Like many children, I wanted to be an astronaut. Well really, I wanted to be a “Space Man”. My room was filled with planets, stars and rockets; I loved the science, but really loved the idea of exploration. This is an idea many people love: we all know the mission statement of the Starship Enterprise, to go boldly where no one has been before.
As part of my dream, I had a pop-up book which contained a small speaker that – upon a push – played one line of John F Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice Stadium. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Why is a headhunter writing about moons and myths? What is the relevance today?
Because, often, I work on ‘first man’ roles. The typical profile looks something like this: With a product that will revolutionise the way some of the world’s largest companies operate, an American tech start-up raises millions (sometimes hundreds) of dollars in investment, continues developing their tech towards commercial reality, and brings in a commercial leader to set a global strategy for shifting a tech-focussed business to bringing in revenue.
Different companies work out their expansion differently, of course. Many focus on growth in America, but more typically they become international at the earlier opportunity. In the absolute antithesis of the village shop, cross-continental expansion is an urgent priority. Despite software being an incredibly easy product to deploy internationally, and despite the rise of ‘remote’ business, expansion is still a territorial game.
A search for the right ‘Astronaut’ is a complicated one. You’re looking for a genuine commercial pioneer who has familiarity with, and a track-record of success in, the company’s industry, but also someone who is prepared to take (at least in the short-term) a step backwards in terms of operational support, market presence, and likely earnings. You’re looking for someone who can not only implement a strategy but build it, who can get back to doing bits of the job they stopped doing years ago. You’re looking for a sales-focussed entrepreneur who understands business growth and the operational impacts upon it, a team leader. In comparison, landing on the moon seems easy; after all, that’s just science.
When I discuss hiring for a Pioneer to go boldly where no one (from their company) has been before, I always add ‘low-risk’ to the priority list of the brief. Low-risk can be erroneously perceived as unexciting, even boring, but the financial and strategic outlay on a first man warrants guaranteeing – as much as possible – that the person hired can execute the position to maximal potential. With pioneers, there’s always a risk of going down in a blaze of fire and glory, but not all can afford a second or third attempt.
There is a unique relationship between a business and the first man in a territory he is responsible for growing, a fusion of personal and business brands. This begs the question, what are we looking to establish when considering the likelihood of success in these roles?
Does the candidate understand there is more to business than revenue?
Have they added meaningful value beyond the job description in previous roles?
Do they have a growth mindset?
Is the individual resilient enough to cope with endless rejections, daily tasks (e.g. getting meetings) being far more difficult than before, and trial-and-error changes in strategy from the hierarchy?
Are they seen among peers as an industry expert?
Do you have the ability to take part of a working framework and shape it around a new value proposition?
Do you have the ability to (and interest in) drive good practice in others?
Our qualification begins here and is a continual process of learning and re-evaluation to facilitate our clients finding the ideal candidate, maximising the likelihood of a successful launch.
But our clients also have to evaluate us. Are we driven to do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard? Yes. We do this because the hardest searches produce the most satisfying results. Our track record is of clients securing highly-qualified talent expanding their business into uncharted space. Our ‘Astronauts’ value our input, and respect our advice about the next leap.
Where do we sit in this now-convoluted analogy? We’re mission control.