The proof of a CEO search is in the post-selection “pudding”

Serving on a CEO/presidential search committee is a weighty assignment. Constituent hopes are high. Inquiring minds want to know.  And employees wait impatiently for a messiah, or at the least, a Moses.

So much rests on the shoulders of a few. If ever there was a reason to pray, this is it. And all the more so knowing that regardless the diligence of your work, search committees can (and do) make a wrong choice.

right_and_wrong_9959I’ve been there, done that, and still bear emotional scars from participation in a failed search. When a CEO flames out a few months into the job, there’s suffering all around – for the organization, for the quick departing CEO, and for search committee members.

Yet every year, hardworking, careful, and (usually) wise board members are (unpleasantly) surprised by the leader just chosen.  How can that be? Two articles from my recent reading suggest answers to the question.


The first, a report about a university president behaving badly, not once, but twice, comes from Inside Higher Education. I’ll skip the gory details and go straight to the amazing thing about the story — the board of Westfield State University (MA), despite being “well-apprised” of the president’s sorry past, hired him anyway.

And that, according to a search consultant not involved in the situation, happens more often than we would expect.  Although executive search professionals warn about the unreliability of interviews, trustees are often swayed by a winsome personality and strong interviewing skills. Liking what they hear, search committees overlook red-flag signals from a previous position.

The Westfield State University case suggests that a candidate’s past experience should trump his/her talk.


But wait. Before putting all your search chips on experience, check out the fall (2013) issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. The authors of “The CEO Experience Trap” rattle off a list of CEO hires based on past performance that went sour in the present. It’s the authors’ suspicion that

job-specific experience may slow down learning because some knowledge and techniques need to be ‘unlearned’ before learning in the new context can take place. In addition, as prior CEOs rely on experience from past events, they are more likely to follow decision-making shortcuts, and this may cause them to give the same answer to a different problem. Prior CEOs may be too embedded in the norms, culture, and routines of one organization and thus may underperform in another because they have developed fixed assumptions about how tasks should be done.

In other words, experience is nice but not necessarily predictive.


I can imagine members of CEO search committees wringing their hands about now. If interviews are unreliable and experience is a trap, what’s the committee to do?

The answer is to keep on doing what search committees have always done — seek broadly, pray fervently, interview rigorously, check references diligently, and select hopefully – plus one critical step more.

Naming a CEO is the beginning not the end of a leadership transition.  The way in which new leaders are oriented to and integrated into the organization to which they’ve been called sets the stage for everything that comes after. Boards wanting the best from and for their new CEOs have a plan. They mark out a path to the time, space, and guidance the new leader (experienced or otherwise) needs to start right and continue strong.

As CEOs who’ve benefited from such a plan will tell you, that’s the experience that counts most for their successful leadership in a new setting.

What's your take on this topic?

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