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To Recruit Rock Stars, It Helps to Know The Real Thing

To Recruit Rock Stars, It Helps to Know The Real Thing

Headhunters regularly claim they recruit rock stars, but most executive recruiters have never known a rock star in the literal sense. Consequently, they haven’t a clue what it takes to perform at that level — at the very top — whether in a stadium filled with fans or the boardroom.

If you think about it, few executive recruiters have recruited candidates who would qualify as icons. Rock stars are unicorns. They are rare, if not magical, beings. Headhunters who’ve met the real thing get that. To recruit at that level, a recruiter needs to operate at that level. The more time you spend with champions in any profession, the more capable you become of recognizing exceptional talent in candidates on the verge of reaching the top.

Why Knowing Actual Rock Stars is Relevant

For the few of us who have gotten to know real rock stars, the experience informs our understanding of the qualities that compel executives and technologists to outperform everyone else. Real rock stars have taught me how to recognize the special mix of skills and abilities required to rise to the very top. I have been fortunate to get to know legendary musicians so iconic other rock stars write about them.

Why Recruit Rock Star Executives?

Executive recruiters seek “rock star” candidates so the business can be more successful. Startups backed by top-tier venture capital firms require that level of performance to scale a company. Marquis names attract investors so they don’t run out of runway (money) and great talent.

Business rock stars are often so charismatic that they are worshiped. Steve Jobs inspired the cult of Mac and to this day he’s remained a source of inspiration in design and business. Headhunters recruit rock stars because the top performers have a way of getting even better, as the Harvard Business Review reports. They use competition to hone their skills and constantly reinvent themselves to stay ahead of the pack.

“Star players focus on what they can control and forget the rest. They’re masters of compartmentalization.”

Star Players Focus

I’ve witnessed that relentless focus firsthand. Though he is a humble guy, my husband Crispin Cioe is counted among the top saxophonists in the world. To get to that level, one has to woodshed (practice). With few exceptions, Crispin has practiced every day I’ve known him. He shows up no matter what. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him complain. (How is that possible?) I honestly don’t know how he does it.

They Practice

His work ethic is intrinsic: he simply wakes up that way. Every day he doggedly shows up to discover ways to do what he does better. And it gives him joy. Crispin’s daily routine leverages our mind’s ability to run programs (habits) without thinking. (On that latter point, I highly recommend the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.)

I Met My Husband at Keith Richard’s House

I started dating Crispin after bumping into him at the home of Keith Richards in Weston, Connecticut. Before that, when I lived in Boston, I became friends with members of the J. Geils Band. Before we met, my husband toured with J. Geils as part of the Uptown Horns. Crispin also played with members of Aerosmith. So when the J. Geils Band and Aerosmith, Boston’s top rock ‘n’ roll bands, played Fenway Park for the first time — front-page news in Boston — I was there. I hung out backstage and in a guest section up front taking photos while Crispin did his sax thing:

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith at Fenway Park August 14, 2010. Photo by Krista Bradford.

Recruiting Rock Stars Steven Tyler
Steven Tyler of Aerosmith at Fenway Park August 14, 2010. Photo by Krista Bradford.

Famous Musicians Have Always Been In My Life

Before I got married, I lived across the street from Jimmy Seals of Seals & Crofts who would come over and play the piano in my living room. Next door to him was legendary sessions musician and guitarist Louie Shelton. (Check out his solos in Last Train to Clarksville and Hello.)

I was an investigative reporter and TV journalist at the time — not a musician — yet music kept popping into my life. It gave me glimpses of real genius.

Crispin Has Toured with The Rolling Stones

My husband Crispin Cioe (the guy in the middle in the photo below) has not only toured with rock stars that include The Rolling Stones, he’s played on more than 600 albums and is part of the famed horn section called The Uptown Horns. He’s scored motion pictures. (See Burnzy’s Last Call.) He’s composed and recorded his own music with his band Cracked Ice. (See Cracked Ice’s Soul Noir.) He has served as music director for the Mark Twain Prize for Comedy on PBS. (See Jimmy Fallon’s U2 sendup Beautiful Fey and Jack Black’s School of Rock rendition of Queen’s We Will Rock You.) He’s played with Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Cold Play, The list goes on.

Between the two of us, we have spent a lifetime studying what it takes to be iconic.

Uptown Horns with Keith Richards
The Uptown Horns’ Crispin Cioe with Keith Richards

What It Takes to Be a Rock Star

Research indicates it is virtually impossible to predict how successful a candidate will be once they’re hired. But might there be a way to determine a rock star in the making? There are obvious qualities and not-so-obvious characteristics that, when combined, produce a rock star.

Talent that Seems to Come from the Heavens

You need other-worldly talent. There is a savant quality that rock stars have. I’ve seen the same thing in gifted technologists and executives. One iconic musician I know dreamed he could play the guitar and woke up to discover he could. He’d never touched a guitar in his life or had a lesson. How is that even possible? Genius software rock stars have the same ability.

Vision They Summon Into Being

Rock stars summon their lives into being. The vast majority knew they would become a star at the outset or the best at what they do. Or they already thought of themselves as a star and stuck with it long enough until everyone else realized the same thing.

Discipline Required for Mastery

Rock stars put in the time to perfect their craft so that when it comes time to walk on stage, they don’t have to be up in their head and think when they perform. The music flows. Clocking Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour-rule makes a difference.

Peak-Performance Ability

Have you ever been so engrossed in work that you lost track of time? That is called a state of flow, a type of concentration that enables peak performance. Rock stars are masters of flow, the most productive and creative state of mind for work.

Quantum Simplification

Rock stars simplify the complex. A rock star technologist can distill thousands of lines of code into a single expression. Steve Jobs simplified Apple’s product line and the design of its products. Miles Davis could fill a room with a single note. The best are inherently minimalistic. Their leaps of creativity shed what is unnecessary so that what remains is inspired work.

Unstoppable Work Ethic

Rock stars are like the Energizer Bunny. They keep going and going. They don’t call in sick. On a tour, they show up unless they’re hospitalized. The best-of-the-best regularly clock long hours without complaint.

Limitless Persistence (Heart)

Rock stars persist when they are in pain. They get up when they are knocked down. They rise when they fall. And when people tell them they don’t have what it takes, they keep going. They never give up. (See How to Recognize Great Talent in Executive Search.)

Ask, “What Rock Stars Do You Know?”

So the next time a headhunter tells you he recruits rock stars, ask which ones. If they return a blank stare, find a recruiter who has spent time with world-renowned superstars. For more on candidate selection, check out our post How to Recruit the Right Executive and When Do You Need an Executive Recruiter?

Question for the reader: What business icons, technology luminaries, or literal rock stars operating at the peak of their game have you gotten to know, and what lessons from that experience inspire you to this day? I’d love to hear your stories.

Feel good. Share the knowledge.
Krista Bradford

Krista Bradford

Krista Bradford is CEO of the retained executive search firm The Good Search and of its research division Intellerati. A former award-winning television journalist and investigative reporter, Ms. Bradford now pursues truth, justice, and great talent in the executive suite.View Author posts

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