Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Adventures in Recruiting: The Turtle and The Scorpion

Everyone knows the story of the turtle and the scorpion – you know the one where the scorpion asks the turtle to take him on his back to the other side of the river.  The turtle says he will do it if the scorpion promises not to sting him.  The scorpion promises, hops on the turtle’s back and, just as he reaches the other side of the river and is about to hop off, he stings the turtle.  As the turtle is about to die, he asks the scorpion why he did it after promising not to, the scorpion replies, “Because I am a scorpion.”

Advertising has its scorpions as well.

This story is amazing. I disguised the characters and the agency, but it is true, and happened as it is written. One of my candidates, a former employee of the agency and who remembered the story, suggested this would be a great story to post.

Not too long ago, I had a candidate who was finalist for the director of account management job at a well known, mid-size agency..  He had been interviewed by everyone he needed to see - the head of planning, the human resources person, the chief operating officer and the CEO - and was close to getting an offer.  The candidate called me to tell me that the director of planning had called him and asked to have breakfast. They had previously met but she told him how excited she was about him joining the agency and how much she was looking forward to working with him; she assured him the offer would be coming and she told him her purpose was to get to know him better so they could get off to a quick start.  I called my client, the chief operating officer.  He thought it was a good idea.  He knew about the call and had encouraged the invitation.

My candidate thought it was a great idea, also. On the appointed day, the breakfast lasted until close to lunch.  They discussed the agency in depth. She asked him if she could talk frankly and off the record.  He asked the same. 

The planner was open with him and discussed issues: staffing problems, new business problems, things they could work together to fix. He told her his views and philosophy and suggested things they might do together to build the agency.  It was all very positive. He left the meeting thinking highly of her and the opportunity.  He was psyched.

I called my client, gave him a debriefing and discussed timing.  An offer would be made in a day or two.  The agency was working out the financials.  But then, days went past with no communication with the client.  The job seemed to fall into a black hole.  I heard nothing.  A week went by and then two weeks passed. Now, if you are a recruiter, this is fairly common, particularly at senior levels.  I knew they were working on an offer, had to get it cleared with the holding company and would then get back to me.  While I was somewhat concerned, it was/is not unusual.

However, three weeks later I was surprised by the news that they would not be hiring my candidate. Indeed, they were not filling the job at all; rather, they were promoting the planning director to run account management.  I was told this by the COO, who was as much in the dark as I was and had simply been told by the president of the agency of the changes. 

A couple of weeks later, I learned what happened.

After the breakfast, the account planner went to the president and made a case for not filling the head of account management job.  She explained she could do the job, had once been an account person.  She laid out a plan for the agency.  It was everything that my candidate had told her. Everything she told the president was word for word what my candidate had naively laid out at the breakfast. The entire breakfast had been a setup for this.   The president bought it.  After all, he could save a very substantial salary and promote from within.

The end of the story is that after about six or nine months, the president discovered the subterfuge when the candidate could not perform as expected.  She was subsequently fired. My candidate went on to another job at another agency. 

The moral of this story is to be careful what you say and who you say it to before being hired. However, I do know that in life, it often happens that what goes around comes around. 


  1. Hi Paul,
    I am an advocate of the idea; “if you have nothing good to say do not say it”. If on the other hand you must be careful of sharing your thoughts on how you perceive doing business before you join a firm for concern of being stung, do you really want to take a ride with that firm?
    It sounds as if this candidate was lucky and would have been stepping into a political back stabbing mess with this conniving planning director. Power plays at the top when you join a new firm are not what I recommend a new hire to take on unless they are aware of it before they start and know they have senior management support.
    This was not seen, had it been you would have made sure it was understood before an offer was made and accepted. Hopefully, your client gave you the job to replace her and your initial candidate is happy in their new position.
    Best Regards,

  2. I once found a fellow account supervisor rummaging through my desk for a strategy memo I had written for our mutual client, The Gillette Company. Her intent was to use its content as her own. (Yes Susan, remember the look you gave me when I caught you?) She was a well known cheat and scoundrel who was eventually fired. Even ad agencies have standards.

  3. Not only was your client spared a conniving colleague, but perhaps also from the limitations of a flawed CEO. As I recall, some years ago former HRB Editor-in-Chief Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote: The barriers to success are not strategic; they are social. By this she meant that within a given set of circumstance the range of solutions is often quite narrow. So the ability to harness an organization around a plan is the leader's signature task, and the key variable to success, in her analysis. Perhaps the CEO thought an insider might have an easier time of it, but surely it was his/her responsibility to evaluate both the plan -- and the planner's ability to deliver.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

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