A lot of 40-something Harvard Business School grads come to headhunter Russell Reynolds to ask him what went wrong in their careers.
“They want to know why they got passed by,” he tells Business Insider.
They assume that Reynolds knows why, and the thing is, he does.
While you might not know his name, 82-year-old Reynolds has quietly shaped the business world.
Over the course of his 45-year career, Reynolds has counseled the chairmen, presidents, and CEOs of many of the world’s leading companies, ranging from the largest financial institutions and industrial conglomerates to renowned nonprofit organizations and family-owned enterprises.
In 2012 he published “Heads: Business Lessons from an Executive Search Pioneer,” a book distilling the knowledge he accrued over the years.
We talked with Russell about the qualities that he and his clients seek out in executive candidates.
Find an edited transcript of our conversation below.
BUSINESS INSIDER: So what is the problem with this HBS grads?
RUSSELL REYNOLDS: These Harvard Business School grads come in with a halo on their head and a Brooks Brothers suit. Going to business school is a good thing to do if you don’t have a better idea.
On the corporate level, a lot of HBS students come out and say I’ll work at the company two to three years and then I’ll start my own business. Their attitude should be: I hope I’m good enough to work here 30 years, and maybe become CEO.
BI: How can people stay on the right track throughout their careers?
RR: It’s both personal and professional. In my 25th anniversary at Yale, I had emerged as a leading headhunter. Everyone told me their story of woe. Half the people were on a downward slide. The other half were doing great. People screw up their personal lives. Your personal life and your business life are interrelated.
BI: But a huge part of getting ahead is sending the right signals to the higher ups. What qualities do you look for?
RR: First of all, people have to look good. They have to dress for the role. That may sound superficial. If it’s Microsoft, it’s one outfit; in the US Army it’s another. You have to look like you belong to the group. You have to look a little better than the group.
First impressions are very important. A good smile, a good handshake. Being neat, well groomed. Good posture. You want to stand up straight, you want to have a body that leans forward, not backward, an initiator, not a reactor. So that’s the superficial part. It makes a difference.
BI: OK, so let’s get beyond the superficial. What else?
RR: That person has to be very well informed in the business and know more about the process, the customers, the defects of the product, the terminology, the patents than anybody else. They have to be able to understand it and explain it to other people.
Knowledge is king.
Knowledge is the only asset that people can’t steal from you. It’s a competitive advantage to know more than the other people. You get it by taking the job seriously. You read books about your competitors. You talk to people in the marketplace. You don’t indulge in gossip, but you exchange information. You’re a master of what you don’t say and slave of what you do.
BI: Wharton psychologist Adam Grant says it’s a matter of relationships, too.
RR: The delineating factor is whether the person is a taker or a giver. True leaders are concerned with other people more than themselves, doing things for the right reason. They have a moral compass — doesn’t matter if from church or a school or a family. A person has to know himself or herself.
You want to be perceived as a contributor, not someone who’s looking for something. The beginning of a downfall occurs when hubris takes over from modesty or humanity. It’s a very wise person who knows his or his place. The moment you think you’re more important or more gifted or have more rights than anybody else, the descent of the curve starts to happen. I’ve seen a lot of terrific people drinking their own Kool-Aid, and while they’re doing that, someone else was ahead.
BI: How do you define success?
RR: The definition of success is really are you happy inside. I think you’re happier inside if you make commitments to your company, your significant other, your friends. It has to be genuine.
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