As the head of Spencer Stuart CEO Practice, James Citrin has helped place top executives at companies like Yahoo, PayPal, eBay, Twitter, Cisco, Pandora, and Hulu. On the latest episode of Recode Decode, he told Recode’s Kara Swisher that the best candidates for C-suite jobs can be found at the intersection of a “Venn diagram with three intersecting circles.”
“In one circle there’s capability,” he said. “What is needed in the job? What is someone’s ability to actually do that? How much is their experience before I’ve trained them to do that? ... No. 2 is credibility. Everyone, now, especially then, when someone gets announced, they’ll Google that person. They’ll call their friends. They’ll look on Glassdoor. They’ll say, ‘Okay. Who is this person all about? Is she great and someone to be inspired by, or not?’ That’s one of the criteria, and the boards or hiring managers always say, ‘Will he or she be credible and retain our team?’
“But then the third is attractability,” Citrin added. “You have to actually, when you’re doing recruiting, you actually need to find a person who will do the job. When you’re doing succession planning, which is a big part of our Spencer Stuart work, we do a lot of leadership advisory work, succession planning, assessment and all of that.”
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with James.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who liked the idea of being a CEO headhunter better when I thought it meant literally hunting CEOs. But in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is James Citrin, someone I’ve known, but not known, for a long time, the leader of Spencer Stuart’s CEO Practice. It’s a global executive recruiting firm that has worked with companies like SurveyMonkey, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo, everybody. I don’t think there’s anyone James hasn’t recruited in Silicon Valley. He’s at the center of a lot of things, but also behind the scenes. He’s also the author of several books, most recently The Career Playbook. James, welcome to Recode Decode. I’m so excited to get you here.
James Citrin: Thanks, Kara. I’m happy to be here.
I’m hoping you’ll tell some stories, but I don’t know if you will. Let’s start talking a little bit about your career. I like to have people’s background, of how you got to what you’ve done. And especially how you got to the tech sector and how you moved into that area, because you all have done like a lot of the major placements of major executives.
So, talk a little bit about how you got where you got.
Sure. Well, first off, I went to Vassar College. I went, graduated in ‘81, and went to Wall Street as an analyst at Morgan Stanley. Went back to Harvard Business School, and I had this curious situation ...
What did you analyze at Morgan Stanley?
Just corporate finance and different deals. And I was okay at it. I wasn’t great at it. I liked the firm.
Not a killer, James?
I was definitely not a killer.
Or obsequious. Either one.
Well, this actually is relevant, because one of the things at HBS ... I was really good at interviewing. I was really good at seeing what companies that were recruiting wanted, and getting job offers. I ended up coming out in 1986 and went to Goldman Sachs, in private wealth management. Didn’t really like it, but one of the companies that I got ...
So this is kissing-up to rich people, right?
Exactly right. Actually, the original thought was, “I like relationships and I like advising people.” And I thought that doing it at Goldman would be a great place, but I actually didn’t like investing and all this stuff. But I ended up going to McKinsey in 1987, spent five years, and really, really enjoyed it and learned a lot, and did some media work at McKinsey and fell in love with media.
This is just consulting?
Strategy consulting, to publishing, to television, cable and all the like.
Like who? Who?
I guess 30 years, the statute of limitations can be off — because McKinsey never talks about their clients — but like Time Inc., and I worked in the Paris office for a big French media company back then. I had the idea that I wanted to go into media, and so in 1992, I ended up going to then a prominent global company, Reader’s Digest Association, as director of global strategic planning. I really did not like it.
Because I actually ... It was very much of a direct-marketing company.
Actually, this is quite funny for your audience. One of the tasks that I had in 1993 was to develop the electronic publishing strategy for Reader’s Digest. And doing a lot of research, I ended up thinking that the right way to go was basically into CD-ROMs, when other companies were investing and figuring out the internet. I totally missed that, so I was never a great strategist. Certainly in a corporate planning ...
Those CD-ROMs, I mean.
That was five seconds. I’m just joking.
Totally, totally. But it was great, because I called a friend of mine who was at Spencer Stuart, asking her for some advice, because I just wasn’t happy. I wasn’t really feeling successful. And she said, “Have you ever thought about our business?” And I was like, “Your business?” She said, “Sure. The executive recruiting business. I think you’d really be good at it, and you’d enjoy it.”
Let me get this straight. An executive recruiter recruited you to work at her executive ...
Happens all the time. Happens all the time.
Okay, all right. Okay.
And the reason was, it was like all the great parts of McKinsey and strategic consulting, without a lot of the bad. And what I realized was, the things I loved at McKinsey was working with clients. I loved building the teams. I actually had always had a good sense for people. I was always good at the communications side, and I understood the problems. But rather than solving them yourself, finding someone else.
It was actually a really interesting moment. Again, way before many of your listeners sort of realize, but this was at the time when Spencer Stuart recruited Lou Gerstner from RJR Nabisco to IBM and turned around IBM. That was 1993, 1994. And so literally, 25 years ago this month, I went and started at Spencer Stuart. Started in media recruiting, doing medium-level things.
Explain what that entails, for people who don’t understand. What did you do? What was your job?
I started as a consultant, which is what I am today, a consultant, in Spencer Stuart. We’re a global leadership advisory and executive recruiting firm.
So you go into a company ...
