Serving executives in higher education throughout the United States. Admitted New York and Connecticut bars.

(646) 861-2410 (primary) (203) 984-6265

Know Your Own Bone

John W. Hallowell, the revered Head of my own Ohio secondary school, once gave an address to students entitled “Know Your Own Bone.”

We were callow adolescents and the title—taken from Thoreau—sent us into gales of hysterical laughter. We wondered whether he meant “Gnaw your own bone?” among other examples of student wit.

It was only a decade or so later that I came to understand and appreciate the importance of his underlying message: take the time, and get the information, to be serious and thoughtful about what you do in life.

This lesson has particular application to our executive employment clients, whether from the academic or business sectors, when they are offered new employment.

Here is an imaginary conversation with a potential executive employment client of our firm (I use an academic setting, but it could just as easily be a business executive who has received an offer to become the new CEO of a commercial enterprise):

Client: “I am one of three finalists for the Presidency of Lollapalooza University, and I want to have experienced counsel lined up to represent me if I am chosen.”

Me: “That is wise, because if you are selected, contract negotiations will move rapidly. The Board may have taken well over a year to search for a new University President, but once they have decided on their top candidate, they will want to announce their choice to the larger academic community within days, or at most a very few weeks. What do you know about the University?”

Client: “It has a fine reputation.”

Me: “Do you know the size of the University’s endowment?”

Client: “Uh … not exactly.”

Me: “What do you know about the previous President?”

Client: “I know who she was.”

Me: “Things like: how long was she President? Why is she leaving? What kind of relationship did she have with the Board of Trustees? What was she paid? What were the problems she encountered?”

Client: “I don’t know.”

You get the drift, and, of course, I have made a fictional composite of many such conversations in order to make a simple point.

Executives who are being “head hunted” for top jobs—and, again, this applies to business executives as well as CEOs of non-profit institutions such as colleges, universities, independent schools, museums and charitable foundations—and who are at all interested in the new position, must, at the earliest possible moment, gather as much “intel” as they can about their prospective new employer and the demands of the particular position.

This means utilizing all public sources of information, but also taking the time to mine personal and private contacts as well.

Our clients are both smart and experienced, but if they are sitting CEOs or heads of institutions, their time is severely constrained, and the demands of their current position are such that they may be limited in their ability to “dig deep” into the circumstances of the job they are being offered. It is, however, a genuine necessity for a top executive considering a new position to do so.

And sometimes they have to be creative as they investigate the hidden aspects—strengths as well as weaknesses—of the proposed new job. Sometimes the recruiter will be ethical, sufficiently far-sighted and knowledgeable enough to give the CEO candidate a candid appraisal of the situation, but that cannot be taken for granted. Even an honest recruiter’s appraisal may be limited. Sometimes it is necessary to go beyond personal and anecdotal information to drill down on history and even statistics for the executive to gain a more detailed and nuanced understanding of what the new position will or could entail.

It does not take the “tradecraft” of John Le Carré’s spy George Smiley, much less anything illegal or improper, to obtain such information. “Know Your Prospective Employer” is Rule Number 1. Many unhappy experiences are avoided by following this rule.

Of course, the contracting process may reveal some aspects of the underlying employment situation. If the proffered contract is cheap or contains overbroad restrictions, that will “speak volumes” about what the job is likely to entail. Again, however, by that point, things are moving rapidly. Far better to collect information after the first conversation about an employment position which our executive client thinks may be promising or attractive.

Samuel Johnson famously said, “The natural flights of the human imagination are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope!”

With respect to top executive jobs, it is not good policy to “hope” that everything will work out. There is no doubt a reason, or more than one reason, why a particular school or company has had four leaders in less than a decade. You need to find those reasons out.

Lisa and Theresa join me in wishing all of our friends and clients a wonderful and joyous holiday season.

About the Author

Team member image

George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.