The convergence of building my executive team at fiveonenine games and the US election cycle brought to the forefront the concept of the High Concept Candidate. I first heard this phrase during the 2004 Democratic primary. When General Wesley Clark entered the race, he was considered the perfect candidate to unseat (easily) the incumbent President. He was good looking, smart, a war hero, had extensive foreign policy experience and moderate views. Progressive friends of mine looking for a winning candidate made a significant campaign contribution to him as soon as he announced. He was the answer to a prayer from Democrats desperate to win back the White House. To make a long story short, after a few weeks when he was actually running for office, his campaign went down in flames as he had difficulty articulating positions and there was little substance behind the things that made him such a good POTENTIAL candidate.
This same phenomenon has played out twice recently in the corporate environment, with the failed leadership of Carol Bartz at Yahoo! and Leo Apotheker at HP. Both were selected by their respective Boards with very little due diligence by Board members. In fact, there are reports that most members of HP’s Board did not even feel a need to meet with Apotheker before hiring him. They were both enamored with the resumes and the narratives it allowed them to tell shareholders. How the selection would turn around the companies, allow them to execute on their vision, blah, blah, blah. What they did not focus on was how would the selection add value to the company, help them build or gain advantage and achieve a long-term goal. Getting a pretty candidate became more important than getting one who would perform.
I see in the social space a lot of high concept candidates getting senior positions and then delivering disappointing results. Given the age of the industry, there are very few people who have actually had many successes in the space. So selection (either consciously or sub-consciously) often comes down to how good the story you can tell your investors, Board or the markets is. That strategy works for a while (usually less time than you would think,) but often leads to dysfunctional organizations that can’t make money (or lose it precipitously), are rife with internal politics, suffer high levels of turnover or just lose their vision.
So what is the answer? When I find out, I will tell you. In the meantime, this phenomenon has reminded me to look at candidates deeply, understand what skills and strengths they bring to the table, see how they will contribute to the culture I am building. Most importantly, are they the person to create long-term value. It takes discipline not to hire the High Concept Candidates, the people who will look good on the About Us section of the website or make the Board/investors ooh and aah, but at the end of the day if you are surrounded with people who will create a great company, your life will be much easier.