David Clark, chief people officer of Amicus Therapeutics and former deputy director of presidential personnel, joins The HR Risk Podcast to discuss managing the unique risks associated with making a high-profile hire. Subscribe to The HR Risk Podcast on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app!
Jennings: Our topic today is high-profile hires and HR risk. Hiring a new person to join your organization always carries a little risk. Will this person be an effective member of the team, will or she be retained? But some hires are especially risky because they’re for positions that are high-profile in the company, the industry, or to the public. In those cases, any misstep can have embarrassing reputational consequences for the employee and the organization.
Jennings: Joining us today to discuss the risks of high-profile hires is David Clark. David is the chief people officer of Amicus Therapeutics. Prior to joining Amicus, David was VP of global HR at Alibaba Group and senior VP of HR and chief learning officer at American Express. He began his HR career in President George W. Bush’s White House, where he served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of presidential personnel.
Jennings: David, welcome to The HR Risk Podcast.
Clark: Thanks for having me.
Jennings: Before we get into the meat of the conversation, you’ve had a unique career in human resources to say the least. Your first HR job was as deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, as director of the presidential personnel office in the White House. You were responsible for recruiting 4,000 of the government’s most senior leaders. Can you tell us more about that experience, both from the public service aspect of it, but also from what that was like in terms of the HR function. Where has your career taken you after you’ve left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Clark: Sure. I’d be happy to, and I get that question about “what did you do in the government” quite often, so I’m used to telling that story. I’ll give you a little bit of a background first, just on what presidential personnel at the White House does. There are about 2 million jobs in the federal government. 4,000 of them serve at the pleasure of the president, meaning for the most part they change from president to president at the discretion of the president and they range everything from a politically appointed secretary (who might work for a cabinet secretary), all the way up to and including the president’s cabinet, ambassadors, heads of agencies, things like chairman of the Fed, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the head of the IRS. Most of them are in the public eye and fairly well known. Some are a little bit more obscure, but they all truly do serve at the pleasure of the president and tend to switch every couple of years.
Clark: The people who run that office are the assistant to the president and the deputy assistant to the president for presidential personnel. They’re both presidential senior staff. They serve at the pleasure of the president and they work at the White House. In general, if the work were compared to the private sector HR, it would sort of be a combination of roles like the head of talent acquisition, onboarding, succession planning, things of that nature. Most operational aspects of HR would have been managed by an office of administration in each of the government agencies or by a similar office inside the White House. And what’s different though from these public sector ones versus private sector ones is that about 400, or 10%, of those positions require Senate confirmation. So once you identify somebody for a particular high-profile role and the president has agreed to nominate him or her to that role, you then need to work with legislative affairs, the press secretary, White House counsel, agency staff, the FBI, all those sorts of characters to actually move the person through the process and get them confirmed by the Senate before they can actually start in the role.
Clark: So it’s quite different from what you would see in the private sector. And I was just really fortunate to be recruited by two women who ran that office before I got there. One of whom is Dina Powell. Dina was the head of presidential personnel at the time, went on to work at the State Department, and most recently before going to the private sector was President Trump’s deputy national security advisor. And another woman named Liza Wright had come from a formal recruiting firm, Heidrick & Struggles. She had done recruiting for Capital One before that and she really helped formalize that office and turned it into a true recruiting office, versus sort of a political appointee office. So she brought me over to help with the transition. When President Bush was reelected, I was a subject matter expert having come from agencies that focused on transportation. She was a recruiting expert and the bet she made on me was I could help them with a lot of transition that was going to happen, likely at the top of the Department of Transportation. I liked them, they liked me, and I ended up staying and working my way up and ended up running that office in the middle of the second George W. Bush administration.
Jennings: At that point in your career, had you thought about HR as a profession or is it something that just sort of happened along the way that was a fortunate accident?
Clark: I think it was probably the latter; it was more of a fortunate accident. Through congressional campaigns I had managed large teams, recruited hundreds of volunteers to work on campaigns and things like that. And the government agencies where I was chief of staff, I was very heavily involved in HR matters, but it was never really a proper HR role. And quite frankly in government agencies, HR, it’s more traditional personnel. It’s making sure people sign up for the healthcare benefits, got their 401(k) or Thrift Savings Plan, whatever it was in the government, those sorts of things. So it wasn’t really a strategic business partner as it is in the private sector. So it wasn’t quite sure that’s what I wanted to do until I got a call from a recruiter who was looking for an HR executive at American Express. And that’s where I really started to make the switch into strategic HR roles.
