A lesson in leadership from one of the greats: Hire Great. Nothing less will do.

A lesson in leadership from one of the greats: Hire Great. Nothing less will do.

This year marks my 28th year in the world of talent. Whether or not that makes me an expert, I’ll leave to my clients to comment, but 28 years definitely prompts some kind of reflection and few better come from recounting those formative learning experiences that continue to stick. This one came early on in my career, working for Archie Norman, famously the only applicant to apply to be the Chief-Exec of Asda (at that time a virtually bankrupt business), steering it to become the UK’s second-largest supermarket. With an almost unrivalled reputation as a business transformationalist, he went on to enjoy a stint in politics and founded the think tank Policy Exchange, before returning to industry and becoming the Chairman of ITV for six years. As I write this, he is currently the Chairman of M&S.

The year is 2003. Archie, with much anticipation and media attention, has stepped in (with the aid of a number of institutional banks) to turnaround another near-bankrupt telecommunications company, Energis. The company’s 150 managers are assembled in the Brutalist ‘masterpiece’ that became Energis House. It’s a building that wouldn’t look out of place in the Eastern bloc, indeed even Chernobyl. We are assembled in a concrete rectangle, a room that was once a swimming pool. It has a certain Nuclear reactor chic.

It is intimidating, not least because of Archie’s reputation. The acoustics are horrendous. We’re here because it’s a Management Action Day (known as MAD – forgive us the acronym, it was the noughties after all) and I and another 10 new hires are being introduced to the company.

“Roger, please stand up,” says Archie. “No, on the table please.” I mumble some joke about my height. Archie ignores it and waves me up. And there I am standing on a table in front of 150 managers, in what looks like a fraternity house hazing.

“Roger, please tell your colleagues what you are here to do,” he says. This is my moment. I clear my throat and say, “I’m here to ensure that everyone in this room is surrounded by the very best people in industry – not our industry, but industry in general.” Archie is smiling. This was indeed the mission we had discussed.

“So, given this, what were you doing yesterday, Roger?” Archie asks. Within me the proverbial penny drops. This is it. I’m about to get fired in front of all these people. I’d heard he was a hard taskmaster, but I hadn’t expected this. I look at him anxiously, there is a glint in his eye.

“Running an assessment centre,” I say quietly.

“You ran an assessment centre,” he says. “Presumably to hire great people to come and work for us?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Sounds brilliant,” he says. I, on the other hand, am reluctant to elaborate further.

“And how much, roughly, do these assessment centres cost?” Archie asks.

Figuring I have little to lose, convinced I am about to get fired, there seems little point stating anything other than the truth. “£10,000,” I reply.

“And how many great people did this £10,000 get us?” he asks.

Here it is, I think, the start of the public shaming. It is a rhetorical question. He knows exactly how many people it netted us – zero – because we’d already had the discussion. My feelings flip from mortification to irritation that I’m about to be thrown under the bus in front of all those people.

I answer the question. “No-one. No-one was hired yesterday.”

The silence that follows is excruciating. Then Archie starts to clap. And everyone else in the room begins to follow his lead until the whole room is clapping whilst I’m still standing on the table wondering what the hell is going on, looking like an outtake from Dead Poet’s Society.

“Yesterday,” Archie shouts over the clapping, “Roger kept a bunch of people who would not have succeeded at Energis from our door. I’d say that’s a good day at work. Congratulations.”

It was true. The assessment centre had not yielded the kind of candidate we were looking for, but Archie had made his message clear: Energis was to hire the very best, no compromise. And it was one no-one would forget in a hurry.

Later that week I approached him with my concern that we were hiring the wrong people. Managers did not understand what we were looking for. He asked what I thought we should do. I responded that I thought all hiring should be stopped until we were 100% confident that everyone knew what an ‘A’ player looked like. Just like that, within 20 minutes, the Chairman and Chief Executive put a freeze on all hiring.

Three years later, Energis would be sold to Cable & Wireless in a deal described by the Financial Times as the ‘greatest corporate turnaround in history,’ the company transformed from £150 million in debt to a £674 million sale.

The point of this story is that hiring the right people for your organisation is not a luxury. If you’re a manager, director or a leader, it’s almost the reason why you exist. Great processes and human resource functions are all well and good, but ultimately, it’s how you behave, how your actions around hiring as a leader set the tone for the quality of people in your organisation. Take it from Archie, a man who knows a thing or two.

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