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When A Search Isn’t A Search – The Ampersand June 2023 (Election Edition)

May 26, 2023

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Dear Friends and Colleagues,


There are those who might think that an election to select the Premier of a province is the ultimate executive search. They’d be wrong. While it is true that we are voting in Alberta on Monday to choose the CEO of our $44 billion business, our choice is not between the two or three absolutely most qualified candidates for the role. Rather, our choice is limited to the candidates who decided to run in the first place. There’s a big difference.


We routinely remind our clients that the primary benefit of running a proper search is that there is often a significant quality delta between the best candidate who applies for the job and the best candidate, period. For in a search, everyone is a potential candidate. We get the spec from the client, understand the compensation parameters, cultural fit, technical competencies etc., and start engaging with the market, telling the story, paying no heed to whether the person our research has turned up is actively looking for a new role, or not. Sure, there are those who are actively looking for the next challenge, and often there is talent amongst that pool, too. But usually, the very best candidate for the job is the one not looking. The one too busy doing great things somewhere else. The one who answers the phone, usually a bit gruffly, and almost invariably ‘just running to a meeting’ or ‘jumping on another call’ and, most predictably, who explains they are well paid, appreciate their colleagues, are loyal to their current employer and aren’t actually looking; typically, they don’t even have a resume. To that we say, ‘great, you sound perfect, when can you meet?’


In an election, only those who apply for the job are eligible to get it. That narrows the talent pool appreciably. Those who go through the process of filling out nomination papers, knocking on doors, raising money, staking lawn signs, winning the nomination within their chosen party (then sometimes leaving that party), winning the riding in which they live (or, in certain notable cases, in which they are most confident they can win) and then ultimately prevailing. Usually doing so with around 40% support of the ‘selection committee’ (eg. each of us) or less. In a search, if fewer than half of those involved in the process could effectively choose the winning candidate, the majority impacted by that selection might rightly have a few questions.


That said, it takes real courage to participate in an election whereas it just takes time to participate in a search. While I appreciate those who participate in a search, I generally respect those who participate in an election. Searches are very private; elections are very public. Searches are discreet, refined, and respectful. Elections are hurtful and ruthless. In a search, everyone else on the short-list tends to finish an oh-so-close second; in an election, if you’re not first, you’re last. In a search, you’re a runner-up; in an election, you’re a loser.


Regardless of the party banner you run under, to put yourself out there, forego your privacy, risk publicly humiliating yourself only for the prize of intense scrutiny, online hate, and in the case of the Premier’s job, earning $180,000/yr (not nothing, but not exactly CEO money), all whilst knowing more than half the people you’ve been tasked to lead didn’t choose you; well, it’s not for the faint of heart. In a search, the mandate is clear and the winner unequivocal.


As if the compensation and privacy issues aren’t enough – particularly in the social media age with digital breadcrumbs that could surface at any moment – there’s the issue of your colleagues. In a search, you would rightly ask about the team. Who you’d be working with and for; the talent of your colleagues, the depth of your bench. In an election, you inherit your team and, in the case of the Premier, you are left to select a cabinet from amongst the winners to essentially serve as the Executive Leadership Team, tasked with stewarding those who put you there, and those who didn’t, through the hyper-partisan world in which we live. Once geographic and gender-based considerations are accounted for (not to mention favours cashed and IOUs deposited), this ELT is blessed by pure providence if its members happen to possess the requisite technical and functional competencies required of the Ministry they lead.


To put it in perspective, the revenues for the company called Alberta were $76 billion last year. The revenues for Suncor were just under $59 billion and the CEO earned a base salary of $645,000 and roughly $6.5 million in bonuses and other long-term incentives. Sure, there’s more to life than just money. Public service is a calling, and all that. But it’s a thankless and underpaid one. And I dare say if we paid the CEO of Alberta Ltd. commensurate with their peers in private industry, many more competent leaders would answer the call. For now, those who choose to run, to lead, and to put themselves out there deserve our thanks, not our scorn. Regardless of party and how crazy the stuff they say may sound. We are the selection committee, and we get to choose who we want leading us. That’s a privilege, regardless of the choices before us.  Wow. I can’t believe I wrote that. So mature.


Here’s the thing. In a search, if the client isn’t happy with the short-list, they send us back into the market to look harder and unearth new and better talent. Many of my friends and clients who, like me, describe themselves as proud Albertans but who wish to take Alberta forward, not “Take Back Alberta”; progressive conservatives, people who like their taxes low and their government small; who trust the private sector to get things done, yet who genuinely care about those less fortunate in our society; who are socially progressive, yet value our world-class energy industry AND are concerned about climate AND the planet AND want to leave the world better for our kids than we found it; who tire of the left/right divide; who likely reside among the 75% of Albertans who chose to get vaccinated (but who (I’m pretty sure) don’t affiliate with the Nazi party), feel they don’t have a party to vote for on Monday. And I’m sorry, but voting this time in a certain way because it’s the way you’ve always voted, as though you’re incapable of drinking a Tim Horton’s coffee because you’re a life-long Starbucks guy, isn’t compelling.


So here we are, and We the Search Committee must select from amongst the candidates we have; the ones who applied. We don’t get to extend the deadline to give the parties more time to find better candidates. This is it. This is as good as it gets. The result? Whichever choice we make, many will be holding their nose.


Go on. Hold your nose. But do vote. And then, unlike our friends to south, honour the results and respect the victor, whether you agree with the outcome or not. Don’t worry. We’re not waking up Tuesday morning with a hammer and sickle OR a swastika replacing St. George’s Cross on the Alberta flag. Like Nellie McClung said, “always in Alberta, there’s a fresh wind blowing.” And whether it blows from the right or the left, it’ll still be an Alberta breeze and there’s nowhere else I’d rather live.


But, if you decide not to vote at all, and if you wake up Tuesday morning and don’t like the outcome? Well, sorry. That’s on you. Maybe next time you’ll do something about it. Like run for office yourself.


Just kidding. You’d have to be crazy to do that!