Jennings: And so now you’re the chief people officer and you have that view both of the talent acquisition and onboarding functions and the broader strategic role. Today’s show is really focused on risks involving high-profile hires. Of course in a presidential administration, literally everyone who is recruited is in some ways a high-profile hire. They may not be a household name, but they’re people who are monitored by the press, they’re monitored by advocacy groups, they’re monitored by members of Congress and their staffs, and they’re certainly well known and looked up to in the worlds and industries that they operate in. For example, if I’m somebody at the Treasury Department in an agency that maybe most people haven’t heard of, the industry that’s regulated by that agency is certainly aware of who I am and is following my views and what I do pretty closely. So fast forward to today, you own a recruitment process for everyone from the entry-level to the C-suite. In your experience, what are the differences between high-profile hires and what I might call regular hires? And are the risks involved different in just magnitude or are they different in kind?
Clark: It’s a really good question because when I started doing this back in politics in 1996, there weren’t things like Facebook and there weren’t things like Tumblr or Instagram. Not everybody was sort of famous and high-profile back then. Now in politics you have to sort of act like you’re high-profile because the enemy’s always out to try and take down the principal. And even if you’re a low-level person, folks will look to you to embarrass the president, for instance, or embarrass the cabinet secretary. But if you fast forward to today, no matter what your role is in the company, most people nowadays are high-profile because of things like Linkedin or Instagram or Facebook. And frankly one of the things that scares me as a head of HR is although your title might not make you high-profile, your actions, your activities, et cetera, online could make you very high-profile and cause either reputational risk or damage to the company or other sorts of things. I coach new employees to think of themselves as high-profile no matter what their title in the organization is.
Jennings: What are some of the red flags that you look for whether somebody is high-profile coming in, or you want to avoid somebody becoming high-profile later on because of something that they’ve done or have been found to do? Is that a little bit different between the public and private sectors or is it kind of converging between what might cause risk in that realm?
Clark: One of the things I try to screen for is to assess people’s integrity, to be honest with you. And when I think about bringing people to the company, no matter what your role might be, is what does your integrity look like? Have you been in companies before where there have been embarrassing situations where you may have been involved or may have been at least close to it and could have done something about it and hadn’t? What is your appetite for speaking up against things that you might see that might not be good for the company or might not be good for the shareholders? I’m really trying to assess “do you have the ability to be candid, transparent, honest, speak up, and make sure that you help promulgate a culture of integrity at the company” and think through both the interview process, through specific examples and through formal assessment. Those sorts of things can be assessed out, especially when you’re in a highly regulated company like mine today, biotech, or my former company, financial services. You really want to make sure that you’ve got people who think about those things appropriately.
Jennings: So when HR leaders and business leaders are in the hiring process for a role that they know is going to be high-profile, because of the title or the position that it occupies, what are some extra diligence steps or resources they should be using to make sure it’s going to be a successful hire, a successful onboarding, and that the new employee is going to meet the expectations of that role?
Clark: Two things I look for. One is I look for somebody who’s had the experience, so here we’re going to be a high-profile person in a large company. I’d want to look to see that you did it in a smaller company at scale before that so you actually have some of those experiences and the right judgment still applies to the new role. The second is external assessment is really important in situations like this. I remember a very high-profile role at another company I worked in, where honestly after about 10 interviews, everybody loved this person and thought that he or she would have been terrific in the role. And then we put them through an external assessment that came back where it was sort of really a deep all-day type interview, behavioral questions, all that sort of stuff. And it turned out that the person really wasn’t quite what he or she had fooled us to be in that interview process. And so, for me, if it’s a really high-profile role, a high-impact role, a senior role, I rely on experts who can draw things out that those of us who do it part-time for per se see.
Jennings: One person I recently spoke to is a senior manager at a company and before he moved into that senior management role, he met with an industrial psychologist. That was part of the recruiting process for the company to assess whether he had what it took to make that transition up to senior leadership. Is that what you’re thinking of in terms of whether an industrial psychologist should be brought in, or somebody with similar skills?
Clark: That’s precisely what I’m talking about. And there’s a couple of companies out there that are really, really good at it and, and like I said, they’re able to draw things out that frankly don’t come out in half-hour interviews, or even two-hour interviews for that matter
Jennings: To some degree, it’s helpful also to have that distance because the external assessor isn’t necessarily there to make friends with the candidate. Whereas if you’re on the recruiting side and inside the company, there’s a mutual dance and you don’t want to press too hard. That’s just the natural flow of any sort of human interaction that might turn into a working relationship.
Clark: It’s exactly right. You could start the relationship off on the wrong foot. And quite frankly, when you’re on my side of the table, your job is to sell them as much as it is for them to sell themselves. So that’s exactly right. The other great thing that comes out of an assessment like that: let’s assume you get through the assessment, it’s 90% pretty good, there’s a gap or two. It actually helps you from day one understand what that person’s gaps are and you can start with development plans really on day one and help them close that gap over time. So you know if there’s something that’s going to go wrong and you sort of know that ahead of time and you plan for it, you make sure you invest in that person and get them to where they need to be early on.
