The high profile nationwide search to replace Alex Trebek has turned into a fiasco more fit for The Gong Show than for Jeopardy!, and Mike Richards may have become the most hapless game show figure since Ralph Kramden.
Even before Richards was forced out of his position after only a day of taping by the discovery of embarrassing remarks about women, Haitians and Jews, his hiring was being sharply criticized because of his apparent conflict of interest as the show’s executive producer, and his selection despite lower audience approval scores than others who had auditioned.
The phenomenon of the searcher getting the job is most often associated with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who, after being tasked in 2000 by then-candidate George W. Bush with finding a running mate, ended up with the job himself. But the truth is that it’s not uncommon for organizations to conduct high-profile, nationwide searches – especially for CEO positions — only to conclude that someone involved in the search is the right person for the job.
Inevitably, no matter how worthy the selection, those circumstances lead to skepticism and speculation about improper influence, cronyism, and worse.
In some instances, one or more insiders is a candidate from the outset, as was the case with Richards. In those instances, it should be fairly easy to isolate that individual from the search, and while it may not be possible to entirely exclude internal politics from the selection, everyone was upfront from the beginning. (There’s some question in Richards’ case whether he was adequately removed from the decision making.)
But in others, such as Cheney’s, the person tasked with conducting the search ends up with the job. In those instances, people will inevitably ask at what point in the process the person became a candidate, whether they were honest about their ambitions, whether they exercised undue influence on the search process in order to promote their own interests, and so forth. All of these questions, and more, have been raised in the Jeopardy! matter, and we have seen them raised in CEO searches that we have been involved in with clients.
What can you do to prepare for those questions and to answer them effectively? Here are a few things based on our own recent experience with this kind of situation:
- Be as clear as possible about the point at which the individual became a candidate, and what steps were taken at that time to remove the individual from the selection process.
- Have a clear explanation about not only why that person became a candidate, but why they were not a candidate earlier? Were they not initially interested in the job? Was there a change in circumstances that explains their changed interest? Did the qualities that were being sought change as, perhaps, the organization reconsidered its needs or even the job description?
- Avoid making it seem as though the search failed. No organization wants to be led by someone who appears to have gotten the job by default. This may be especially difficult if there has been a commitment, or a widespread understanding, that the organization was seeking an outsider for a new perspective or a fresh start. But it can still be done by emphasizing the inside candidate’s unique qualities, the organization’s continued commitment to renewal, and an emphasis on long-term goals.
- Don’t forget to vet the candidate thoroughly. Just because the individual is an insider doesn’t mean a deep dive into his or her background isn’t necessary. The podcasts that did Mike Richards in shouldn’t have been very difficult to find had the people responsible for vetting candidates been looking for it.
- In explaining why a nationwide (or even global) search ended up producing someone who was connected with the search itself, there will be a natural tendency to disparage the other candidates. This tendency should be resisted. Even if they are not named, the identities of at least some of those other candidates are likely to leak out, embarrassing them as well as the organization, and potentially making future searches more difficult.
- As is often the case, process can be your friend. Emphasize the care and integrity with which the process unfolded, and confidence that, despite the unexpected outcome, it produced the best possible result for the organization.
- Be clear about whether the selection is a permanent or interim leader, and if it’s the latter, what the longer timeline is. It may be something in the middle: a transitional leader to continue transformation of the organization until it reaches a point at which a new, long-term leader may be sought.
- Expect some skepticism and be patient with it. It’s natural for people to be cynical about outcomes that favor well-placed insiders. Use facts to combat rumors, but don’t use heavy-handed tactics to try to quash internal discussion – they will be counterproductive. If you’ve made the right decision, the quality of that individual’s leadership will win out over time.
There are no guarantees, but if you do all these things, you might just hit the Daily Double.
Three weeks after securing one of the most sought-after roles in cable television, it has been revealed that Mike Richards would no longer be the executive producer of “Jeopardy!”
Sony announced yesterday (8/31/21) that Richards would be stepping down immediately from the role, also being temporarily replaced at the famed show “Wheel of Fortune.” It appears that despite the studio’s best efforts, this crisis was too much to overcome after it became apparent that Richards’s past comments would not quickly be forgiven.
This development does not close the book on this unfolding drama, as Sony’s leadership will still need to continue its efforts to win back the love of roiled fans. The considerations above remain truer than ever as these leaders face an uphill battle in garnering excitement around whoever might be considered next for this coveted host position.