by Joe Chappell
Feb 1 2012
BlueSteps recently had the pleasure to chat with Russell Reynolds and Heidrick & Struggles alum turned novelist, Catherine McGuinness, author of Emperor's Clothes. Described as "Part cautionary tale, part farce, Emperors' Clothes tells the story of two executives and one mob boss who put a Sopranos' style spin on corporate strategy," the book offers valuable lessons, insight, and lots of clever humor to both executives and executive recruiters, and anyone who works in corporate America.
BlueSteps: Catherine, tell us a little about your background and your experience in executive search.
Catherine McGuinness: Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I took my BA in English Literature to London upon graduation from Fordham University. I was very fortunate to join, and gained invaluable experience from, the research team in the London office of Russell Reynolds Associates. My introduction to executive search was multinational, inclusive of work for European and Middle Eastern corporations. Returning to the US, my subsequent consulting work spanned global executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles and F50 Dell Inc. I’ve been involved in searches for a host of industries and functions. At Dell alone, I placed hundreds of executives and senior managers across the globe during a ten-year stint. I remain active today in executive search, serving corporations, non-profit organizations and higher education clients, through my boutique search firm, Preod Corporation.
I have been recruiting for a long time because I love the work. I enjoy helping clients solve problems with the right leadership talent. And, I really like assisting individuals as they consider career transitions.
Additionally, I like to think that my New York City roots coupled with a consulting and a corporate human resources background offer a unique perspective through which to view the business challenges and character antics, including the executive hires and fires, described in Emperors' Clothes.
BlueSteps: Your satire, Emperors’ Clothes, lampoons basically every player in corporate culture from executives to executive recruiters, and even career coaches. What inspired you to write the book and why now?
Catherine McGuinness: Over the last ten years in business, there seemed to be a rush to excellence, to compete, to engage--with customers, with investors, with the public at-large. Companies, and their financial backers, yearned to be the creators of a secret sauce, the engineers of a better mousetrap.
In a humorous way, Emperors’ Clothes attempts to look at the people side of this mad rush to be something. What happened? What might we learn? Or, as we say in human resources, what are the opportunity areas that can be improved upon for next time? :)
BlueSteps: Behind the satire, would you say the novel is less disdain and more constructive social criticism? After all, you are a search consultant, so you obviously care about both the industry and executives.
Catherine McGuinness: Yes, I do care. I care a great deal. Executive recruiting, and human resources in general, are important services, and can play very powerful roles. Done well, these functions can make a big difference in the success of an enterprise.
Recruiting, specifically, enjoyed robust activity over the last decade. While seemingly a straightforward function, there is so much more complexity to researching, selecting and placing leaders than many might assume. I recognized an opportunity to draw this out, utilizing the ebb and flow of an evolving, fictitious corporation in Emperors’ Clothes.
Moreover, I believe firmly in engaging human capital. I have lived through a successful—intentional—cultural change at one organization; witnessed, on multiple occasions, the positive motivation of employees around a cause; and participated as the right leadership at the right time created or added value to a team, a function, an entire business.
At the same time, while most of us have weathered the downside of a bad hire, I never cease to be amazed when a well-tailored suit or certain assumptions surrounding credentials can create an air of accomplishment, deserved or not. While the suit may make the candidate, business success ultimately has more to do with how one answers the question: What have you done for me lately? In other words, Results—achieved in the right way, of course. This is the stuff of Emperors’ Clothes.
Anything taken to an extreme, or done for the wrong reasons, can get a little goofy. Using a mob boss as contrast to self-centered executives in Emperors’ Clothes allowed me to have some fun, playing on the notion that things are not always what they seem....
I'd like to think that Balzac would have enjoyed Emperors’ Clothes.
BlueSteps: In the novel, executive recruiting meets the mob. Can you talk a little about the character Sal Scruci and his “career transition.” How would you describe Sal’s leadership style?
Catherine McGuinness: Funny you should ask. So, a fresh take on the mob and corporate America, really? :)
Sal Scruci’s presence in Emperors’ Clothes created an opportunity for sharp contrast between what we know is evil with what we assume is good.
Although a typical mob boss, Sal is one of the more honest characters in the novel. He does not see the need to hide his intentions, to play politics. He does not toot his own horn, either. Sal always keeps his focus. For him, the focus is on money: How he can get it and what it can do for him. Money drove Sal into executive recruiting in the first place, when he usurped the business of a gambler who owed him “large”. And, money will keep Sal in the game as long as Carol Himmler pays him handsomely to stock a revolving door of scapegoats required to attain the corporate perch to which she aspires.
Initially a little sloppy in transitioning to the recruiting business, Sal’s a quick study. Remaining focused on his endgame, he adjusted his approach. Not unlike what one might expect from a good general manager. Thereafter, Sal took a more tactful approach to influencing (based on his unique interpretation of “tact”). Still, if tact was not clear enough, Sal could rely upon the more primal techniques he found successful in his other life.
While you might not like his methods, where it concerns dead wood or underperforming assets, Sal moves the inventory, and quickly. The politically minded executives, not so much.
BlueSteps: The character Carol Himmler is ruthless but fascinating. She’s highly ambitious and individualistic, but best practices are not exactly her strong point. There seems to be both some Bernie Madoff and some Ayn Rand in her DNA. What can executives learn from Carol?
