Guns for (Corporate) Hire
I am sure every boy (at least in my youth) dreamed of being the fastest gun in the Wild West. Who didn’t want to be William Munny? 1 A gunslinger hiring himself out on a vengeance mission so that his children would have a future, seemed both valiant and noble. The true characters of the gunmen available for hire in those times were, of course, neither. Nor were they even remotely the first to make their skills in fighting available for rent. Xenophon’s 10,000 mercenaries, who failed to put Cyrus the Younger on the throne of Persia and then fought their way home 2,500 years ago, enacted their drama on a far larger and more memorable stage than Will’s exploit. 2
Not everyone, even in classical times, approved the fighting-for-money transaction that was (and is) at the root of all mercenary engagement – however noble the cause that pays for the service. Thus, we have Aristotle contrasting soldiers who bear arms for cash versus those who fight out of commitment to their country; "[Mercenary] soldiers turn cowards, however, when the danger puts too great a strain on them and they are inferior … for they are the first to fly, while citizen-forces die at their posts …"3 Isocrates focuses directly on another of the key problems with the hired 'sword' when he reprimands his fellow Athenians in these words: "… [A]though we seek to rule over all men, we are not willing to take the field ourselves, … but employ instead vagabonds, deserters, and fugitives who have thronged together here in consequence of other misdemeanours, who, whenever others offer them higher pay, will follow their leadership against us." 4 A third challenge, highlighting how intolerant mercenary captains can be, is exemplified in an amusing episode from medieval Italy: ”Apolaffar had begun his mercenary career … with Sikenolf, but had stormed off from Salerno in a rage one day… [T]he two were clambering up the outer stairs of the palace when Sikenolf, exuberant over their success, impulsively grabbed Apolaffar, a small man, and hoisted him up to the next step. Apolaffar, very sensitive about his size, found this an unpardonable humiliation."5
The history of India too is replete with instances of soldiers selling their service to the highest bidder. Seen in this light, "the British conquest [of India] often meant no more than the slow drift to the East India Company of soldiers, merchants and administrators, leaving the Indian rulers with nothing more than a husk of royal grandeur."6 The British, of course, were far from the first to paddle in India’s vast pool of military manpower available for sale. For centuries before that "[A]dventurers and men of arms comprising the plateau’s military market moved from court to court seeking promising rulers, commanders or chieftains to whom they might offer their service…. Armed villagers might sell their services to the highest bidder, but would remain in service only as long as their salaries were forthcoming."7 The military market was not confined to peasants. The prize catches were the chieftains and generals who could marshal the masses.
The parallels to the corporate world’s bidding for talent has, I trust, not been lost on any reader. There is a growing tribe of Hired Guns (HirGus for short), starting at the topmost corporate levels, but increasingly pervading downwards, which is perennially open to the lure of fresh pastures, higher payments and greater prestige on the other side. 8 Of course, we are all paid by our organisations and far and few are the individuals who wouldn’t like more money for the work they do. The key difference between HirGus and the rest lies, not in the payment they get or whether they are with the company in which they started, but in the long-term commitment the latter have to serving an organisation (as long as they are permitted to do so with self-respect). This is very similar to the distinction between mercenary forces and professional volunteer armies (which replaced citizen militias in many early republics). "Thus while all mercenaries were paid men, not all paid men were mercenaries."9 At the individual level one can contrast the state appointed (and paid) lawman in the legendary Wild West with a hired gunslinger or bounty hunter.
Few will deny the HirGu is a stream that’s fast becoming a river on the corporate landscape. Some might question, however, whether it is problematic. Dyed as we have all been in the purple colours of market supremacy, we may need to reflect a bit to figure out the damage HirGus can cause.
The harm that HirGus do lives after them
The quotes from Aristotle, Isocrates and Kreutz encapsulate the three major reasons HirGus can be undependable.