Jennings: For someone moving into a high-profile role who hasn’t been in a high-profile position before, or somebody moving from what is already a high-profile role to a very high-profile role, how should that person expect expectations to change for him or herself? How should that person expect life to change and is that a conversation worth having from your end of the table with that person about what that transition is going to be like?
Clark: I think that’s right. Being transparent up front, making sure both sides of the table understand what that expectation is. I think going from a high-profile role to a highly profile role, it comes with it a lot of risk. I mean let’s assume you’re going from that Section 16 officer to being a named executive officer (NEO) of a company. There’s additional disclosures and other things that just inherently bring additional risk. You’ve got to be comfortable with that. Just your whole life is under scrutiny at that point. It means you can’t have as many friends inside your company. You can have professional friends, you can be friendly, but you need to think about your words, your actions, and behaviors constantly. When I was back in politics, I used to think of what’s called The Washington Post test, which was you wouldn’t want to write anything in an email or say or do anything that you wouldn’t want to read about in The Washington Post the next day. That applies today in business too. It’s the Instagram test, the Facebook test, all those sorts of things, but I coach people no matter what level they are—especially at high-profile levels—to think about your actions, your deeds, your words, even your thoughts in some ways. Expect that you’re going to read about them somewhere tomorrow and you should really manage yourself and behave accordingly.
Jennings: Do you think that can come into play too as people move into different industries? For example, let’s say that somebody was an NEO, a named executive officer, in an industry that is maybe less regulated, less in the public eyes, then that person moves into a financial services role that is a more highly regulated and publicly visible industry?
Clark: I think the watch-out there is understanding the specific rules as it relates to your regulated industry. So there are things you can get away with in some companies that are perfectly appropriate, but a slight misspeaking, if you will, in a highly regulated company like financial services or perhaps biotech or pharmaceuticals, that could get you into quite a bit of trouble, which could result in tens of thousands or millions of dollars. I think that’s the risk in high-profile positions and companies like you just described, there are so many little nuances. If you get something wrong there, it could be extraordinarily expensive. It could result in criminal repercussions. You just have to really be on top of it and be very, very serious about that. Take the job very, very seriously and make sure you don’t step in that.
Jennings: So we’ve talked a lot about the diligence that can go into the process of making high-profile hiring decisions. Let’s look at the end of that equation where maybe a high-profile hiring decision hasn’t really worked out well. Sometimes you see this, for example, particularly with CEOs, a company has hired a CEO and then a month later the CEO leaves and there’s an ambiguous Form 8-K that’s filed that isn’t quite clear why that person has left. Or you see senior leaders leave after maybe a year or so. That might be a situation where the hiring choice didn’t work out. Maybe it was a mistake, perhaps credible allegations have emerged against that person that weren’t known before. Or maybe that person just had trouble adapting to the leadership position or the public expectations of the role or to the organization. What should HR leaders do in that situation and how can they help mitigate and support the company, or mitigate the risks that kind of situation poses?
Clark: One of the best pieces of advice I heard was from Jack Ma, who was the chairman and CEO of Alibaba. Jack used to say “hire slow and fire fast.” I really think that that is pretty good advice. Getting it right from the beginning is probably the most critical thing you can do and that means taking your time, doing the right assessments and things that we talked about doing, all the due diligence upfront, setting expectations, onboarding the person while training the person well, et cetera. That said, if he or she crosses what I would call an integrity line or something doesn’t go quite right and it’s that person’s fault, I would fire that person very, very quickly and not drag it out. So I think Jack would say “hire slow, fire fast.” I thought that was fabulous advice and I think that’s one of the things that HR can do to help advise the CEO or other senior executives to do. Nobody likes to be the bad guy. Everybody likes to give people a second chance, but you know, when it’s time to make a tough call, HR really needs to help get the business there quickly.
Jennings: David, if I find myself as a new high-profile executive and maybe it’s a different experience than I’ve had before, are there any resources other than this podcast episode that you might point that person too?
Clark: One of my favorite resources to go to for new executives is a book by my friend Dan Ciampa. Dan wrote this book called Right from the Start, which is a book for high-profile executives when they start new roles and new companies, sort of how you think about it before you even get there and how you think about the first 90 days, even the first year or so. I find it really, really useful and practical and I would encourage folks who are either in HR or in taking these roles to take a look at that book.
Jennings: Okay, great. And I’ll put a link to that on the show notes for the podcast. David, thank you for joining The HR Risk Podcast.
Clark: Great. Thanks for having me, Andrew. Take care.