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A CEO for the Seven Kingdoms? Recruitment Lessons from Game of Thrones

September 4, 2017 Mike Ushman

Placements are coming.

Like HBO’s Game of Thrones, the Game of Recruiting can be a complicated and daunting endeavor. Whether it’s red dragons or purple squirrels; we and our friends south of the wall share a common thread in our constant pursuit of the seemingly unobtainable. To an extent, the men and women who control the various houses vying for control of Westeros are recruiters. They each have a strong candidate to present for “King of the Andals, Protector of the Realm”. They know the job description and candidate background by heart. They strongly believe their selection represents the best possible match. They consistently employ a variety of recruiting tactics to secure talent and fill in their ranks as they maneuver towards filling the most significant requisition of their lives.

To be fair there are some Stark differences as well – we follow a hiring manager’s decision as opposed to laying siege to the opposition’s workspace – but much of the process remains unchanged. With its penultimate season just completed, the lessons of Game of Thrones are fresh in our minds. We thought we’d take a minute and reflect on some of the best and worst recruiting lessons Westeros has to offer.

Lesson 1: “The Old Gods and the New”

Our first introduction to Game of Thrones came as King Robert Baratheon traveled to Winterfell to recruit Ned Stark as his Hand of the King. Good friends from the war, Ned Stark reluctantly accepts and returns with him to King’s Landing. Robert trusts his friend and believes his integrity and honesty will serve him well. 

Unfortunately, while Ned Stark may have seemed like a good candidate on paper, he was an atrocious cultural fit, ill-prepared to interact with or handle his co-workers. Like Robert, Ned is a fighter, not a politician; an honest man thrust into a pit of thieves and liars. Like most poor cultural fits, it doesn’t last long. 

Perhaps the most impactful hiring mistake in the entire series, Ned’s recruitment and untimely demise are directly responsible for the North’s rebellion as well as a slew of other tragedies that follow.

The Lesson: Don’t undervalue the importance of cultural fit, and don’t let nepotism cloud your judgment. Understand the culture as well as the position before you start actively working it. Placing the wrong person can create significantly more headaches than placing no one at all.

Lesson 2: 

“A Lannister Always Pays his Debts”

Reputation matters. Just ask Tyrion Lannister shortly after he’s captured and accused of attempting to assassinate Catelyn Stark’s son, Brandon. Falsely accused and facing certain death, Tyrion demands a trial by combat. Much to the surprise of Tyrion and others, Bronn of Blackwater comes to his aid, winning his trial and securing Tyrion’s release. 

With Tyrion’s reputation proceeding him, Bronn felt comfortable dealing with someone he knew was capable of delivering on his promises. Reputation can be fickle and a great candidate experience can dispel rumors, but it’s tough to imagine Bronn agreeing to risk his life had he first heard “A Lannister never follows through.” 

Fast forward 7 seasons later and Bronn remains an integral part of team Lannister, having saved both Jamie and Tyrion’s life multiple times. A great hiring win for team Lannister.

The Lesson: Earn a reputation as someone others will want to work with. Consistently strive to have honest, meaningful, memorable, and impactful conversations and experiences in all your professional interactions. Word will spread, others will take notice, and it can lead you to great and unexpected places.

Lesson 3: “Knowledge is Power; Chaos is a Ladder”

Peter Baelish, aka Littlefinger, is perhaps the most dangerous character in Westeros. Consistently five steps ahead of everyone, he’s a master manipulator who excels at turning ideas into reality. 

Arguably the most gifted recruiter in Westeros, Littlefinger conspires and succeeds at setting into motion the majority of events that unfold across Westeros. He helps poison Jon Arryn, and convinces the Starks that the Lannisters did it. He betrays Ned Stark, leading to the North’s rebellion. He helps poison King Joffrey, usurps control of the Vale by pushing Lysa Arryn (his wife at the time) to her death, among many other ploys — successfully convincing everyone along the way that he is on their team.

How does Littlefinger do it?