We are retained by companies to find executives for needs. And so, it happens all the time now. A company needs a chief financial officer, their chief financial officer retired, and you diagnose what it needs and you interview the management team. You develop a position specification, and then you go out, do research, and try and find the very best people to do it.
You don’t always get to work on the highest-profile things. You start like everybody. You start kind of in the opportunities you’re given. Over the last 25 years, I’ve worked my way up, and working with teams. We have a great global firm. I’ve worked on over 700 assignments over these 25 years. But, to your question of how I got into tech, I knew tech a little bit, but not that well.
But you were doing media, for the most part.
Right. I came in really doing media. I did a lot of publishing. And in the mid ‘90s, as publishers started going to the internet and creating interactive, I did that. And here, this is very interesting here. In the year 2001, in the year 2001, Yahoo had a market cap, before the first crash, of over $100 billion.
And I had written ... One of the things I had learned at McKinsey was the importance of research and intellectual capital. So, I wrote a book back in 1998 called Lessons From the Top. It analyzed the best CEOs in America, and then I had the idea to go out and, just like you, interview them, get to know them, and try and draw lessons learned for great leadership. And so I did that, and that book came out and was really a big success, and I learned a lot of ...
What were the lessons then?
Well, some of the lessons were super timeless, to this day. About thought leadership, people leadership, values leadership. It’s kind of funny. There were 50 ... In Lessons From the Top, there were the 50 “best business leaders in America.”
And we did all sorts of analyses. Shareholder performance. We did a Gallup survey on the most admired. We did all sorts of other things. And in general, we got it right, of some of those 50. These were people like Howard Schultz at Starbucks, Michael Dell, Michael Eisner at the time.
Not so good in the end.
No, but over time, many were really there.
So, the lessons learned were about thought leadership and people leadership. What I learned back then — and I see this day in and out — is that the leadership styles can be from introverted to extroverted. That’s the style, is not the point. Leadership is situational in style, but the important things are about values, about thought leadership and people leadership. I’m gonna come back to that.
Yeah, we will. Yeah.
But anyway, the point is that I did a follow-up book in 2001 on more digital leadership, and one of the people that I got to know in that process was Tim Koogle, who at the time was the CEO of Yahoo. Later, after that book came out, he asked me to come out to Sunnyvale and spend some time with him. And when I went out there with a partner of mine, assuming it would be just an hour kind of conversation, he invited me to spend the whole day with him and Jerry Yang and Mike Moritz, the famous ...
No Jeff Mallett, was he there?
Jeff had just left.
Oh, sorry. Sorry. Jeff was there. No, Jeff was there at the time. Exactly.
Right, because he wanted to be CEO after ...
He was the COO. Exactly. So, that’s where this is going. They asked me, to my surprise, to do the CEO search in 2001. And the reason why they came to me ... Because I wasn’t like a fixture in Silicon Valley. They knew I had media, and they had a theory at the time that Yahoo should become more of a media company. And then I did the first of two, as you well know, CEO searches at Yahoo. One in 2001, recruited Terry Semel, who had just left Warner Brothers as the co-chairman and CEO.
I know Terry really well. He was one of my investors, actually. Can you talk about what you ... When you were doing that, you were looking for a media person who hadn’t been in tech, right? Can you talk about that, in that case?
I mean, in that case ... Again, this is now 18 years ago.
A long time, yeah.
And there was an existential question that Yahoo had, and many companies have it, whether it’s in tech or media — or retail, for that matter — of, what’s kind of the essence? They had a view that Yahoo should become more of a media company, therefore needed a media leader. What would the right ... And we had a number of media CEOs. We did test that hypothesis, with also having a big software CEO as a candidate back in the day. But Terry was brilliant, and while he wasn’t tech, he had great access to advisers. Jeff Weiner was on his team at Warner Bros., and Jeff helped advise him, getting smart in the process.
He was a kid then.
He was a kid. He was in his late 20s. And I think Jeff, not to speak for him, but he would credit Terry for really moving him into tech.
Even though he did Warner Bros. Interactive at the time. In any case, so Terry started. And once that happened, all of a sudden, I got drawn into other tech things. One thing led to another, and I ended up doing tons of some of the biggest tech CEO and board...
Can you talk about the ones you placed, the ones you ...
Sure. And you know, it doesn’t always work.
But one of the things that I — and Spencer Stuart as a firm — were really focused on: research and learning. We’re really very much a learning organization. But a lot of that, you know ... Some that I think I can mention for this audience ... I’ve recruited Dan Schulman to PayPal, Devin Wenig to eBay, helped Meg Whitman bring John Donahoe back to eBay, back in 2005. I did the CEO process with the board of Twitter that resulted in Jack staying as full time.
Oh, look. There’s Jack.
And Jack, but also helped recruit Omid Kordestani as chairman. Did the Cisco CEO succession with Chuck Robbins. Pandora most recently, a year ago, with Roger Lynch. Hulu. The founding CEO of Hulu, Jason Kilar, who I’m sure you know.
And many along those lines.
Along the other.
So, one grew upon the other. And obviously Marissa Mayer, of Yahoo.
So when you started to do this, is it different in tech when you’re looking for CEOs, or was there ... Because it had been the ... These are early people.