In moments of intense crisis, when the immediate benefit of remaining at the post is outweighed by risks to reputation, health and home life, it takes people with long-standing commitments to the organisation to stick on. True, there have been mercenaries who have stayed in their positions and died in battle as have some modern HirGus but that’s not the nature of the deal. Most HirGus or mercenaries ``… have no love for you nor any cause that can keep them in the field other than a little pay, which is not enough to make them risk death for you. They are eager indeed to be your soldiers as long as you are not carrying on war, but when war comes, eager to run away or to leave." 10
The other and more frequent reason for HirGus departure is pay. If someone is in the game for money it would be naïve to expect that s/he would stick around when a better offer is dangling before their eyes. Matching an external offer is a temporary palliative that carries lethal lessons for others on how out-of-turn hikes are to be extorted. The delusion that a HirGu is the silver bullet for structural, strategic or systemic faults, the ready availability of self-serving Head Hunters eager to perpetuate that myth11 and the growing pool of HirGus, attracted by wealth they could only have dreamed of had they stayed put, have all conspired to ratchet executive compensation in India to dizzying levels – far outstripping the stagnant-state of other corporate and (especially) non-corporate employee payments. 12
A third way the hair-trigger departure response of a HirGu gets pulled is almost inevitable in the rough and tumble of organisational existence. The routine of corporate life, interspersed with the unwelcome excitement caused by despots or desperadoes, while pursuing goals stretched to breaking point by raw team members and bell-curve-racing peers, can be wearing for the best of us. Haven’t we all wished we could get away from it all at times? Well, that’s precisely why HirGus keeps their highest-rated HeadHunters on speed dial. While individual HirGus vary in their thresholds of frustration tolerance, as Sikenolf discovered, these can all be rather low.
The consequences for organisations are not limited to coping with the disruption HirGu departures cause. There are three other, far more serious and long-lasting, damages.
The first thing done by the Greeks creeping out of the prized wooden horse the Trojans dragged so triumphantly into their hitherto secure city, was to open the gates from the inside. HirGus in high management positions too, don’t remain alone for long. They bring in a bevy of lieutenants, most harmfully from their earlier stomping grounds, but, in any case, chosen intentionally from backgrounds that can have no possible link or loyalty to the values of the place where they have established a beach-head. Given the exorbitant payments and favours lavished on the new nobility, several longer-sighted members of the old guard, who can read the writing on the wall from a distance, adopt the mores and manners that get rewarded in the new regime. Whatever opposition there might have been is self-destructed by Beshram’s Law (the HR version of Gresham’s Law) which states that 'bad people drive out good'. The old or unemployable may remain but they are hardly in a position to save the fast-depleting cultural stock of the company.
It is difficult to generalise about the cultural changes HirGus cause. However, given the fact that many HirGus who are brought in at senior levels are given the express mandate to shake up the place and make it more aggressive, one can be reasonably certain of what will be abandoned in such cases and be equally certain that the transformative new culture that is promised will not be realised.13 Given enough time, HirGus will Rupeefy relationships, ludicrous loyalties and trivialise traditions.
There are, of course, material consequences too. The advent of a HirGu wave is often followed by downsizings and massive efforts at contractualization and outsourcing. In fact, HirGu bonuses are frequently tied to the success of these. Another, almost inevitable, result is the stretch of the CTC envelope. Rare is the organisation that readjusts internal pay equities after paying top dollar for HirGus. And even when pay at the senior levels (where most HirGus join) is allowed to catch up, it only widens the disparities between levels. The HirGu is also sometimes brought in to recommend divestment and to prepare the organisation for it. That, of course, is the MOAB14 for destroying culture, jobs and what used to be a distinct, living organisation.
Atmanirbhar arms in the talent war
I know that by now I am sounding like a Spotify on repeat but the only long-term solution to the problem is to groom internal talent – so that the need to call in HirGus is minimised, if not eliminated.15 Incidentally, building their own professional armies was the only way states could avoid the ills of mercenary forces. Of course, even the best managed and HR-muscled organisations need to buy ready-groomed people. This is particularly understandable when the company is diversifying into unknown territory and doesn’t have time to build technology leaders within. Or when it has neglected a functional domain and has to play some fast catch-up. More rarely but still perfectly justifiable is the CEO brought in to 'Gerstnerize' the company out of its lethargy and turn the laurels on which its leadership has been resting into thorns for prodding action. This last should, however, trigger serious soul-searching on what brought things to such a pass and a thorough recast of its top-level succession planning such that it is not caught again with its talent-garment down. For well-run businesses, HirGus, especially in CEO or general management roles, should be once-in-a-generation events.
