Executive Search and the Hero’s Journey

Dec 27, 2011

The holiday season is so very counterintuitive. Its many traditions demand that we rush around to get everything done in time, yet it also calls upon us to pause and reflect. Whenever I stop for a moment to examine the deeper meaning in our shared purpose as recruiters, I am humbled by the random acts of courage we witness every day in the candidates that we serve. The bravery may be stark and obvious as they endure the loss of a job, a home, or a loved one. Or it may be subtle and just as poignant as they suffer the slights and indignities that are simply part of being a job applicant today. The very act of becoming a candidate tests one’s mettle in profound ways. So, this holiday season let us remember the Hero’s Journey.

Within each of us, in the collective unconscious, there lies a hero — an archetype that Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung believed lies dormant until called to action. Studying world mythology, Joseph Campbell built upon Jung’s work, discovering that no matter what the myth, a hero’s journey remains the same. All heroes must leave what is familiar, venture forth, do battle, and then return, forever changed, with new talents and gifts to share. For those of us in talent acquisition, that means we deal with something far more important than recruiting metrics and candidate tracking systems: with each and every recruiting engagement, we bear witness to the hero’s journey.

Each senior executive, each technologist, each professional in some way is forever changed by his or her search for a new opportunity. If that involves unemployment, and even homelessness, the bravery and determination required of our hero is the stuff of which legends (and movies) are made.

The film The Pursuit of Happiness captures that heroism. Will Smith and his son Jaden star in the true story of Chris Gardner, a San Francisco salesman who rises above homelessness and poverty to become a Wall Street legend. The movie reminds me that we need to remember we are not always aware of the random acts of courage required of the candidates with whom we interact every day.

The Hero’s Journey is a story lives in the subconscious — one that speaks to us, that moves us, and inspires us as human beings. As recruiters, we would do well to reexamine the recruiting lifecycle to discover the archetypal phases of the Hero’s Journey contained within. A candidate’s subconscious may influence his actions and decision-making as much as conscious reason. To start, we need to learn to recognize the classic markers of the epic tale. The story always begins in the ordinary world, until something triggers the first phase: departure.


The Call to Adventure: For executive search and recruiting, the call to adventure comes when a candidate first discovers that the ordinary world at work is going to change. It may be that an executive has learned that his company has been acquired or is going through a massive reorganization. It may be that the boss who hired him has left, or that there are rumors of impending layoffs. It may be increasing unemployment or outsourcing of his work. Whatever the call, the effect is the same; the landscape has changed. The Hero’s Journey has begun.

Refusal of the Quest: The next step is often refusal to heed the call. Candidates may not be ready to leave their current roles out of a sense of duty or obligation. They may fear leaving what has been so familiar. They may worry that they simply won’t measure up in their next place of employment. And so the candidate stays, as other workers depart.

Supernatural Aid. Once the hero has committed to the quest, a magical guide or helper appears — cue the recruiter. The most gifted search consultants naturally assume a Sherpa-like role, reassuring candidates as they make the decision to begin the journey. In recruiting, it may simply mean that we convince a passive candidate to consider the extraordinary opportunity that lies beyond the four walls of their current employer and to agree to exploratory conversations.

The Crossing of the First Threshold. As supernatural guides, recruiters help usher candidates across the threshold to enter the world of the unknown. The candidate submits his resume, reviews a job description, and journeys into the field of adventure for rounds of interviews with your team. In doing so, he leaves behind the employer that is familiar, and ventures into a strange and dangerous place — your company — because the rules of your corporate culture are not yet known.

The Belly of the Whale. This is the final separation from the hero’s known world and former self. Often it is a dark, unknown, or frightening experience to triggers a metamorphosis. They may enter the belly of the beast when they are handed a pink slip or are fired. It may be simply painful recognition that there is no future where they currently work and that they are undervalued. There is no going back.

The second phase of the hero’s journey is that of initiation. Our hero has left what was familiar and finds himself a stranger in a strange land. He has things to learn about himself and about his new world.


The Road of Trials. Candidates, particularly those who are actively looking, experience a series of tests and ordeals that force them to undergo a transformation. Whether it is failing to obtain interviews or failing to obtain an offer after being interviewed. In The Pursuit of Happiness the test is being unable to show up for an interview properly dressed. Still he shows up.

The Meeting with the Goddess. The meeting with the goddess represents a time when the candidate experiences unconditional love. That would be the moment we introduce the perfect candidate to the perfect opportunity — the moment the hiring manager and applicant each recognize they have found “the one.” The opportunity is not “just a job,” but rather a calling that embraces all that we are meant to be.

Woman as Temptress. Inevitably, a counteroffer is made by the candidate’s employer or another company vies for your perfect candidate, tempting him or her to stray from the quest. But while the compensation package is impressive, it is more a material temptation. It lacks a spiritual connection with the work. Why did it take the current employer so long to realize the candidate was worth keeping?

Atonement with the Father. The candidate seeks the blessing of his boss or someone with incredible power. It doesn’t have to be male. In fact, in recruiting, candidates often seek the atonement of their spouses who must sign off on the decision. These are delicate conversations for families as they consider whether they wish to be uprooted yet again, only to leave friends and their community behind.

Apotheosis. An offer is being readied and the candidate is deified, entering a state of divine knowledge and bliss. This is also a period or rest and fulfillment in preparation for the return home to a new workplace.

The Ultimate Boon. The candidate receives an offer and achieves what he set out to accomplish on his quest. All of the steps up until now have prepared the executive for this transcendent moment. In other words, jackpot!

The third and final phase of the journey is the return. It represents a coming home when there is no coming home. It will never be the same because the hero is not the same. He has been transformed.

The Return

Refusal of the Return. The candidate refuses the offer, at least initially. Either it is a negotiating tactic or it is a reluctance to return to office life and all the stresses that come with it. It is intoxicating to be courted. It is quite another thing to commit to one’s next employer and the challenges the new role brings.

The Magic Flight. Sometimes it is difficult and even dangerous for candidates to escape with offer in hand. Current employers may threaten legal action, reminding candidates of non-compete obligations and other contractual ties that bind. Often, they must struggle to break free.

Rescue from Without. Sometimes the candidate needs guides and assistants to help them return home to their new place of work. In addition to the executive search consultant or recruiter, the dream team may also include an employment lawyer, a CPA, as well as a realtor and relocation expert. For proper onboarding, the worker may be assigned a mentor and executive coach.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold. The day the candidate becomes an employee, the start date — that is moment the Hero crosses the threshold. To complete this step successfully, the Hero must remember all that he or she has learned on the journey. The Hero must harness that wisdom on the job and then to share those insights with the rest of the world – not an easy thing to do.

Freedom to Live. It is now a year or two later, and the candidate has achieved mastery on the job. He no longer fears death by downsizing, so he is free to live. The hero’s journey is complete, at least until the next recruiter calls.

I remain humbled by the power those of us in executive search and recruiting hold to transform the lives of the candidates we touch and of their families for generations. We are the door through which an executive or professional must pass for a working wage or wealth creation. In large part, we determine who gets in and who does not, decisions that shape the futures of those with whom we interact virtually every day. It is so easy to take that for granted, but I try never to take it for granted because our smallest actions have the most profound effects on people who just as easily could be you or me.

So often, in so many ways, our candidates are legendary. A hero is defined is someone who is admired and idealized for courage, outstanding achievements and noble qualities. Each and every day, let us remember the hero … and then, let’s recruit him.

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