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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published January 5, 2011

Hiring a big dog from the outside 

This week we’re looking at the best way to manage your top performers – those ‘big dogs’ in the organization who will power your recovery and competitive edge in 2011 – even in a year when it might be tough to keep them.On Monday we saw the way in which Big Dogs first emerge, and their initial footprint in the organization: heavy on tactics and actions, less so on the organization’s mission (vision, values and goals) and strategies. Yesterday we looked at how this footprint develops – often to negative effect – as the organization battles Whitewater.

It’s at this stage – as the organization moves through Whitewater into Predictable Success that management first starts to bring in top performers from the outside – hiring its Big Dogs, rather than – or in addition to – developing them internally (for the reasons why this happens, see yesterday’s post).

At this point the top performer / Big Dog footprint develops further, like this:

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Hiring in the Big Dog

If you are interested in learning more about the “Mission, Goals…Actions” pyramid above, watch this short 7′ video where I explain it in more detail.

Notice that the ‘imported’ Big Dog has a footprint that typically goes much deeper than the ‘home-grown’ version. (I’m generalizing wildly here of course – there are many variations, and your mileage will vary, but this is the most common model.)

The two main reasons for this are not hard to spot, and both are intuitive:
First, remember that our ‘home-grown’ Big Dogs emerge by over-delivering at the front end, in the Actions and Tactics areas, which tends to keep them locked down around there;
and secondly, when management goes out for the first time to hire a top performer away from another firm, there’s a natural tendency to jointly explore areas such as mission, vision and values from the get-go – even in pre-hiring discussions – to ensure there will be a likely ‘fit’, thus minimizing the possibility of the expensive new Big Dog not working out.

The result? Well, this scenario can work well, with a fair wind, and in organizations where management are seasoned hands at hiring in top performers. But more often than not, two negatives emerge which lead to an eventual parting of the ways – or at the very least some seriously adult conversations about mismatched expectations:

1. We get a repetition of the Big-Dog’s-maverick-need-for-autonomy-versus-adherence-to-systems-and-processes conflict (see yesterday’s post for detail on this). But this time the Big Dog has even more authority (because of their highly extended footprint) and can cause even more damage by torpedoing or working around the needed systems.

[Note: This dynamic is particularly prevalent when large corporations take over smaller, more vibrant organizations in an attempt to reverse the larger organization’s descent into Treadmill or The Big Rut. It’s only a matter of time before the newly empowered Big Dogs from the smaller organization chafe at the newly imposed systems and processes and within months begin to turn irksome and disruptive.]

2. The shift in the newly hired Big Dog’s gravitational center – closer to mission, vision, values and strategies and away from tactics and actions – causes a performance gap to occur at the front end. The previously high-flying sales person, for example, once hired into the new organization delivers less than stellar sales results because they’re now more heavily involved in sales management. Or the Big Dog account manager in the newly acquired talent management agency begins to tee off her clients because she is suddenly less accessible, less proactive on their behalf.

Whatever the specifics of the individual role, eventually there’s likely to be a ‘come to Jesus’ moment when management, exasperated by the less than stellar front-line performance, finally confronts the bewildered Big Dog (who were in their eyes only doing what they were hired to do in the first place – playing their newly enlarged role in the business’s ‘strategic-and-up’ activities.

These two reasons, taken together, are why so many businesses that hire outside top performers in an attempt to accelerate their escape from Whitewater into Predictable Success instead spend an unfortunately painful and extended stay down a cul-de-sac of underperformance and internal conflict.

Tomorrow, I’ll show the model that works best to avoid this situation, and how to implement it.

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