Hiring is just the start of getting the best
Companies spend fortunes recruiting executives but do little to help them to be successful in their roles
The figures are stark. Four-in-10 executives brought in by companies for senior roles quit, fail, or are fired within 18 months of starting. Even more consider walking away.
Yet all of that has happened after companies have spent significant sums on recruiting them in the first place, says leadership expert and author, Cork-born Niamh O’Keeffe.
From Bishopstown, O’Keeffe is now a two-time author, following the publication of her second work, Lead Your Team in Your First 100 Days. Having begun as a management consultant with Accenture – then Andersen Consulting – O’Keeffe spent a number of years recruiting senior financial executives in the City of London.
There, she suggested offering help to executives in their first 100 days once they had been hired.
“But it is funny, recruiters want to stop at the point of recruitment, when they give you the person. They don’t want to destroy the mythology around the ‘This is the most amazing person in the world’,” she says.
“They wine and dine the organisation and the person that they are trying to coax from another company and it becomes this merry dance.”
Forming First 100 in 2004, O’Keeffe began to fill the gap she believed existed, coaching executives in their early days of arrival on creating the “vision” for their time at the helm.
“We advise on how to make an impact. I have made a bit of a science of it,” she goes on, adding that executives have to change their leadership style as their role changes. You’re used, for example, to leading people where you know the content of the subject. If you’re a general manager, you will be leading other people. So how does your leadership change?”
O’Keeffe is blunt, extraordinarily so, at times. “The quality of leadership out there is rubbish. That is why when people say we have had an economic crisis it frustrates me,” she says.
“That’s as if something has happened in economic terms. That is a symptom of the fact that there aren’t great quality leaders in the world.
“It is humans, the people in charge, who are not doing a good enough job of being in charge and that is how the economic crisis arose,” she goes on, adding, “It is not the economy, it is the leaders.”
Such candour is not always appreciated. “It is my job as an adviser to challenge constructively. I take risks, no doubt about it. In the past, I have been fired for being too candid.
“Now I know how to be candid in ways that work. I don’t mind being fired, I don’t care about that, but I do care about the message getting through because if I get fired they haven’t really thought about what I’m saying.”
She goes on: “The arrogant CEO won’t hire me because he doesn’t want to change. A lot of people get to the CEO’s position and then say, ‘I’m done’.
“They think they don’t need development any more, which I think is amazing. The people who hire me are new CEOs for the first time who are under pressure, who have an awareness around their limitations.
“They are quite scared. Fear might drive them to hire me. Unlocking their self-awareness depends , but they are willing receptors. There’s only two things that matter – the quality of the advice given, and the quality of the person taking it,” she declares.
“I try to get them to take bigger risks and make more of an impact, rather than play it safe. Essentially, it is about empowering them to take charge. It is about their vision. The word might be over-used, but often people don’t have a vision.”
The attrition figures for newly-hired executives indicate beyond doubt that a problem exists, she argues, but no one is doing anything about it.
“I’ll tell you why. No one is responsible for retention in the company. No one manages that, so therefore nobody does anything about it. So when things go wrong people like to say that it was a chemistry issue – ‘He didn’t understand our culture’, or ‘This is a tough culture’. It becomes all macho-speak,” she says.
Executives in some companies have easier lives. “Certain industries will always lose money, like airlines, and others will always make money, like banks, until something happens.”
“It doesn’t matter who is sitting at the top,” she continues. “Certain businesses are cash machines. The leaders think they are amazing, but it doesn’t matter who is leading because they are a cash machine. They can’t take any credit for the fact that they are making money.
“Sometimes those organisations implode like Lehmans, but they think they were successful. They weren’t, it was just the dynamics of that business that it was going to make money.”
Of people such as Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group which owns British Airways, she says: “That is practically an impossible industry. A guy like him just enjoys it and goes for it.”
Seeking to expand her company, O’Keeffe is now enjoying life as an author. “The books are making a difference. In the end it is all about brand and credibility,” she says.
“Before and after you are the same person, but now you are an author. It has meaning for a lot of people, so the tide is turning, it’s interesting.”