I was just this morning at Goldman Sachs, talking to them about a bunch of stuff, and one of the things was that these are founder-led companies and stuff like that. Can you talk a little bit about, is it that different in tech versus industries? And in the next section, I’d like to talk about how it’s gonna change, because I really do think it’s changing pretty quickly.
Yeah, of course.
It will be changing pretty quickly. But was it different when you’re dealing with founder-led companies, where the founders are alive and still very active in these companies? And sometimes the CEO, sometimes not.
I do think that founder-led companies are their own category, and there’s more similarity with a company like Capital One, with Rich Fairbank is still the founder, and a company that has the tech founder still in place, more similarities there than just in the industry.
I think the big question in technology — that most people in technology think is unique to technology but it actually is the case in a different way across industries — is, what is most important? Do we need an engineering technology-trained product person to be the CEO or do we need a commercial person? Or do we look outside the industry? So, that engineer versus non-engineer is always kind of the core question in technology.
And then, that’s the same thing in financial services. Do you need someone who has managed a balance sheet or do you need someone who understands sales and trading are risks? I just finished working with the board of MetLife, and we had a wonderful CEO succession there. Someone deeply knowledgeable about the insurance industry. In retail, where we’ve done the Ralph Lauren CEO, the Best Buy CEO, the question is, do they need to be a retailer? And within retail, do they need to be a merchant? So, these questions of what is most important is absolutely central to this process. But in technology, it’s really the ...
Typically, is it an engineer or is it a ...
Is it an engineer, or not?
Or the “adult in the room,” they often use. Right?
Well, that’s when there’s an early-stage company that ... I don’t like that.
I don’t, either. I hate it.
I don’t like that parlance.
By the way, I’ve seen some incredibly inspiring, talented, very young people emerge to be inspiring leaders, and I’ve seen very seasoned people be quite immature.
Big babies, yeah.
So, I don’t ...
Yeah. You can say it.
But in terms of in working for tech differently, you think it’s not. It’s just a younger industry.
It is a younger industry. The centrality of tech to the economy now is greater than it’s ever been. And as you and I have chatted about, and you’ve talked with your other guests, the role of tech in society is changing. It’s under a lot of pressure. That’s big. Where’s it going? That’s one of the things we’ll talk about. I think that 15, 20 years ago, it wasn’t the center of all the conversations, as it has become.
It used to be ... I mean, back in 2004, when Michael Eisner was being succeeded at Disney, to me, that, at the time, that was the be-all and end-all CEO succession process.
And that Bob Iger came in and has done the most incredible job ... That was the be-all and end-all. Today, it’s the big tech companies that are more the be-all and end-all, and you just look at those in terms of market cap, and what are the most valuable companies in the world.
Talk a little bit about where we are now, because there’s sort of a really interesting shift going on among talent in Silicon Valley. Of, you know, talent’s always been in charge in Silicon Valley, pretty much, because of the need for not just engineers, but everybody. That it’s been one of these areas where the employees have a lot of sway. Is that still the case, from your perspective?
I mean, you look at Google, the Google employees and people like that. What is the landscape now? Because I see more founders sort of moving to the side. You see ... Satya Nadella was not a founder. He was an early employee. But the company’s shifting into a different place. Perhaps you don’t think that, but I’m just curious how you look at where we are. We have Sundar Pichai at Google. We’ve still got Reed Hastings, obviously, at Netflix, and Jeff Bezos at Amazon. How do you look at the scene right now?
There are so many topics and questions within that statement.
But I think that the companies that you mention have been the magnet for some of the most incredible talent into that sector. Years ago, companies like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, GE, had the opportunity to attract the world’s best talent. But over the last, certainly 10 years, a lot of those companies have been supplanted by, or certainly competitive by those great companies that you mentioned.
There is a very strong sense within technology that, kind of you get it or you don’t get it, and there’s a credibility that comes with being associated with these great brands, or with the kinds of education and technology education, that whether it’s Stanford or Caltech, or Indian Institute of Technology, that gets people into that industry. And where we are today, there are some of the most amazing leaders within those companies. But there are also questions about, are they just the right place at the right time? Someone who comes in, and they’re a hardworking, bright young person ...
For the first ... Yeah, for the first years.
Or even to this day, you know, how much is it their own leadership, ingenuity, and cleverness, versus just being great within ...
A greater organization.
... within a proven business model.
What a lot of people say about Google. Like that when Google executives leave, they suddenly become humans again, essentially.
Exactly. I mean, it’s interesting. If you look just on that point, if you actually look at the organizations that have spawned a lot of great tech CEOs, Yahoo actually has a lot out there.
Yes. I know. It’s amazing.
And eBay has some of the greatest ...
Let’s name them. So Yahoo would be Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn.
Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn. One of the great CEOs out there and out there to this day. Who else?
Dan Rosensweig, CEO of Chegg, who’s done a great job building that to a $3.5 billion public company. Hillary Schneider.
Sue Decker wasn’t CEO, but some of the ...
Yeah. They’ve had a lot of executives moving into big jobs. It is interesting, Yahoo has ...
Dinesh Lathi, the CEO of One Kings Lane. There are a number who are out there.
And then eBay had a whole bunch.
eBay had a whole bunch as well. And so, sometimes those organizations that have to fight a little bit more or were great but then things didn’t go quite well, they have to really be that kind of ingenuity.