With the best intentions in the world, however, human (as well as murine) schemes go astray and we have to cope with HirGus in high places. For organisations that have been used to home-grown dyed-in-the-culture talent, critical changes in oversight styles and mechanisms are vital if the engagement is not to be disappointing or even disastrous.
The most important change when shifting to the oversight of HirGus after getting used to internal talent is that culture can no longer be relied upon to transmit unwritten and unspoken values, codes and ways of working. The heavy lifting has to be done by three formal Ds:
- Documentation of expectations, goals, measures as well as other dos and don’ts.
- Delegation of specific powers and authority. Commitments or decisions that can have lasting impact (e.g. dismissals in the next line) are better excluded at the outset.
- Delimitation specifying what can’t be done and generally excluding what is not delegated (this can be relaxed once trust builds up to include whatever is not specifically prohibited).
To avoid unpleasant surprises the Time Span of Discretion for Hirgu-filled role. will need to be lowered initially These checks should include measures of intangibles that are difficult to rebuild once liquidated. In the case of CEOs, Boards should look at trends in attrition, engagement levels and compensation more closely than heretofore. 16
Just as the same piece of adhesive tape loses stickiness with each successive use, maximally mobile HirGus will not be as sticky as those who have grown with the organization. As such, realistic plans for their replacement need to be readied and renewed – starting soon after they’re onboard. Moreover, once a HirGu volunteers departure, it’s best not to be overly distraught or dissuasive. If you wanted a lasting bloom, a morning glory should not have been your choice in the first place.
Converts to the Cause
Somewhere along the way, Will Munny identifies with the cause of justice, forgoes the payment that had lured him in the first place and establishes himself as a hero (after teaching the less amiable characters unforgettable lessons with the aid of a shotgun, a revolver and other such instructional accessories). There is a surprisingly large proportion of HirGus who follow this benevolent Munny sequence, however hot-headed or crass may have been their motives for switching firms. After savouring and succumbing to the cultural charms or job excitement of their new organisational homes, some HirGus lose their wanderlust and become lasting and contributing corporate citizens. What a happy ending. Or is there another where they discover something unpalatable in the place they have chosen to settle down and make another run for it? Like the ending of an even more famous Western with a taste for Italian food.17 But that’s another story.
- Unforgiven, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105695/.
- Xenophon, Anabasis, or The Expedition of Cyrus, Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Aristotle, David Ross (Trans), The Nicomachean Ethics, III-8, Oxford World's Classics, 2009.
- Isocrates, George Norlin (Trans), Volume 2 – On the Peace, Palala Press (2 March 2018)
- Barbara M Kreutz, Before the Normans: Southern Italy in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
- C A Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion 1770-1870, Oxford India Perennials, 2012.
- Richard M Eaton, India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765, Penguin Random House, 2020.
- While researching this column I discovered that Hirgu is a character from Warcraft. After examining the less than flattering accompanying graphic, I hasten to assume my HirGu friends that they (at least most of them) look nothing like it.
- Hunt Janin and Ursula Carlson, Mercenaries in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, McFarland & Co Inc, 2013.
- Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, from Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, Vol. I, Duke University Press, 1989.
- Visty Banaji, Head Hunters or Scalpers?, People Matters, 23 August 2021, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/recruitment/head-hunters-or-scalpers-30555).
- Visty Banaji, But who will guard the guardians?, People Matters, 14 March 2018, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/compensation-benefits/can-runaway-increases-in-executive-compensation-be-slowed-down-17720).
- Visty Banaji, Culture Change is Not a Screw-on Job, People Matters, 22 October 2021, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/culture/culture-change-is-not-a-screw-on-job-31367).
- Jessy J Ohl, The “mother of all bombs” and the forceful force of the greater weapon, Argumentation and Advocacy, Volume 55, Issue 4, 2019.
- Visty Banaji, Why great business leaders are rare, People Matters, 1 May 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/leadership/why-great-business-leaders-are-rare-25508).
- Visty Banaji, Is Your Board Bored By HR? Improving Board Oversight of HR, People Matters, 13 November 2017, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/c-suite/is-your-board-bored-by-hr-improving-board-oversight-of-hr-16797).
- They Call Me Trinity, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067355/.