Catherine McGuinness: Business, in general, has become so fascinating. Many of our new celebrities are business people. From the stunningly innovative Steve Jobs to, well, yes, mastermind criminals like a Bernie Madoff. Madoff’s unrepentant narcissism is certainly reminiscent of Carol Himmler’s leadership in Emperors’ Clothes though, for me, there is something of Harry Potter's Voldemort in Carol: She gets stronger with every neck she steps on moving up the corporate ladder.
If Sal Scruci seeks power as a means to a financial end, Carol seeks power for pure pleasure, and as a tool for subjugating others. (Another character, Stewart Narciss, plays directly into this as he seeks power as evidence of his value to the father figures in his life, including Carol.) Executives can certainly take caution from Carol. Those who would dismiss her as simply a caricature may miss something critical at their own peril. Carol's story may be exaggerated, particularly in terms of the means she employs to execute her agenda, but all slopes end up being slippery. It's a simple matter of the pitch. For those leaders who are early in their careers, the sooner they recognize that the Carol Himmler in their company is not someone who will change, the sooner they should cut losses and move on.
BlueSteps: In reading Emperors’ Clothes, there seemed to be, lurking in the background always, this suggestion of a shifting of eras happening—a fading “mahogany” corporate culture competing with a new technology and media driven one. Can you speak to that—is it something you were conscious of in writing the book and what do you think that speaks to exactly?
Catherine McGuinness: Yes, that was purposeful early in the novel to illustrate the upheaval taking place in commerce. Though, I would argue that the setting for Emperors’ Clothes could have been almost any period of significant change as Emperors’ Clothes explores what happens when personal agendas override all other, particularly more prudent, factors in decision-making.
Also, although the storyline of Emperor’s Clothes evolves with the digital age, I would say my own world is much more virtual than that of the characters in Emperors’ Clothes. Self-serving executives Stewart Narciss and Carol Himmler like to wrap boardroom doors around their agendas, an imprimatur suggesting importance and value. Sal Scruci, the mob boss-cum-executive recruiter, counts on the anonymity of brick and mortar—as long as he is within striking distance of an exit. Having said that, I am playing with social media as a tool for The Juice, my next novel, in which Sal takes the lead. Testing the digital waters, Sal has recently started tweeting colorful, timely, and yes, irreverent, impressions about leadership opportunities in the real world. @sal_scruci.
BlueSteps: Did you write the book for a particular audience in mind? What do you hope the reader will take away from it?
Catherine McGuinness: Emperors’ Clothes is a braid of intrigue and humor. A novel about a modern-day corporation—where a mob boss serves as executive recruiter, a ruthless general manager marks time according to her CEO-clock and a human resources leader fancies himself consiglieri in the CEO’s war room—will likely be of interest to anyone who works in, or has worked in, corporate America. They will be able to relate to the circumstances in Emperors’ Clothes and may feel like they ‘know’ some of the characters. Emperors’ Clothes is also a great read for anyone just starting out in the business world because it offers a peak into what happens inside many corporations and touches on some of the major themes that define the business world.
Having said that, Emperors’ Clothes is about being entertained. The business situations are addressed, briefly yet credibly, but humor is leveraged throughout. Thus The Office meets The Sopranos satire offers escape from the heavy lifting of the workday. Deborah Sawyer, Managing Director, Executive Advisors, and former Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry International, said “…Whether the hunted or the hunter, you will find yourself greatly amused with the characters and their antics to further their own ambitions at whatever cost necessary."
BlueSteps: If you could collectively give executive recruiters one piece of advice gleaned from your own experiences, what would it be? How about executives?
Catherine McGuinness: While so many recruiters aspire to advise and consult, the best recruiters I’ve worked with have become consultants as a result of being good recruiters, not the other way around. It's about service, though that is more easily said than defined. Great service involves heavy upfront planning and engagement as well as going the extra mile in all things, resulting in a better customer experience for clients and candidates alike.
Good business practice is increasingly about expertise, too. In executive recruiting, this is a matter of gathering and communicating specific, rock-solid information in a timely fashion in order to enable a positive, speedy and quality process and result.
The best executives identify what they want and go after it. This confidence is attractive, to a team, an investor, a Board of Directors. It is also helpful as that focus drives results. For example, the best deals I negotiated were those with executives who, early on, identified and communicated what they required—and stayed on point. Those deals were often quickly completed, too.
BlueSteps: What are you working on next?
Catherine McGuinness: Of course, I continue to recruit through Preod Corporation. The hiring winds are picking up, especially here in Austin.
Additionally, I've outlined my next novel, The Juice. In The Juice, Sal Scruci continues his leadership development adventure. A reluctant, and unlikely, hero, Sal builds a successful executive search practice by developing his people and making common-sense business decisions. He also has to contend with demanding investors ( ‘Angels’, like Vinnie and Tony, and, later, a white-shoe VC firm), cranky directors and prima donna consultants. All the while, Sal keeps his focus: It’s about the money.
BlueSteps: Thank you, Catherine, for taking the time to share with BlueSteps some themes from Emperors’ Clothes. We look forward to your next work.
To join in on discussion of themes from the book, please connect with us on LinkedIn.
Interview conducted by Joe Chappell from the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC).
BlueSteps is the exclusive service of the AESC that puts senior executives on the radar screen of over 8,000 executive search professionals in over 70 countries. Be visible, and be considered for up to 75,000 opportunities handled by AESC search firms every year. Find out more at www.BlueSteps.com.