But just at a principle level, what I always find about recruiting — this is just sort of a lesson learned for anybody listening — if you’re ever thinking about your own career, getting a job, or if you’re on a board, or if you’re hiring people. It’s the same thing on both sides, which is:
Think about a Venn diagram with three intersecting circles. And this to me simplifies kind of the whole recruiting proposition. In one circle there’s capability. What is needed in the job? What is someone’s ability to actually do that? How much is their experience before I’ve trained them to do that? So capability. That’s one thing.
No. 2 is credibility. This goes back to the question about in tech. Is tech different? Everyone, now, especially then, when someone gets announced, they’ll Google that person. They’ll call their friends. They’ll look on Glassdoor. They’ll say, “Okay. Who is this person all about? Is she great and someone to be inspired by, or not?” That’s one of the criteria, and the boards or hiring managers always say, “Will he or she be credible and retain our team?”
But then the third is attractability. You have to actually, when you’re doing recruiting, you actually need to find a person who will do the job. When you’re doing succession planning, which is a big part of our Spencer Stuart work, we do a lot of leadership advisory work, succession planning, assessment and all of that.
This is someone pulling from inside the company?
Correct. That’s when you’re doing promoting from within. I do want to come back to that because that is one of the big trends to talk about.
But in any case, if you think about the intersection of capability, credibility, and attractability, in that little intersection, that’s where the magic needs to happen, and that’s where you can find the right people, but it’s not a lot of people in these important, big, high-level jobs.
Right. Talk a little about succession planning versus that, because several of the jobs have been succession.
Right. Yeah. In tech.
In 2004, just to give you a couple of statistics, in 2004, the mix at the S&P 500 level in the United States, they were about two-thirds of CEO appointments were promoted from within and one-third were recruited from outside. Years ago, okay, when I started, the way most boards thought about CEO appointments was, “Oh, we have the person.” Usually, by the way, designated by incumbent CEO, which usually, back at the time, was usually a guy, and he would say, “Here’s my successor.”
”Here’s my guy.” And this way a guy. Yeah.
And the boards would do that. Usually, was the guy. After Sarbanes-Oxley, that started to change. In 2004, when we started measuring it ... At Spencer Stuart in our CEO Practice, we study every single CEO transition. We do a case study, whether we’re involved or not, and we do statistics about what works, insiders versus outsiders, first time versus experience, ages, and backgrounds, etc. But in any case, back then, one-third was outside, two-thirds were inside.
Almost on a straight-line basis over the ensuing 13 years, that shift went to 90 percent insiders and only 10 percent outsiders. And so, from one-third/two-thirds to 90/10, and that was a function of a couple of things.
No. 1, boards did get much better at succession planning. They realized that actually the old way of having the incumbent CEO just telling their board, “Here’s my guy,” that no longer worked. No. 2, there were some high-profile disasters, and boards tend to be quite anecdotal and said, “Oh, well, we don’t want to deal with Bob Nardelli going to Home Depot and it not working and having to pay $200 million.”
Well, Disney wasn’t the CEO. That was COO.
But at the CEO level, there were a few of these high-profile ones, and the boards did truly get better at looking at this two, three, four years in advance. And so, that pendulum swung to succession planning and promotion from within. That’s a place where Spencer Stuart and our competitors also do that work, advise boards, assess the internals, develop the specs, either benchmark against the externals or have externals, and have an internal and external track, and some of the actual CEO appointments that we’re most proud of at Spencer Stuart, and that I personally am most proud of, are actually insiders.
For example, in tech, one of the great surprise appointments, and this is one I would call a skip level, is Andrew Wilson at Electronic Arts. At EA, we were doing that process. There were external candidates. There were internal candidates. At the time, Andrew was a 39-year-old division guy, three levels down, who was running EA Sports, but we assessed him like we do the others, and we saw this incredible leadership, this thought leadership, this learning potential, and humility, and we played a key role in recommending to the board.
Similarly, Chuck Robbins at Cisco was a skip level CEO appointment.
Is that what they call them? Skip levels?
Well, I don’t know if that’s what they call them. That’s what I call them.
When they’re not the obvious, like the COO, who is the step up.
So that’s where the boards are. They’re really doing succession planning. As I said, when only 10 percent of the appointments went to outsiders, those 10 percent tended to be the most difficult assignments whether there was an activist, or maybe there was a MeToo issue, or there was a real business model breakdown, or real turnaround.
So here’s a case like Best Buy in 2012 where many people started writing it off for dead, and you had the founder, who was pushed out and who was not being treated well by the board, and he really didn’t like the direction of the company. He was working with private equity to make a hostile ... You had Amazon, basically, putting them out of business. Circuit City had gone out of business. People using Best Buy to showroom and then buy on Amazon. There were real questions about its survival.
In that case, we found Hubert Joly who was outside of retail, but a brilliant guy, inspiring. He had a vision that had a cost aspect of it, to be able to be cost-competitive with Amazon, to partner with vendors to create these stores within stores, to refocus on the training and culture of the employees so that you or I could go into a Best Buy store ...
And not feel like we’re ...
And just actually learn because we need to touch and feel, and that company’s been a great turnaround.
When you’re thinking of succession, one of the things that’s hard is a lot of these, in tech, successors are founders. Like, in the case of Microsoft, it went to Ballmer, who was kind of a founder. I consider him, he was there so early. He was sort of a semi-founder, I guess. They went with an internal person. That has been a very successful ...
