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Picking Chicago's next mayor/CEO

The race to replace Mayor Richard Daley is in its final stretch. With debate season underway, the candidates are trying to convince Chicagoans that they're the best pick to lead the city, to be its public face, its CEO. With that in mind, we sought out advice from professional CEO recruiters, or headhunters, and asked them what voters should consider before hiring the city's new boss.

For this story, try to think of Chicago as a corporation. A corporation with a $6 billion budget, 35,000 employees providing services to 2.8 million residents, who are, in effect...

PEARL: We are the investors, the stake holders, the board of directors. We're the ones that have the right to demand that we're being led in the right direction.

Helping me with my analogy is a voter...

PEARL: Mona, Mona Pearl. Last name is Pearl.

She lives in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood, and, though I didn't know it when I approached her downtown for an interview, Pearl is a business consultant.

And as a voter/investor looking for a mayor/CEO...

PEARL: We should ask questions. We should look at track record. We should demand a plan. What's your plan, Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Mayor? What's the plan?

To help us ask these questions, to sort out our corporate search, let's turn now to Charles Ingersoll.

INGERSOLL: I'm a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International.

Korn/Ferry is an executive search firm, and Ingersoll is its top headhunter for government and nonprofit clients. When he gets hired to find an executive, Ingersoll sits down with the "stakeholders" and comes up with a job description.

In looking for a CEO for Chicago...

INGERSOLL: ...they're going to want someone who's got good financial management experience, good communications skills, a good consensus-builder. Someone who is open-minded to bringing about change, someone who's inclusive.

With the job description set, Ingersoll looks for candidates, weeds the field.

That's already happened in Chicago's race for mayor. There were 20 candidates two months ago, but with dropouts and paperwork challenges, that number's down to six. Now it's up to the stockholders - the voters - to pick their finalists.

Ingersoll says he's seen selection committees interviewing applicants get "enamored" with the personality and charisma of a candidate, when, in fact...

INGERSOLL: Doing due diligence is everything.

Research, Ingersall says, is the key - into a candidate's past successes and failures, and whether they fit what the corporation needs.

And what the voters may find is that Chicago is not ready for another longtime leader like Richard Daley. Chicago might need a transitional leader, someone to...

INGERSOLL: ...come in for a short period of time and sometimes have to do some heavy lifting and even breaking some china, so to speak, where they have to fix some things and get it into a place where then another leader can come in after that and have a platform to be successful for a longer period of time.

Like elections, CEO searches don't always go smoothly. Rakesh Khurana is a professor at Harvard Business School.

KHURANA: I studied the 850 largest companies in the United States, and examined their CEO transitions over a 25-year period.

Khurana identified pitfalls - mistakes often made by corporate boards when picking a leader. One of them is "outsourcing critical steps." That is, relying too heavily on consultants.

In our political analogy, this would apply to voters relying on endorsements. And, also...

KHURANA: ...relying on sound bites and a 30 second commercial in which kind-of accusations or a few words are used to characterize a very complex individual and characterize a complex situation.

Another pitfall Khurana warns of: defining the candidate pool too narrowly.

KHURANA: Too often we're referring to typically a male, typically one who kind of exudes some kind of a cultural image of a sheriff, who's coming to clean up the town.

And, after the hiring process is over, a corporation needs to give its new leader something other than a healthy compensation package. Khurana says he or she needs time.

KHURANA: The electorate - or it could be investors - expect too much too soon. Because they don't really take into account the constraints and all the things that have to be done in order to achieve the vision or the idea that that individual has laid out.

But the new CEO can't move too slowly, says Mona Pearl, our Chicago voter, or brush off early failures.

PEARL: A new CEO can blame the previous one only for a few weeks. After that, he or she has to show results, actions. It has to happen.

And a new mayor, Pearl says, can only blame Richard Daley for so long.

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