Management Articles


The Dark Side of Success

By: Judith Cushman

Judith Cushman is President of Judith Cushman & Associates,, The firm provides consulting and retained search services in the communications/IR fields globally. She has been writing the newsletter for over 15 years. To subscribe: Email with "SUBSCRIBE" in the Subject line;

For Corporate Vice Presidents who are qualified for top positions at major corporations and "safely" employed, this is an excellent time to reflect on whether it makes sense to consider a move once the economy picks up. In my opinion is it a question of when-not if.

Once hiring begins, we will be playing a complex game of musical chairs. My guess is that we probably are about 15-months away from a robust uptick in searches for top posts. Now is the time to decide what it would take to for you to leave your current position and why. Waiting until there is a friendly call from a search firm is too late. The financial realities and the risk of making a change should be clear before the question, "who would you recommend for this position?" scrolls across your screen. This is my take on the fundamental question of how to think about success and the reasons to consider or reject an offer.

Moving for a leadership position in communications is about success. If you are doing well where you are, I expect you would only consider a move if you could be richer, happier and more successful meeting exciting new challenges elsewhere. Why is the risk so high?


The truth about success and risk

On the face of it-there may be several reasonable answers for why a company is looking outside for a new leader. However, there are others that raise more questions than they put to rest. The highest risk, in my opinion, is when an organization has a deep communications staff but no obvious successor (at the time the top job becomes vacant). When an organization wants a "fresh approach" to take the function to the "next level" that tells me this is a potential minefield. What do they mean?

This sounds credible, "Our new leader should be broadly skilled, highly intelligent, a problem solver who can bring fresh thinking and vision to meet new, different and bigger challenges." This does seem to imply creating new programs and new strategies for communications. I think not. It means they don't know what they want.

How many of you have read senior level job descriptions that give a clear outline of what management has established as the top 5 priorities-with everyone on the hiring team agreeing (when you ask)?  I expect a small minority. Drill down past the overview and you have very little to go by. The hiring officer says, the new VP will "fill in the blanks"-which means they hope to select someone with sufficient experience and leadership savvy to figure out what they want and sell it to them.

The new hire assumes the risk and hopes that they really meant what they said about giving him/her this great new challenge, that the picture they painted of the potential of the job is accurate, and that there is sufficient authority and support to have a better than 50/50 shot at success. Underlying the positives is a concern that if they really had understood the scope of the job, could an internal successor have been groomed? What led to the lack of talent in the pipeline? What didn't they know?  What does that say about the leadership team?

How many job descriptions realistically describe the challenges of the job, e.g. "We have a divisional structure with highly independent business leaders and now we are consolidating and operating under one umbrella?" (Or, in my opinion, attempting to consolidate is more realistic.) Wouldn't that be refreshing? Or, "This organization recently restructured and is seeking internal communications leadership at a strategic level to guide/consult with the management team about how to help employees understand, support and work productively." That is the positive way to say we have a lot of unhappy people and we need to find a way to get us on the right path. Good news (and so rare these days) is the company that is doing very well and needing new leadership with the experience to take the organization from small to medium-sized (as in the life sciences when the organization goes from the research phase to the manufacturing product phase).


Hedge the risk

My point is that it is critical to "look under the tent" to understand what the hiring organization may not wish to publicly acknowledge are complex issues that they hope a new leader can address. Or, and this is frequently the case, they are unaware of how their own culture and current practices derail the goals they have set. They are presenting their story but lack the objectivity and knowledge to give you the full picture. It is only when you have made your own assessment of the risk and challenges that you can determine if you should consider an offer and proceed as a finalist in the search.


What is your definition of personal success?

Let's start with your understanding of success. I would suggest it means being empowered to take on a leadership role to affect strategy, solve problems and elevate the function beyond tactical improvements-and, of course, achieve those goals. For example, if you were asked to manage media relations more proactively or organize a global network to more effectively launch products, would you find that compelling enough to leave a current position? I would guess not-even if the compensation were attractive.

If the job description talked about taking on broad challenges and creating new solutions that could change communications practices throughout the organization, would you have the patience to tackle that assignment over several years? What if you became convinced that these goals were only partially attainable?  Would you consider yourself a success in that culture if your employer were happy but you were limited by structural or political realities? Would your sense of what the potential is for elevating communications practices and your inability to accomplish them fully (with all the resources available to you) drive you to find another home?


What does "success" look like to the hiring team?

If you read many job descriptions, the overarching statement about the primary goal is to achieve "taking the organization's strategic vision and creating communications programs around that vision." That does sound appealing. However, the reality is, success can mean achieving so much less to the leadership team (that the job is a disappointment). The real issue can be fixing a problem the CEO wants solved or simply improving operations (better execution of the same plan).