... huge, huge, successful in effect.
I’d put Satya ...
Far superior to Ballmer.
I’d put Satya and Bob Iger, if you were to ask me who are the two best internal successors who have fundamentally transformed their organizations. So far I would say Satya and Bob. I think it’s a function of something ... back to your earlier question about what leadership… They both had an absolute clear vision for what they wanted their organizations to be, and then, in the case of Satya — again, you know him, and I know him really well. He’s a wonderful person. He’s a values-based leader. He’s very humanistic, but he’s intellectually rigorous. He makes tough decisions and makes big bets, but brings others along, and his bets have turned out to be really right. And he’s kind of recreated the sense of purpose ...
The founder culture there that was somewhat toxic, had become very aggressive, and internally aggressive, and changed it really drastically. The Microsoft today is not the Microsoft I started covering, for sure.
That’s absolutely right.
They changed a founder culture, really, which a lot of these companies, some people don’t think you can escape the DNA of these tech founders, especially.
Okay. Not to overindex on Microsoft, but I would say that he didn’t, I think he kind of reignited the best parts of the Bill founder culture. I think being highly sensitive, the same way Kevin Johnson is doing at Starbucks right now.
Yes. That’s a really good point.
It’s not changing it, but I think the smartest leaders really know what to tap into on that. But one of the real things that I’ve seen and I believe, Kara, to the bottom of my heart, is that leadership matters, and that a great leader can actually help make people’s lives better. I don’t just mean this to sound nice. I really believe it. A lousy leader creates toxicity.
We’ll get to that.
Okay. People are miserable, but a great leader really creates opportunities, makes people happy, and creates jobs. What’s shocking, mostly, about Microsoft was how fundamentally and how quickly something of that size could be transformed.
What about at Apple, with Tim Cook? He was an internal hire, right?
Yeah. So Tim came in as the, he was highly regarded ...
And the favorite.
... statistics and logistics and ops expert back in Texas, and came in to do tech and ops. He, obviously, was Steve’s successor, but it wasn’t even obvious up until, maybe, six months before the appointment that he was going to be the one, and there were questions, and that’s a big open question. I won’t really speculate on Tim’s successor, whenever that happens, but it’s a really interesting exercise to think, “Okay. How do you take something and go to the next level?” Oftentimes, people think, “Okay. We just need more of the same.” But most great leadership transitions are quite different. And so, that’s a real important one.
How successful do you think he has been?
Probably not appropriate for me to say other than to say the guy’s amazing.
He’s a values-based leader. He’s brilliant. He’s created the world’s most valuable company, up until a couple of weeks ago or whatever, and obviously, they’ve got challenges, but growing on that massive economic ... I’m a huge fan.
Do you think most founders eventually have to be replaced? One founder who’s done very well is Jeff Bezos, obviously, despite his personal troubles right now, but he has really led that almost perfectly. But there’s very few that have survived. There’d be Gates, him, Jobs, but they’re gone, and Larry and Sergey, I don’t know. They’re off. One’s doing a hovercraft. You know, they have not been as engaged as previously. Is there a problem with having a founder? We’ll get to Mark Zuckerberg in the next section.
I think the challenge of being a founder, we’ve done some research on this. I just think it’s such a fascinating topic. I think, just in general, today’s founders of that caliber, you know, a century or two centuries ago, they might have gone into politics or military, but now, changing the world is to found and build these big companies. So the kind of quality of people coming into business over the last 20, 50 years is very, very, very high.
The big challenge is, can they change as the needs of the organization change? I know you’ve had great VC partners on this show, and they’re in that business of making judgments of who to back and all of this. It is the rare founder who can go from the zero to build the team, raising the funding, creating the commercialization, and then, you know, zero to a 100, then 100 to 500, and all that, and constantly scaling.
I will say something. Okay. This might be inappropriate, but years ago, one of the big searches that I did in the internet, in the mid ’90s was for the head of Barnesandnoble.com.
Oh, my god. That one. I was there.
You were there?
We were, at the time, looking at Amazon, and someone on the board of Barnes and Noble made the comment, “Well, Jeff Bezos wouldn’t be qualified to run Barnesandnoble.com.” Sorry. I apologize.
That’s okay. They’re gone.
In any case. The point is that the ability to scale, the ability to learn, the ability to attract great people, is really what a founder needs to do. Again, it’s not just in tech. Howard Schultz is one of my business heroes, one of the friends, well, actually, who I met back in 1997 when I interviewed him for Lessons From the Top. Rich Fairbank, I mentioned, at Capital One [is] one of the longest-serving founders in America today. And so, I think their ability to scale is a function of not being arrogant, keeping learning, attracting great people around, and constantly being open to what’s needed to go to the next level.
And not being so addled by being so ridiculously wealthy that they start doing crazy things.
Well, actually, the motivation is a really interesting question. That’s one of the topics I really want to study, which is where does people’s fire come from, and how does that fire change at different levels of success or failure? One of the really interesting lessons learned over the years about hiring great people is looking at Sandy Weill. Do you remember Sandy Weill?
