How to Avoid Hiring an Empty Suit

2014_11_f6By Erika Weinstein, CEO and Founder, eTeam Executive Search

Fall is here, Halloween is just behind us and I was reflecting on what people dressed up as this year. What was the latest and greatest costume? I know one costume you wouldn’t have caught me in and that’s the invisible woman wearing an empty suit. Usually we refer to someone who makes themselves out to be much more able or important, someone who is not particularly good at their job as an empty suit. These masterminds of getting ahead without the credentials can be found in small and large organizations throughout the world. We meet them at conferences, client meetings, interviews, and even on vacations. So who are these masked invisible people who wear empty suits? Are they incompetent are they know-it-alls, or is he or she a relative of the CEO? Or are they people who simply can’t say no for fear of not getting the job, landing the client or impressing their staff? Most of us have met or know of a person who has climbed up the corporate ladder into positions of authority that they really don’t deserve or aren’t able to maintain effectively.

Many of these individuals are masters at the performance stage whether it’s interviewing “Oh yes, I’ve sold over $5 million dollars last year.” When in fact you find out much too late that the $5 million dollars was in the pipeline and closing the deal was another story. Many hiring managers have made this mistake and wind up saying “Boy, did he turn out to be an empty suit.”

I wonder, could it actually be that more empty suits are walking company halls these days or are company expectations becoming unrealistic? I don’t think there is anybody who knows for sure, but if you want to do a bit of research in your own corporate hideout, here’s some types that fit the generic empty suit guide: there’s a core type — call him or her the generic empty suit — and a few categories: high-level executive model; the rising MBA style and the salesman suit.

Usually the best place to go looking for generic empty suits is in large organizations, because in small entrepreneurial companies they have nowhere to hide. Harvey Hornstein, a Columbia professor, consultant, and author of “Managerial Courage,” has been trying to isolate the organizational environments that lead people to be more or less self-aware. He says” it’s important because where employees go in for self-scrutiny, they tend to speak up more, even against the prevailing wisdom, and may act more creatively.” Empty suits tend not to speak up and don’t like to go against the tide. “Watch for them then,” Hornstein’s research suggests that these posers tend to be “in organizations that favor hierarchy over participation, formality over warmth, and uniformity over pluralism.”

In a setting in which rules and procedures are valued over creativity and strategic thinking, the empty suit has ample opportunity to focus on political correctness without much effort into the work. If the standard corporate drill is to have a weekly meeting, she will have that meeting devotedly every Monday morning. She’ll go through the motions of what’s expected, but she is not concerned with the outcome of the meeting such as generating new ideas or strategies.

So why does the empty suit survive in spite of our cultural dislike for these enigmas? What typically saves the empty suit is the fragile relation between what he or she does and any actual business results. This may be a function of the level of job at which he or she is hired, with lots of power to dismiss others’ inventiveness, but has no responsibility to create ideas or meet a sales quota. Basically he or she is above the scrutiny of direct accountability.

Sometimes I’ve met an empty suit who may have come up through a corporate system that rotates people through a new position within the company every 18 months. She hardly had time to get any training for each rotation nor did she have the opportunity to get to know her teammates and consequently may have totally screwed up the few decisions she was compelled to make. By the time fingers were pointing, the empty suit had flown the coup and the remaining team needed to clean up the mess.

“The typical empty suit, you see, is not an idiot,” says David Campbell of the Center for Creative Leadership. “He may be bright and effective, but in a very predictable, very cubby holed way. Call him Mr. Expedient. As such, he can come in particularly handy at an organization still suffering the aftershocks of restructuring: Others have their heads down, desperately trying to avoid calling attention to themselves.” It’s not unusual during restructuring that management wants to tie up a few loose ends such as additional cost cutting and reducing staff. For what the empty suit does best is brown-nosing the brass. He’s a master performer and uses his charm to seduce. He goes out of his way to position himself with just the right person.

If he or she is truly a master-suit, they will have a succession of glamour jobs on their resume. I fell for this type of empty suit myself once. I should have looked more closely at her background; she didn’t have long tenures at each position and her career ended prematurely in the arena that she claimed to be highly networked.

Unfortunately, the higher the position, the longer it takes anybody to tell whether or not someone is doing a good job. By this time, the suit will have learned all the buzzwords of leadership: He will talk vision, maybe even values. Ah, but just let those below try to find out exactly what that vision entails, or what his values are. An empty suit is the precise opposite of a true leader. They are not risk takers.

Avoid hiring an empty suit

It’s important to realize that just because someone is in a leadership position, doesn’t necessarily mean they should be. Put another way, not all leaders are created equal. The problem many organizations are suffering from is a recognition problem — they can’t seem to recognize good leaders from bad ones. Brian Wong, CEO of Kiip, an advertising internet company that engages their audience with life moments by rewarding them with samples, special offers, etc. says that there are certain characteristics that he looks for to avoid the hiring an empty suit: “I want to understand if they are a good teacher…by nature are they patient, knowledgeable and giving.” Brian also explores people’s “super-power.” Yes, I heard him right! He asks people “what’s your super power” at an interview. Basically what are you great at so that we can leverage and focus your energy on that power, therefore avoiding ramp up time.

When you interview, be sure to ask questions that ask for specific examples in their current position. In speaking with Anthony Reddish, Director of Digital for the hot agency, MODCo Creative, he related a story of interviewing an executive in the digital design space. In order to get to her critical and creative thinking abilities, he asked her “what was your goal when you created that website and why did you create something in a certain way?” When she couldn’t be specific in her answers, he realized that she was not the strategic thinker she purported and in fact, she was the junior person on the team.

The lesson Anthony states here is “honesty.” I’m passionate for authenticity in a person. Do your homework, especially in digital arenas, which change constantly. Keep up on your game, read the latest blogs and articles, stay up to date, and constantly ask questions.

“Don’t be the hamster in the wheel” states Brian, when referring to a staff member who would “shoot off 10 words to communicate with his team complex strategies.” “That is pure laziness and his team had no idea what’s going on.”

Beware of the empty suit

We have all met, hired, and worked with a “suit.” I do think that people who lack character or integrity will not endure the test of time. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, affable, persuasive, or savvy a person is, if they are prone to rationalizing unethical behavior based upon current or future needs they will eventually fall prey to their own undoing.

Poor communication skills is another trade mark of the empty suit. Leaders can communicate effectively across mediums, constituencies, and environments. They are active listeners, fluid thinkers.

Finally, it’s important to understand that nobody is perfect and we are subject to failing; however, leaders who consistently fail are not leaders. They don’t learn from their mistakes but tend to blame others for their failures. Don’t under estimate a long-term track record of success. Someone who has consistently experienced success in leadership roles has a much better chance of success than someone who has not.

Erika Weinstein is CEO and founder of eTeam Executive Search.

Follow Erika Weinstein at @eTalentSeeker.

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