 First and foremost, knowledge. Littlefinger makes it a priority to know everything about everyone. When he speaks, he frames his message as an appeal to the other parties’ self-interest, never speaking in terms of his own. He knows the desires of others and leverages those desires into tangible, concrete actions. Even more so, Littlefinger knows that it’s human nature to panic as soon as things run awry, and so he instills chaos everywhere he goes, leaving others sulking in disbelief while he quietly scurries ahead. Chaos and uncertainty are all around us. While many stumble and fall into the pit; others view these instances as opportunities for advancement. Littlefinger subscribes to the latter approach; preparing himself by contemplating every possible outcome, selecting the one that best fits his goals, and pursuing the variables that achieve that end relentlessly.

The Lesson: Strive to be THE expert in your field. Act with purpose. Have concrete goals in mind and think creatively about how to achieve them. Proactively strive to know more about your candidates, your roles, your company, your products, and your competition than anyone else, internally or externally. It will reinforce your credibility in the minds of others. Understand the needs and wants of all parties involved and frame your message so it speaks to those needs, not your own. Be honest! Manipulating people can be successful short-term, and might be worth the risks if you’re trying to usurp a kingdom, but will inevitably be disastrous long-term. Be conscious of the fact that obstacles will block your path at nearly every turn. When Chaos does inevitably strike, your preparedness and mindset will play a crucial role in whether you stumble or thrive in those types of situations. Approach them pragmatically and stoically, controlling what you can and not worrying about the factors outside your control.

Lesson 4: “A Fortnight Ago I Had No Army. A Year Ago, No Dragons”

Things weren’t always so bad in Westeros. For 300 years the seven kingdoms enjoyed relative peace with a member of the Targaryen dynasty sitting atop the Iron Throne. That all changes when Aerys Targaryen, aka the Mad King, is stabbed in the back by his own King’s guard, Jamie Lannister, killing him and effectively ending the Targaryen rule. With the Mad King defeated, Robert Baratheon is sworn in as the new king. All surviving relatives of the Mad King are killed, except for two who escape:  Viserys and his sister Daenerys.

 Their reputation in tatters and with no supporters left in Westeros; the Targaryens do something nobody else had ever done and they turn their attention east to the distant continent of Essos.

While most in Westeros view the people of Essos as mindless savages, Daenerys Targaryen comes to realize the tremendous opportunity an untapped talent pool presents. She arrives in Essos with nothing to her name, and when she returns to Westeros she does so with three dragons and the largest army of supporters the seven kingdoms have ever seen.

The Lesson: Creative pragmatism can be a key differentiator between those who succeed and those who falter. Recruiting fortunes are constantly in flux and the best recruiters are always prepared for the worst. Seeking out new partners, leveraging relationships, and exploring new innovations — even those completely out of your comfort zone — will ensure that you are prepared to perform when the opportunity presents itself. Don’t be afraid to try new things, even if you or others aren’t convinced it will work. You never know if something may come up down the road where it would be a pragmatic solution. Be aware of what your competition is and isn’t doing – adding the things they aren’t doing to your arsenal will give you an inherent edge. Learn how to engage, utilize, and leverage the advantages of outsourced or offshore resources in the right situations and you’ll find yourself ready to tackle any situation that arises.

The fact is that if you’re not using all the tools and resources available to you to succeed, your competitors will outpace you quickly. If you can’t figure out how to leverage those things properly then you’re already at a disadvantage. When the time comes the most pragmatic and prepared among us will be the ones to outlast those too timid to embrace more innovative approaches.

In the Game of Recruiting, You Place or You…(you know)

Whether you placed 1000 candidates last year or 1, you should always be self-reflective and look for advantages to leverage in the appropriate context. If you don’t know about something, then you can’t know what you are missing either. Ignorance is the first enemy of recruiting and will severely limit your ceiling relative to more informed and flexible individuals or firms.
The Game of Recruiting, like the Game of Thrones, is not simple or straightforward. It’s a winding path, a constant struggle. You will encounter honest people in addition to liars, cheats, fanatics, manipulators, and everyone in-between. Understanding what makes the people in Westeros successful at navigating these difficult situations may just hold the key to your own success here at home.

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