Built Traveler’s, merged with Citi. Sandy — and I interviewed him back in 1998, and I followed this — he had a real theory that he hired people on the rebound. That people who had had a failure, if he understood it and they learned from it, they would be that much more motivated to succeed the next time.
On that basis, Jamie Dimon, really, was created and has become the greatest leader in financial services. So I never forgot that, and so that idea of understanding failure, which is very hard for many people, and very hard for boards because very poor, boards can. Unless they’re given the confidence, they can tend to be very risk averse.
Yeah, that guy. Oh, no. Not that guy.
But at the same time, I think when the successful ones lose their motivation, it’s almost always over money. They get licked up and down all day, and you know this, and think they’re right all the time. We’ll talk about that next because I do think the constant reinforcement cycle of these people that they get ... Someone just asked me this today, and I was like, they literally get licked up and down all day, and when you challenge them, I often am in meetings with them, I’m like, “What are you talking about?” They aren’t even used to challenge anymore. Extreme cohesiveness is like a toxicity.
It’s not just the founders. The more senior you get in business and government and all that, people ... And it’s human nature. It happened in monarchies back in the day.
You know, because people’s power gets derived from their proximity to others, so it is a really big trap of the leaders.
It’s a trap in tech right now, I think, in a lot of ways.
We’re here with James Citrin, the leader of the Spencer Stuart CEO Practice. We’re talking about a wide range of topics, especially focusing on tech because James has been really involved in a lot of big CEO hires in tech, and other big executives. One of the things is the downside of what happens when you have a crisis at a company and what happens then.
I didn’t ask you about Marissa because I know you’re not going to talk about Marissa Mayer, but ...
I’m still very proud of my role in recruiting Marissa, and I’m very proud of many of the things she did. I think she did some great things. It didn’t all work out, but I’m actually very ...
Well, now and then Yahoo wears you ... It’s funny. It’s unfortunate. I think Yahoo was on a downturn and almost nobody could have saved the situation.
But one of the things, when you have crises like that, not just with Marissa, but lots of different CEOs, like with Travis Kalanick at Uber or, right now, with Mark and Sheryl at Facebook. What happens inside a company when there’s ... like recently there’s been a million calls for Sheryl or Mark to — Mark can’t be fired, obviously, or you have a founder that actually can’t, like, has that control, that can’t move out.
First, how do you feel about that inability of boards to actually do anything when these companies have way too much founder control or have complete founder control? What’s interesting is Amazon doesn’t have it and Facebook does. Google did have it. And then, what happens in these crises when there’s calls for firing with Wall Street pressure? Talk a little bit — I know you don’t want to talk specifically about whether they should be fired, but what happens?
Look, whether or not they’re super-voting shares, or control or not, I actually think is not the central point.
I think the central point, Kara, is the degree to which a board has or does not have confidence in their leader. And that, you can have, even be an advisory board, and if it’s a group of people that the leader or the founder respects, they will have a big influence. The Facebook board has some amazing people on it.
And again, not to speculate what’s going on in that discussion, but I believe that boards, as a body, bear this ... This is how they think: “We support our CEO until we don’t.” And they’re always asking us ... So, within any situation, a board is always asking the question, “How do we feel about what’s going on?” And then exercising influence to the best of their ability. If they do not feel that they have their advice being taken or their counsel, then they can resign.
But they don’t. I mean, a lot of people do feel a lot of tech boards are toothless, like around Tesla and the SEC stuff. Obviously, Elon’s a great leader in many ways, but some of the stuff he did was really problematic, especially around the comments relating to his stock, which I think a lot of other CEOs would have gotten in a lot more trouble. It’s really fascinating.
If the CEO of, I don’t know, any company would have done that, I think there would be a lot more hell to pay in an interesting way. And the boards would have acted differently. Same thing at Facebook, most people feel like they have almost no power to do anything, and we don’t know exactly what’s happening. Most people feel they don’t have any.
Look, again, I don’t wanna speak beyond my area of insight or what is appropriate, but I actually believe that companies are either wired to try and be positive sources or not.
Boards, you mean.
Well, companies, and then boards can operate to the best of their ability within that context. I don’t think this is controversial, and I’m not just saying this, but I actually genuinely believe that the impetus of Facebook is good. They are good people trying to do good things. Obviously there’s lots that needs to happen, I really believe that strongly.
And I will tell you something about Mark ... I haven’t met him many times, I’ve done work, but there is something that I think is quite instructive. Back in 2007, I had the opportunity/privilege to work with Mark and Sheryl to recruit a chief financial officer for Facebook. And something that I think speaks volumes about their culture, to this day ... I met with Mark, and we spent two hours, and he didn’t know Spencer Stuart, he didn’t know James Citrin, he didn’t know any of this stuff, but he started the questions with, in the first part, was, “Okay, who are you and what is Spencer Stuart and what’s recruiting?” and all this very high-level stuff. And then he just asked question and question and question.
At the end of two hours, based on his questions, he got to such a level of insight about how things work, and he said, “Okay, one final question, let me understand this. If you’re working on multiple CFO assignments at a time, how do you adjudicate,” and he used that word, “how do you adjudicate between a candidate that you’ll show us at Facebook and someone else?” And that is an incredibly sophisticated question about how to work with an executive search firm like Spencer Stuart.
