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Rules of Engagement

Why everything you need to know about recruiting leaders can be learned from dating

We’ve all met them – the toxic leaders who bully, micromanage, take credit for other people’s work, abuse their power, lie and blame their way out of trouble. If we’re unlucky, we’ve also encountered the narcissistic leaders: arrogant, entitled, exploitative, with a grandiose vision of their own importance. We’ll have seen the trail of destruction they leave behind them: low morale, fear, stress, disengagement, low productivity and high turnover.

So how can we avoid recruiting toxic leaders into our organisations?

Most of what I know about recruiting great leaders has been learned from dating. And this isn’t surprising. We see what we want to see, whether we’re in love or in business, and long-term relationships of any kind benefit when we look thoughtfully before leaping to commitment.

So, here are my key lessons. No doubt you’ll have some of your own:

Holiday romances rarely work out

Holidays aren’t real life and “holiday us” isn’t “9.00 a.m on a wet Monday us”.   We can all be fabulous when the sun’s shining and the most difficult decision is between a Sea Breeze and a Tequila Sunrise.   Holidays don’t last. Romance withers in the rain.   And you really don’t know that bronzed surfer at all.

Recruiting a leader based solely on an interview and prepared presentation is the equivalent of building your future on two unrepresentative weeks in Gran Canaria.   It doesn’t tell you what the person is like under pressure or how they act when they can’t control the environment. Grandiosity is easily mistaken for drive and empty rhetoric for vision.

Get to know your prospective leaders better.   Use focus groups (and listen to what they tell you), leaderless discussions to watch how they work with others, psychometrics, and problem-solving exercises. See them more than once.   A lot of companies put more time and energy into procuring a piece of hardware than in selecting a leader. Don’t be them.

If your date is nice to you and vile to the waiter …

…..She isn’t the right person for you.   And neither is the prospective leader who’s delightful to the CEO but doesn’t bother extending her charm to the receptionist.   From the minute your potential recruit walks through the door, every interaction tells you something about their values, behaviours and people skills. So ask. Ask every person they met what that encounter was like.   The toxic or narcissistic leader won’t have bothered trying to engage anyone who they didn’t think was useful to them.

Pause if your date talks about himself non-stop

Pretty much a giveaway, no?   This person isn’t interested in you, your friends, your life or anything except an audience for their fabulousness.

So why would you fall for this in recruiting?   Beware the aspirant leader who claims sole credit for every success in their last job. Who were their teams? What did their colleagues and direct reports contribute? And why aren’t they telling you what a fantastic team of people they led?   If they claim sole credit on a major project then they’re either terrible at management and delegation or they’re deluding themselves/trying to delude you. You need someone who can lead, engage and motivate people. You don’t need Napoleon.   And neither do your teams. Trust me.

Don’t ask them to marry you on the first date

Because – and this cannot be stressed enough – you don’t know them yet.   An interview, much like a first date only shows you what the person wants you to see.   Pause. Consider. Find out more. Talk about your people, what you are looking for and what you can give back. Don’t offer them the job until you’re certain this has a future.

Equally – don’t expect them to want a long-term commitment to the first meeting. They need to get to know you and what your company stands for too. It’s a two-way street. Walk in together.

Question why your date refuses to introduce you to his friends

There’s a reason – either he doesn’t have any or he doesn’t want to you find out what they have to say about his last ten failed relationships.

So check out the history of your potential new leader – get the detailed references, have the conversations, explore what happened in their previous organisations. Is there evidence of a trail of broken people and shattered teams left in their wake? Or do people speak with warmth and candour about them?   One bad reference might be down to spite or a mismatch – but four aren’t likely to be.

And encourage them to find out about you, too – introduce them to people who can talk about the culture and ethos of your company, and who will be honest about what it’s like to work with you.

I’ll only go out with you on Saturday if you take me to the Michelin starred restaurant

This person isn’t interested in you – just in what they can get out of you.   Scintillating conversation over a hamburger just won’t cut it for them.   They won’t be on your side when the going gets tough. They won’t hang around if the money runs out and the good times stop.   Exactly the same for your new leader – what is she demanding ? Does she insist on the shiny office, the car parking space, the inflated salary?

Look for the potential leader who wants to know what your company values are, how you engage your staff, what great performance will look like, and how their own skills, aspirations and values match with yours. These are the people you want on your team.

Beware of swapping heads

We’ve all done it – fallen for somebody because they’re “just like” our first love, or remind us of our wonderful dad. It’s so easy to just assume that the person who reminds us of someone we already know, is what we want.

We do it at work as well. David has left the company. He was fantastic. We want another David. Right now.

But is a “just like” person what you need? Diversity is the life blood of healthy teams. You need to have common values, you need shared commitment. But somebody different, somebody with fresh ideas, vision and life-experience can reinvigorate your company and your teams.

Leaders shape our businesses, their behaviours impact on our staff, their skills inform our success. So right through the recruitment process:

Think: what qualities are you looking for?, what are your core values? what skills do you need to bring into the business?, who will the new leader need to work with?, what changes do you want to introduce? Think about what you need and what you can offer. Challenge yourself (and let others challenge you) – are you in danger of falling for a persuasive line, or of rejecting someone great because they’re different from your preconceived ideal?

Talk: to the people who meet your interviewees, to their former employers and colleagues, and most importantly, to them – explore what you have in common, and what fresh thinking they can bring.

Watch: what is happening outside the interview room – how does the potential leader treat other people? what is their body-language like? can they challenge without aggression?


Good relationships take communication, honesty, commitment and self-awareness. Take the time to get to know your potential recruits and to let them get to know you. Test your own thinking. Enjoy the process, and make it enjoyable for your candidates.

And please. No ghosting. Respect the time and input of all your candidates. Follow up with constructive feedback for candidates you don’t appoint. Celebrate the success of the one you do – and keep working on that relationship!



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