Another issue is self-awareness, or the lack of it. If the hiring team does not know how hard it is, given the culture, to win consensus on broad communications issues, it can be that they are expecting the impossible. Ask the interviewing team what needs to be done. How different or consistent are the answers? How impressed are you with the sophistication of the responses? How open are they to use the interviewing process to begin a dialog-and listen to your ideas?


What do the words mean? What are the challenges?

The words in the job description are lofty, all about strategy, challenge, team building, and leadership. These are exciting statements, but what clues does that give about culture, pacing, process and consensus building? (This can be code for how slowly decisions are made.) Reporting lines in a description appear straightforward. That can be the "official" story, but in reality, for example, there can be deep differences of opinion between the Chief Marketing Officer, the Chief Administrative officer and the President (and leadership at the business unit level, as well).

If that is the case, how do you avoid becoming so embroiled in politics that your priorities are lost in the shuffle? Or, the organization may have developed a culture where independent business units operate with little or no cooperation at the corporate or institutional level. The communications leader may find s/he lacks authority to implement company-wide initiatives.


How can you know what the hiring team doesn't know?

The ultimate conundrum is when an organization has no one on board to lead the search with "hands on" knowledge of communications. Hiring is the responsibility of a leadership team that most likely has no in-depth understanding of the job they are hiring for. The job they wish to fill may have evolved from what it once was. (How do you define future challenges and hire for them?)

Or, if the incumbent did not meet expectations, the job description may overemphasize the importance of some aspects because they were done so poorly before. Also, by the time the market picks up, social media programs will most likely be incorporated into job descriptions. How will the hiring team determine if the finalist has the appropriate qualifications as the nature of corporate communications shifts to include messaging via these direct channels? 

For these reasons, the hiring process can be a case of the blind leading the blind. The hiring group may know only at an imprecise level that they need a "fresh approach" and cannot spell out the scope of the job or the specific duties. Job descriptions for leadership positions are generally so vague that it is impossible to tell if the lack of clarity is the description or the job itself.

It is a given that in any case, the finalist selected must feel comfortable with and win the confidence of the leadership team. The interviewing process should accomplish that. The real detective work should begin once you appear to "fit" with the team. Too many times, if the "chemistry is right" and candidate has a resume that says s/he is fully qualified, the search moves to an offer stage. This is when the process should pause. The real work for a candidate starts here before agreeing to become a finalist.


Assessing your chances for success on your terms

If you are seriously considering joining the organization, understanding the financials, talking to outside consulting firms with clients in the industry (as well as those working for the hiring organization) and reading about the leadership team and their styles are givens.

With social networks today, it is no problem to dig much deeper. Find several people who have left the company and ask about the culture and details about the organization. How did the work get done? How open was the leadership team to new programs, etc? Was it a decentralized or a top down culture (or any variation)? What level of work did the communications team produce? What is the longevity of people in the top job (and his/her direct reports)? Be systematic and consistent in asking the same questions of several people. Truth is many faceted and there can be legitimate and differing opinions about the organization.

The mystery is, how do you know what really needs to be done? And, as a top notch professional is it your job to figure out what they say needs to be done and do it or is it convincing them that they need to be more open to looking at the problem/solution in a new way? (It is more likely a mix of both.) Initially, are you willing to accomplish several key "to dos" the leadership team identified to win their trust? But long term, should you be negotiating for the authority to set priorities? At the point when you are considering an offer, do you think it is appropriate to ask for that authority? Or, having done your homework, are you eager to join, and take the gamble that you will be successful over time? These are only decisions that you can make.


Success and how you are evaluated in the job

How much is a job about ideas and vision and how much is it about winning hearts and minds by executing impressive projects? If you are hired, who will be evaluating your work and what are the criteria you will be measured by? This can the most basic way to tell what "success" looks like to the organization-if they like specifics and have thought the process through.

Do not assume the criteria are clearly defined; in some companies the performance review is a complex team effort. If that is the case, this is a major "clue" that success will be a relative and negotiated concept. Are you OK with operating in such a "gray space?"

How tactical are the near and medium term goals? Is it important to you that you develop and implement strategic programs? If that is the case, how can that be accomplished for the long term? Or will you always be asked to do major projects, perhaps on a global scale, that will determine how successful you are by corporate standards? Is that OK?

I think successful Communications VPs are respected for what they do-not their strategic plans. When all is said and done, from a corporate perspective, winning the trust of the leadership team and doing what are perceived as "major wins" are what matter. (Those wins however could be the result of a strategy the VP has developed, but no one remembers the strategy-just the wins.) I think the same could be said for other major corporate functions.


To Summarize

  1. How do you define personal success?
  2. How closely does that align with the organization's goals as defined in the job description?
  3. Does what the company says in writing "hold up" under scrutiny. Does it "feel" right to you?
  4. What are the odds for success, based on your personal assessment?
  5. How much risk are you willing to take?

Good luck.

© Copyright 2009, Judith Cushman

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. ManagerWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. ManagerWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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