What he did over the time of meeting all the candidates was really try to go to school on what a world-class CFO is like, and we ended up recruiting a wonderful guy named David Ebersman, who had been the CFO of Genentech, and then took them public, and he has gone on to great things as a CEO of Lyra Health.
So that, to me, speaks volumes about his capability to ask questions and learn and be open, and from what I believe and hope, it’s the same impetus right now to get to the truth, to get to the essence, based on good, and to figure out what needs to happen. Anyway, that’s what I believe. I do think that the boards, they are going to be really always focused on, “How can we help this organization do the right thing?”
Do you think they should be more ... I don’t mean antagonistic, but tougher on these CEOs or not?
We don’t know what happens behind closed doors, so it could be ...
It feels like there’s no consequence, it certainly doesn’t ...
Well, again, I think that’s ... Anybody can speculate.
Well, you look at all the MeToo stuff, you look at the stuff at Google and sexual harassment, who is ... How much is that impacted? You could go on a lot of ... It’s diversity, MeToo, all those things, there’s a lot more complexity to being a manager today in terms of things that were allowed to go on, and especially when you don’t have a diverse culture, you have an almost all male, white male culture, it creates a different kind of outcome.
I do think that ... It’s interesting, I just had a wonderful conversation with Facebook’s worldwide head of diversity and inclusion, and she’s a Rhodes scholar, she’s ...
Yeah, I know her.
You know Maxine? Incredible, inspiring, and the quality of the work that they’re doing and the implications, it’s not just HR practices, it’s on every aspect of their business, from the product, how are our users interacting and trying to get their leadership team and their user base, all that, to be reflective of the global world.
But you’re absolutely right, our requirement for checking beyond what’s just in the public domain, and even the routine background checks, has gone greater than it has ever been before. Particularly because in board appointments or CEO appointments that could bring down a board or a company or an individual if something is not understood and disclosed. So now we have different kind of steps.
Because that happened at Intel, it’s happened ... It’s a really interesting problem now to face, especially when it goes back 20, 30 years, correct? What do you do, what is the ... Just sighing, long, giant sigh.
Well, I think there’s two levels. Companies have policies, and that can tend to sound a little bureaucratic, but these are judgment cases and I think there are clear cases where things need to be ... Decisions need to be taken, and that’s very obvious, but there are gray matters where there may be alleged ... and you have to be careful in this environment that people are not guilty until they’re proven innocent.
But, as I say, it’s really incumbent on boards and individuals to disclose and to do the work and to understand what they’re doing.
Do you spend a lot of time in that vein? Because I would think it’s more important than ever. I don’t wanna say “oppo,” but you know how in politics they do oppo, and you do oppo on yourself, what’s the worst thing they can say about me. Do you tell boards the bad things you’ve heard about the candidates, or are you going, “This is a shiny new candidate we’d like to show you.”
We really try to be balanced. I can’t tell you how many times I say, “No one’s perfect, it’s all about trade-offs, it’s all about understanding ...”
Do you tell them the trade-offs, or the rumors ...
Oh, all the time.
Because I’m often called by people and they’re like, “What do you think?” And I’m like, “Oh, here’s the six things I’ve heard.” Just so they know that it’s out there.
Absolutely, we really try and operate at Spencer Stuart in a no-surprises [way]. If you read our candidate reports, they’re balanced, they’re really balanced. We really try not to sell, we really try and advise, and it’s all in the context of helping hiring leaders and boards understand that no one’s perfect, and that ...
In fact, the way I learned this years ago, the best way to get references is to have the confidence to say, “Look, we know lots of the good, I really wanna understand the downside. So if you don’t come back to me” — Spencer Stuart or whoever — “with the real downside, then you won’t have done your job. We can handle it, we’ll just make our judgments.” And so that’s kind of the spirit that we go into these.
We always ask candidates for their list of references, and respect them. We also do our own, and because of the work that we do, recruiting board directors, with our trusted relationships, we’re able to have access and do really good 360s. And I will say, knock on wood, anything that happened, but we take that very, very seriously to help our clients and help ourselves prevent really ...
Even alleged problems. Because I was one that told Uber about problems with one of their Google recruits. At least ... It was never determined, but I was like, “It happened, you need to be aware that this was a problem there.” I don’t know if it was proven or not, but boy, there was an issue. And they didn’t know, and I was like, “Where did that not happen?”
So what do you do, also, just a couple more things, when you have ... I’m sorry to focus on negative things, but when you do have a toxic CEO, like an Uber CEO, where you have a problem, where there’s mounting problems within a company. Do you get brought into those things? Recruiting Dara, for example, did you ...
No, unfortunately we didn’t recruit Dara, but Dara was a brilliant choice for [Uber].
As an outsider, you can handicap other teams. What was the problem they faced? First of all, they had a CEO who had a lot of power, who had a lot of ...
Well, that process started by Travis having to recruit a COO, being imposed on him by the board, and that was going to be a challenge, but still, Uber is Uber, and many great people around the world were drawn to that. So they had some candidates, as I understand.
And one had left previously.
Exactly. And then, after Travis stepped out, it turned into a CEO search, and at least as was reported in Recode, they had Meg, they had Jeff Immelt, and they had a dark horse, and that dark horse turned out to be Dara. And that’s a really interesting ...
He read it in Recode, he didn’t know he had it.
Oh, that’s funny.
I mean, he knew he was a candidate, but his daughter’s like, “Recode’s saying you’re the CEO.”
