Why Hiring Executives From Tech Giants Is Not Always Best

by John-Claude Hesketh

Over the past decade, the business world has changed dramatically. Where there were once bankers in three-piece suits, there are now techies in hoodies who can afford to buy their own island.

Consumers now want instant access and the ability to purchase the latest devices, gadgets, fashions or technologies in two clicks or using speedy face recognition technology. This change in consumer attitudes has led to more traditional organisations looking to hire talent from the companies at the helm of it all, the companies who have fast become icons.

There is no doubt that a large bank or a massive FMCG business can learn a huge amount from these tech behemoths – Amazon, Uber, Netflix. But does that mean the people responsible for the consumer and lifestyle revolutions are right for every company? Are these same leaders able to successfully transform brands and businesses that have been around longer than computers? Not always.

Demand for marquee brand hires

Over the past few years, it’s become commonplace in executive search to hear ‘I don’t want the traditional hire, I want someone out of the West Coast from Facebook, Google or Amazon – that’s the type of thinking that will change my business’.

Initially, hearing this from clients was exciting. And in many cases it still is, but what the last three years of finding, hiring and witnessing different levels of success in these types of placements has taught me: these West Coast tech leaders aren’t always the best candidate. When an organisation makes a decision to hire someone whose career has been spent in Silicon Valley and places them into a 150-year-old bank, or a century-old FMCG business – it is not guaranteed that it is going to work.

The reality of organisations like Google, Uber and Facebook is that they are led firstly, and sometimes entirely, by technology.

Those companies operate in a world of creativity, free in the most part from the rigid restrictions and regulations that dominate older industries. They have the freedom to test hypotheses, make expensive mistakes with products and move on quickly. HSBC are far less likely to engage in something as aspirational or wacky as a moonshot project in Silicon Valley. P&G are just as unlikely to start a self-driving car programme anytime soon.

Assimilation and managing expectations

It is therefore important to realise exactly what you’re getting when you hire from fast-moving, tech-driven organisations – you’re hiring super smart, creative individuals who have been successful in an environment that was built from day one to embrace an agile mindset.

In many cases they are not used to companies or environments that have been built over many decades, that have legacy processes and technologies and in certain cases, that have a regulator or a government telling them what they can and can’t do. So then it doesn’t come as a huge surprise to see many people leave their utopian creative environments, move to constrained, traditional businesses and fail, or simply just grow frustrated with being told ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘we need to get that approved from x number of people before we start.’

The marquee hire isn’t always the right hire. Traditional organisations have to truly understand the environment their candidates are leaving and cast a critical view of their own processes and procedures before deciding to hire them, and effectively, take a fish out of water.

Businesses have to understand that success in one industry or in one company doesn’t automatically translate to success in another industry or organisation. A top football player wouldn’t be expected to play basketball at the highest levels, so why would we expect a Director of Engineering to leave Uber to revolutionise technology at Nestlé without the right environment, culture and resources?

Set up for success

Organisations have an obligation to understand what is possible and what it takes to truly improve and revolutionise their technologies. There has to be a support network to help the new executive evolve and learn in their new position. If there is an expectation that they will just work it out along the way, they are being set up to fail. If there is an expectation that they can create magic with just what their predecessors had before, they will struggle. When an organisation hires someone to drive change or do something innovative, it is not just the responsibility of that one individual to drive change. Rather, it is a journey for the whole business to embrace, advocate for and participate in change.

The answer to the wider challenge is not simply to revert to traditional, within-industry hiring. I am asking corporations to consider their own onboarding, their own processes and whether they are going to take true responsibility for the success of their new executives. I am also asking organisations to think about whether a marquee hire is simply what they want, as opposed to what they need.

John-Claude Hesketh is the Global Managing Partner at Marlin Hawk

Share this