Do you want to be rich, or King? Why is it so hard to recruit senior staff (and some self-reflection)

First, in the spirit of togetherness, I’d like to simply say that it’s not just you that struggles with hiring senior people into your team.

Almost every business leader I’ve worked with has, at one point or another, decided that the ‘time is now’ to bring in a new senior member of the team, but then quickly found that the great person they had in their mind is decidedly harder to find than they thought. Or, having hired someone at a senior level, found that they don’t fit into the current agency culture.

So, here’s my short analysis on why it’s so tough to hire senior staff, and a reframe that might make your recruitment of them more successful in future.

A story as old as time…

We all know how it goes in busy, thriving agencies. We start getting busier… and busier… until finally the bottlenecks and pinch points become truly exposed. Staff are under pressure, ‘less important’ tasks are side-lined, time management becomes something of a historical event, leaders need to step in and in turn ignore the ‘bigger picture’ plans, and scopes of work are often forgotten leading to scope creep. Everyone is stressed until the work slows and normality resumes.

Usually this happens two or three times before people seriously sit up and take notice, and that’s the point when as a leader you find yourself on a recruitment drive for a senior person who is needed ‘right now’. Sound familiar?

So why is it so hard to recruit senior staff?   

Great people going alone

People who are talented may well go and set up their own business or choose consultancy over a FT role.

You’re in competition

When it comes to employing great people, you’re up against every man and his dog. The likelihood is there will be people with deeper pockets or who can offer better benefits, greater flexibility and options.

They’re fully formed

Lots of senior people, especially those coming from a larger organisation to a smaller one, will come as the ‘finished article’. They might be used to a certain way of doing things, be less agile and have less flexibility or simply find it difficult to fit in to a smaller agency culture.

You expect senior hires to change

As above, some senior hires struggle to understand the smaller agency ways. Hands up if you’ve had a new person ask to ‘speak to the head of IT’, or your ‘head of HR’ – when in fact some roles are amalgamated into one and there is no dedicated resource to sort out their problems. To put it another way, you’re asking your new hire to enjoy camping, perhaps even glamping, but what they’re used to is a 5* hotel.

What to look out for and how to successfully hire senior people

Attitude first, not skills

If you’ve written a great job description, then the likelihood is that it’s not someone’s skills you need to worry about. It’s their attitude and understanding of how your agency works that will determine if they’ll stay for the long run.

Here are a few things that senior hires often struggle with when moving to a small or medium sized business:

  • Visibility and scrutiny
  • Being entrepreneurial
  • Flexibility and adaptability

Your job – or that of your hiring team – should always be to interrogate for attitude, and challenge for fit. If you don’t want to be disappointed further down the line, then you need to ensure your latest senior hire won’t be surprised or struggle with the culture.


Is it you, or is it them? Look for patterns…

Look out for repeating patterns in failed recruitment. If you’ve struggled more than once to hire (and retain) senior people, then it’s time to consider that this might say more about you than them.

  • Did you take enough time to find the right person?
  • Should you have hired them in the first place?
  • Is there something you’re doing that is stopping them from being effective once they are in the role?


  • Can you honestly say that you want them to succeed?

It’s time to ask yourself, do you want to be rich, or king?

Many founders or leaders, especially those moving from founder to growth stage, are inadvertently stuck in a phase whereby they struggle to relinquish control. On one level, they know that the only way to grow and prosper (and make more money) is to take on a senior person, and yet there is plenty of research that shows founders and leaders are often standing in their own way (and that of their senior people) because they want to remain ‘king’. Yep, you secretly want them to fail.

  • Are you empowering your senior hires?
  • Are you giving accountability, but without also giving authority and autonomy?

Senior hires want to do their jobs, and if you’re expecting accountability without authority or autonomy, then they’re not going to stick around long.

Interrogate your new senior hires to ensure they have the right ATTITUDE (skills come further down the list), and then make sure you give them the autonomy and authority to get the job done if you want them to stay for the long run.

I hope this was useful.


Every Wednesday I book out an hour to hold a FREE agency leaders surgery. If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues. You can help yourself to my calendar, here. Speaking to a diverse group of agency leaders helps me stay current and contextualise the issues I’m seeing with my clients. So please see this conversation as a genuine collaboration where we both hope to learn something new.


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If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.