That’s hilarious, I didn’t know that.
Diller told him because Diller’s like, “Well, Kara just called me and said you got the job.”
That is hilarious.
But when you’re doing that, when you’re in a situation like that where it’s fast-moving and there’s a lot of press attention on it and things like that, how do you manage that? Especially for the employees? And I wanna finish up talking about where employees are.
Good. So I think that ... Here’s the principle: Great people can go into really difficult situations if they know what they’re getting themselves into. Transparency is really key. And I wasn’t on the inside of the Uber board, how they characterized it — and I know Travis had a lot of influence — but in any case, difficult situations can attract great people if people know what they’re getting into.
So here’s one that I think I can mention, we just recruited the CEO of Nielsen, David Kenny, he came into Nielsen. That’s a case and a challenged company that is in the middle of an activist situation where the activist has pressured the company and the company committed to doing a strategic review process. That was happening publicly. How do you recruit someone into that?
Well, it requires a great board to be extremely honest, transparent with their candidates, to say, “Here’s the situation, we haven’t come to any conclusion but we’d like you to come in and help us sort out what is the best thing for our shareholders and our customers and all of that.”
And David was at IBM.
How did you get him, what did you say? “Hello, Dave, I’ve got a ...”
Well, David’s someone I’ve known for 30 years.
He was on the board of Yahoo.
He was on the board of Yahoo, but we were classmates at Harvard Business School together, and he was doing extraordinary things at IBM with Watson and their cloud business. But anyway, I just knew that he loves technology, he loves media, he’s had experience in private equity, he’s had turnarounds, he was ... Here’s an interesting thing, he would have been the logical person had one of the private equity firms made a presumptive bid to try and acquire Nielsen. That’s to the point earlier I said about credibility, he was super credible and he’s super capable.
Just knowing over many years that something like that could be the right thing, he ultimately could be attractable, but it’s a real testament to the Nielsen board, they were really, really transparent with him, and now he’s leading the strategic process very, very well.
But the principle is that difficult situations, they’re almost every ... I say this all the time, nothing is easy, nothing is perfect at all. And if it’s perfect, then there’s only downsides. So it’s about diagnosing a situation.
And then I’m a big person of, you go with the people. If they’re people who you trust, they’re people who you respect, they’re people who you like, and you align yourselves with them, then you have a great chance to be successful at the CEO level or even if you’re coming out of college.
Right. So last question because we’ve gotta get going, but ... Right now, with the power of employees, you see the Google employees demanding their management manage better, very clearly making messages and saying, “You’ve fallen down on the job.” And I think there’ll be more and more of that at a lot of these companies, they’re not quite as docile as they used to be in terms of things, and they have a voice and they use it.
What is the best ... Give me three very brief, what is the most important things for CEOs to be like today, when you think about ... What are the three best qualities for a CEO?
Authentic. There’s no separation between one’s work life and their non-work life, so being authentic and not being a BS artist, not trying to be a salesperson, just to be real.
No. 2 is communicative, and absolutely ... I mentioned I’m a graduate of Vassar College, our president at Vassar, Betsy Bradley, every Sunday night she writes an email to the college community about what she did this week, and she takes pictures of the sports events, the Vassar National Women’s Rugby Champions, issues that she’s worried about, and that becomes a way of her leadership style. I’ve seen company leaders do that as well, so communicative, authentic. And I genuinely think ...
Because you have to be transparent now, everything gets out, Jeff Bezos’s texts get out, everything gets out.
Everything, you do have to assume that everything’s out. And I think the third thing is the role ... At the CEO level, the real role is to be the thought leader of the company or the organization. Where are we going? Everyone wants to know where we’re going. Even if you don’t know, you can say, “Here’s where I think we’re going for these reasons.” So if you are the thought leader ...
And that, by the way, goes to the ... If I really summarize everything I’ve learned over these 25 years and 700 assignments and all this, the two ingredients that are most important for leaders are twofold. No. 1 is to be the thought leader for the organization, and No. 2 is to be the people leader. It sounds simple, simplistic, almost trite, but it’s really ...
Below that, to be the thought leader, what does that mean? You have to be really smart, you have to really know enough about the situation, you have to be a realist, you have to do your homework, and you have to develop a point of view, ideally with others, to be the thought leader.
To be the people leader, that means to have the right value set, that means to genuinely care as much about the people who work with you and for you as your own success, it means to really do right by others. And you can do that and be a real introvert, as I said, but if you’re these two things, that’s a real important lesson for hiring people or for listeners for their own careers, just developing those two instincts is what I would say.
All right, James, what’s your next job?
Twenty-five years so far ...
What would you be if you weren’t a recruiter?
I’ve been in some form of the recruiting business for ... I was a college admissions interviewer, I led analyst recruiting at Morgan Stanley, I’ve been always doing this and I absolutely love it. I would probably be ... If the only thing ... I’ve been an adjunct professor at Harvard Business School, at Stanford, at Duke and others, I’ve written seven books, I love writing, I love teaching, I like communicating, so that’s probably what I would do. But I still have at least, hopefully, another good 15 years here at Spencer Stuart.
All right, James, thank you so much, it’s a really great discussion. Again, thanks for coming on the show after all this time. I’ve wanted to talk to you for a long time.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.