For Challenger brands, attitude is everything. Here’s how to make sure your senior hires don’t fall into the 89% of hires that fail due to attitudinal misfit.

Business people tend to refer to 'Challenger brands’ as though they are all much the same. Far from it. Let's find out why.

The debate and interest in challenger brands (challengers) continues to gather pace as we are inspired by the success of those that manage to win against the odds. Typically, challengers are profiled as David fighting Goliath, leading consumers in some crusade against faceless self-serving corporates.  

In reality, there is a variety of profiles into which challengers can fit - at least according to Adam Morgan, who is seen as the authority in this space following his book ‘Eat Big Fish’ which explains how emerging brands can outcompete leaders in their space.  In his more recent work, ‘Overthrow: 10 Ways to Tell a Challenger Story’ he identifies ten challenger profiles, which are:

  1. The Peoples Champion - those who stand up for the consumer who has thus far been exploited e.g. Virgin

  2. The Missionary - a challenger as a force for good actively changing the world e.g. Al Jazeera

  3. The Democratiser - who takes from the few, and gives to the many e.g. One Laptop Per Child

  4. The Irreverent Maverick - creating controversy which entertains and engages e.g. Paddy Power

  5. The Enlightened Zagger - which deliberately swims against a prevailing cultural current often defending past values and resisting current trends, behaviours and beliefs. e.g. Patek Phillippe

  6. The Real and Human Challenger - those whose stance is built around the people in the business who connect personally with customers through their visibility representing the brand. e.g. Zappos

  7. The Visionary - those brands that transcend the mundane ways that the category views and talks about itself and instead sets a new way of thinking altogether. e.g. Lark

  8. The Next Generation - seek to question the appropriateness of establishment brands and their (lack) of relevance for the times we live in today e.g. Lark

  9. The Game Changer - challengers who seek to go beyond a category convention to change the way people think about and have experience through their relationship with a product or service. e.g. Airbnb

  10. The Feisty Underdog - often (mistakenly) regarded as the classic challenger stance, this approach seeks to reduce choice for customers by presenting the illusion of there being only two options.  They simplify the decision tree by pitching a ‘them or us’ brand narrative which appeals to our desire to support the underdog. e.g. Brewdog.

Whilst there is a lot of debate around whether big businesses can still really claim to be challengers (think IKEA making design affordable to the masses) typically most challenger brands are by definition small to medium sized.  This means they need to really think hard about maximising the return they see from the limited resources they have available including their most critical asset, namely the people driving the business itself.  

The importance of matching the attitude of every individual within the team to the brands attitude is rarely more critical than for challengers.  Each of the 10 challenger profiles above has its own attitude that is best understood through assessment from several perspectives.  

Because challengers are often to some extent pioneers in their space they need individuals that can motivate and focus teams where people have broader responsibility - hiring often needs to focus on attracting/assessing those who can be effective where there is often little structure and lots of ambiguity. Challengers usually have less cash in the business - tight fiscal management and cash-to-cash appreciation is critical throughout the leadership team, and the strategic/operational skills and attitudinal mix for driving success becomes more complex because of it.

Everyone knows of course that bringing a misfit leader into any business has a negative impact, but this is doubly the case in challengers where the lean resources mean the impact of badly judged decisions is amplified tenfold, and the risk associated with taking brave and bold brand initiatives can break, as much as make, the success of emerging brands.

In his book ‘Hiring for Attitude’ Mark Murphy outlines that 46% of hires fail within the first 18 months (this alone is shocking), and that 89% of these failures are due to attitude misfit.  

So how can you be sure you have the right fit? Really understanding and articulating your attitudinal fit success profile emerges through thinking about it in a way that challenges your conscious and unconscious assumptions.  There are disruptive questions that can reveal and build a clear picture of attitudinal best fit, ensuring the correct assessment of new hires and getting it right first time.  Success of the business follows.

We would recommend the following five core perspectives (there are others) are worth consideration when thinking about this attitudinal fit profile in a challenger business, with some example questions to drive assessing fit:

  • Attitude - How does your business think? To what extent does it encourage risk and how does it value it? What defines priority? What compression drives an engaging and successful growth environment? What is your strategic/operational emphasis and where?

  • Expectation - How will you define and prioritise success? What is expected of the individual and of the business / what are you both expecting over the short/medium/long-term - where is there latitude? When and what  is your next growth platform?

  • Team/diversity - How important is diversity/why? what are the dynamics that drive/don’t drive team success and how do people relate to each other/appreciate diverse thinking? Self and team awareness of group think against unity.

  • Ambition - What future progression can you offer / level of certainty, how does this fit with the individual? What are the risks - is there a match?

  • Capability - What are your challenges? What do you need more of? Where is there complexity? Who and where is there critical stakeholder management?

These are a small selection of disruptive questions that build knowledge of successful attitudinal fit.  As Mark Murphy points out in ‘Hiring for Attitude’ (and is substantiated by so much other research) as 89% of hires that fail are the result of companies not fully assessing this attitudinal fit, all that you can do to fully understand it and tease out the detail is clearly time very well invested.


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