"Forget marketing or keeping investors happy. A CEO's most important job is hiring the right people"

Briefing: Former LOVEFilM and Mothercare CEO Simon Calver.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 12 Mar 2020

We’ve got the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk to thank for the popular notion that leadership is somehow an individual talent or character trait.

A chief executive's greatest asset, so this thinking goes, is their visionary quality, their relentless intolerance of mediocrity, or their ability to inspire: the implication is that you can put them anywhere and they will achieve greatness.

The truth is muddier. Leadership is complex and contextual, and in any case a leader’s greatest asset is usually the people they lead (it's certainly hard to get much done without them).

Perhaps when we’re looking at a leader, we should therefore give them some credit for their ability to pick the right people in the first place, explains Simon Calver, head of investments (ventures) at BGF, and former CEO of maternity chain Mothercare and early Netflix-rival LOVEFiLM. Here's what he's learned about getting it right.

"The easiest thing, especially when you’re the CEO of a start-up, is to focus on the marketing or keeping investors happy, but the most important thing you do as a leader is hiring the right people.

"When we started off at LOVEFiLM I spent around 30 per cent of my time recruiting, but if I hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have had the capacity to grow and scale the business.

"Sometimes if you’ve got a gap you need filling, it’s tempting to say that person will do, they’re good enough, they’re a warm body and we need to move on.  But you’ve got to ensure you keep the quality, values and behaviour bar high. Otherwise it ends up being a nightmare – I’ve made some mistakes, recruiting people who weren't right, and it set us back a long period.

"About two-thirds of my hires have come through introductions, not recruitment people, which means your network and recommendations are very important. You should always ask people when you meet them who’s the best talent you’ve come across or who can help most on this particular issue.

"The other thing to remember is that there’s always a risk that new people won’t fit the culture or your values, which is why you’ve got to do what they used to call the long-haul flight test. What are they like to spend time with? If you left them in a room with your most important customers or friends, what message would they send?

"Finally, if you do get it wrong, take action swiftly rather than hoping things will get better, because invariably they never do, and if you don’t it will undermine everyone else’s confidence in your leadership."

Image courtesy of BGF


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