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INSIDE TRACK: Perils of recruiting top dogs are there for all to see

A TOP City headhunter, one reportedly tasked with finding a new chairman for the Bank of England's court, has moved into a new building next to The Herald's office in the Square Mile, London.

In a meeting room with the sort of floor-to-ceiling windows that delight a nosy journalist in an office a few metres across the alleyway, a succession of men in suits discuss their next move up the greasy pole, or a post that will arrest their slide back down.

Recruitment can be a highly profitable activity with firms generally charging a third of the first year salary of the person they're recruiting which quickly adds up when the post merits a six- or seven-figure package.

But two developments last week show the perils and opportunities of hiring senior figures.

There was the revelation that former Co-operative Bank chairman Paul Flowers was appointed after acing the psychometric testing. This is the Rev Flowers on whose watch a £1.5 billion capital hole emerged, who couldn't tell MPs the size of its balance sheet and who is being investigated by police for allegedly buying illegal drugs.

Meanwhile, supermarket chain J Sainsbury revealed that Justin King, its chief executive for the past decade, is to leave this summer to be replaced by commercial director Mike Coupe.

Mr King was widely lauded for overseeing the rejuvenation of a chain that a decade ago was struggling to get the basics of quality and availability right, into a one on the cusp of knocking Asda off the number two spot.

But few seem to agree on the sorts of skills and attributes that a successful boss, a Justin King, must display.

Surveyed by the Marketing Society last year, chief executives themselves identified a range of often grand notions such as providing "a sense of vision", "bringing the customers into the boardroom", and "listening with humility and acting with courage". A rejoinder to this cliched thinking is contained in Scaling Up Excellence, published later this week, in which US business academics Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao cite research proclaiming the merits of "guilt-prone leaders". These conscience-laden chiefs, and I have yet to interview a CEO who boasts of being in their number, will put the wider interests of the organisation ahead of their own personal glory.

This makes the current worry among headhunters, that the market for "talent" is becoming tighter as the babyboomers retire, so strange.

Is a talented corporate leader an extrovert such as Sir Richard Branson or an apparent introvert like ex-Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy? A number-cruncher or a visionary? A people-person or a details fanatic?

It seems that we have become caught up in the idea of the chief executive as a star who gets all the plaudits when things go well, and, consider the banking crisis, most of the blame when it goes badly.

Few consider the role of luck. Would Mr King have been such a success if Tesco hadn't been distracted by a foray into the United States? Would Rev Flowers been able to settle back into obscurity in Bradford if the banking crisis hadn't happened on his watch?

If the headhunters next door ever ask my advice it would be this: do not rely on psychometric testing and wish your candidate good luck.

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