had been working in it for a long, long time. Basically they knew everyone (and their fathers). It turned out that the chances of me telling them anything that they didn’t purport to already know turned out to be somewhere between slim and none.
I’d come back from a difficult day on the phones and tell them that Dave was the man they were looking for. They’d tell you that everyone knew that not only was Dave a rampant alcoholic who wouldn’t be allowed in the office of any right thinking manager, he’d also been socially maladroit and the last guy to stop wearing shorts to school****.
Once I’d sweated blood forming a Target List that the bosses were happy with, the very last thing I was going to do was screw up the initial contact. Therefore I got very good at approaching potential candidates and persuading them to, well, take an interest. It turned out that my bosses weren’t good at this at all. Sure, they’d have their own regular contacts who they could “chat” to and, because we did advertised selection back then, they’d get “top end guys” phoning them up and asking to be considered. What they didn’t want to do (actually I don’t think that they could do) was call people that they didn’t know.
Over two decades and a lot of experience later I now understand that my then bosses were (quite successfully) milking everything out of a small network of people they’d come to know through working in Aberdeen since the 1970’s. The Usual Suspects if you will.
It’s why big hitter head hunters used to be (and to an extent still are) drawn from the ranks of the industry that the firm they were hired by specialised in. Their Filofax/Rolodex of contact names, numbers and the expectation that people would answer the phone to them was quite literally worth more that its weight in gold to the company that took them on.
There are well understood downsides to this approach – the main one being that you end up with somewhat parochial networks that are very good at telling you what you expect to hear. They’re not so great at telling you something new and potentially game changing. In summary, they’re fantastic at leading you to middle aged guys with safe pairs of hands and a low golf handicap.
Today the connections of key people, CEO’s, Partners in VC’s, Chairman etc. are, thanks to social media in general and LinkedIn in particular, pretty much in the public domain. When you do a detailed analysis you notice (unsurprisingly perhaps) that they tend to connect to the same clusters of people and the members of those clusters in turn tend to draw in the likeminded.
In my view they look for all the world as if they are shoaling, flocking or herding. Once you see the patterns you can predict with some accuracy who is likely to be networked with whom. In other words, you can tell what a client or potential client is likely to know and, conversely, what they are unlikely to know.
Clearly there’s a whole other article coming up on how useful this is but for now let’s just stick to the point that key people have realised that they can see what I can see simply by doing a search on the internet. Everyone now has the same partial knowledge of any given sector that my old bosses put together by word of mouth last century. And, guess what, they bring pretty much the same baggage to the scene that my old bosses had – they see what they want and expect to see.
Being able to see something is not the same as being able to understand it and still less to influence that something to do what you’d like it to do. It didn’t really take me that long to learn how to be an effective researcher – it’s taken me 30 years to understand how to engage with people who don’t necessarily want to be engaged with and influence them to have meaningful conversations with my clients. Looks simple, is actually very hard.
It turns out that it’s not the ability to research, carry out a mapping exercise or networking that really matters – although they all have their uses. The focus of the whole exercise is about being able to quickly identify and talk to people with those desirable characteristics and skillsets and to persuade them to do something that they didn’t expect to be doing when they got up this morning.
So, as a CEO, hiring manager, VC etc. yes, of course you can use your network of contacts and computers (LinkedIn) to see what’s what. It’s not difficult (although it still takes a little time) to work out company structures in some detail from the terabytes of material now in the public domain. However what you’ll end up with is an electronic version of a shoebox full of index cards that preserves the bias that you bought to the research. Sure, it’s a bit easier to manipulate but its still only data gathered by someone with an agenda (you).
That was Fred’s (probably accidental) point over lunch 23 years ago. Not that computers aren’t good at storing and manipulating data – they’re really good at that – but that they’re machines. They can’t tell you who you really should be talking to and they can’t make an introduction to those people and they never will be able to do that.
The difficult bit, the Art if you will, is in making sure that the data you gather reflects reality and allows you to see all your options. Not your opinion of what the world should look like but what it actually looks like.
There’s no rule that says that you can’t do what you want. As a CEO under pressure of course you can save yourself endless time and money by not using experienced people like me and do it yourself. Thing is, you haven’t been objectively researching people for 30 years and when it comes to contacting people that you don’t know out of the blue, well, how good are you at doing that?
*Actually his real name was Albert
** This is a gag – we of course used vellum
*** I was sometimes promoted to Principal to deal with any customers my bosses didn’t like
**** Usually their opinion was rubbish