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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • January 24, 2011
  • minute read

Beware hiring the executive in exile 

Indications are that this year will see a relatively high volume of executive turnover.Demand fueled by growth (albeit slow), coupled with executive frustration and a simple desire for a change means that many execs will change their employer this year. But while it’s a good time to hire, one danger lurks: Beware hiring the executive in exile.

I’m obviously not referring to hiring someone who has left (or been booted out of) their previous job – that’s likely 90% of the people you hire, after all – I’m referring to the exec who hasn’t assimilated the fact that they have left their previous employer: the exec who hasn’t ‘moved on’, if you will.

Hiring someone like this can be tempting – often they’re highly qualified, highly experienced and highly motivated. The problem is, underneath the interview gloss, they’re motivated by the wrong thing – and that can seriously damage your business. Here are the five main reasons hiring an ‘exec in exile’ is so dangerous:

1. They’re not focussed on your success.
Underneath it all, execs in exile aren’t really interested in your organization’s success – they’re interested in proving that they were right in the previous situation they were in. Their psychic ram – the subconscious energy they need to do their job well – is constantly leaking as they watch, analyze and comment on what’s going on back at their old haunt.

An exec in exile’s basic motivation is anger, bitterness and revenge – albeit usually (though not always) managed to a degree to make it socially acceptable – and that motivation is not going to help your business in the long run.

2. They’ll screw up your organizational culture.
The exec in exile is almost always tossed out of their previous organization because of a culture clash – not because of performance issues. And they’ll want to prove – at your expense – that they were right all along. So they’ll arrive with a messianic desire to instill their culture in your business, whatever the cost.

3. They’ll take short cuts and ignore the pain it causes.
As part of the ‘I was right, and I’ll prove it’ syndrome, the exec in exile will bring his or her fully formed strategy to your business and will force the business (or their division, department, project, group or team) to work around it, rather than the other way round. This will hurt – badly (think feet, shoes, forcing), and many of your good veterans will leave in response. Eventually, if course, the strategy will fail because it was designed for their previous organization, not yours.

4. They’ll distort and unbalance your org structure.
One reason execs in exile look like attractive hires is that they’re often ‘interviewing down’: applying for positions in organizations smaller than the one they’re coming from, in which they can negotiate a broader scope of responsibility.

So an exec in exile who was an VP in a Fortune 500 company will interview for an SVP position in a mid-range public company. Or a rebuffed SVP in a mid-range company will apply for the CEO position in a privately-held organization. Or an ousted senior manager in a privately-held organization will interview for a GM position in a founder-managed business.

Often the new employer, eager to attract the rock star exec in exile, will distort and rewrite the org chart to offer the exec a position with substantially more responsibility than they would for someone else (say, an internal promotion). With the result, of course that the impact of 1. and 2. above are even wider than would otherwise be the case.

5. It’s really tough to unravel.
Because of the scale of investment in hiring an exec in exile (they’re usually expensive), because of the scale of the changes made to the org chart to accommodate them, and because of the personal investment made by the hiring exec (often the CEO) in championing the new hire, everyone tends to live in denial for quite a long time before finally admitting the fact that the whole thing has been a catastrophic disaster.

There then tends to be a period of ‘cold war’ when everyone licks their wounds and considers their options. During this time a ‘blame game’ often opens up between the exec in exile and his or her acolytes, and the board and other senior managers. Finally there is a catastrophic blow up and the exec is once more, well, in exile.

So how do you avoid hiring an ‘exec in exile’?

It’s not hard, really – ask a few well-placed questions during the interview about the last few months in their previous job, and specifically about the circumstances of their departure, then listen hard: have they moved on? Are they forward-focussed? Do they have good, supportive things to say about their previous colleagues, company and culture? Or are they mired in the past? Do they seem fixated on any aspect of their separation from their previous employer?

Most importantly, is the exec interviewing ‘down’? Are they trying to negotiate terms and responsibilities that seem a reaction to where they were previously, as opposed to what’s best for this position? Are they looking for you to give them what they were denied in their previous company? While that doesn’t in itself mean you’re interviewing an exec in exile (most all of us want to better our position when we move jobs), it is a sign that you should be listening hard.

Bonus observation: Execs in exile make great temporary (project-based) hires – keep them outside your culture and org structure, and they can do a fantastic job on specific, tightly delineated contracts.


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