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Don’t be a puppet on a string. Hold your career nerve

By Sue Parker | |7 minute read

Truth is stranger than fiction when it comes to professionals and executives holding their nerve and power in the hiring ecosystem.

It was late 1999 when my eyes almost jumped out of my head as I opened the Herald Sun newspaper over morning coffee. Oh wow, what a clever tagline and campaign, I pondered as I browsed an advertisement and editorial in the business section.

But hold on; it seemed all rather familiar.


And it was more than familiar. It was my tagline and concept that I presented months earlier to an interview panel for a marketing management role.

What the flying fox! The organisation stole my work, which I spent days preparing. It was my third interview for the role, and the final assessment hung on the presentation to address advertising conversion issues in their education sector.

Having been in advertising and marketing for over 15 years (at that time), I knew my chops. And I was led to believe that, based on my solutions, I would be a shoo-in.

I didn’t get the job, which was disappointing. But to then see they used my work was more than a kick in the guts. It was bloody commercial theft.

I was livid and vowed that I would never again be a puppet on a string for an organisation in their hiring process and deliver my brilliant ideas on a free plate.

There is, after all, a clear line between delivering an entrée versus a whole three-course meal. My skills were well proven from past successes, market feedback and industry discussions.

Since that newspaper experience, I have owned a recruitment agency, career strategy and executive job search coaching consultancy. For over 20 years, I’ve seen and heard it all and more.

And frankly, the demands when hiring senior and experienced candidates haven’t changed much. Indeed, I would say it may have even increased.

The competition and desire to land a utopian role and dream company can turn the most assured executives into meek, subservient puppets.

How the hiring imbalance manifests

Apart from the IP presentations, other acquiescent behaviours manifest in the strange master-slave hiring ecosystem.

This ecosystem imbalance is evidenced by the number of high achievers who are reluctant to challenge processes, decline requests, and lose their power and negotiation dexterity.

Afraid to rattle the applecart, lose an opportunity or appear as pesky, many experienced candidates will play the chess game of recruitment.

I had a client many years ago in the process of an $800,000 CEO role. She was a stellar executive who had been in charge of over ten thousand staff with high billion-dollar P&Ls.

The process was convoluted and less than transparent. I suggested she needed to ask a few tough questions. Her response is indicative of many: “Oh, I don’t think I should or can ask that. I don’t want to look disruptive.”

She kept silent; the process slowly continued without a positive outcome for her. While it’s not just what you ask, but how that is equally important, you must not hesitate.

Despite the clichés that recruitment is a two-way street, it rarely manifests in reality. And that’s a great disservice to all parties in the short and long term.

The song that says it all

Back in 1967, Sandie Shaw recorded the hit song Puppet on a String. While the muse is a love interest, it’s as relevant for candidate experiences. These verses sum it up well:

“One day I’m feeling down on the ground. Then I’m up in the air. Are you leading me on? Tomorrow will you be gone?

“I wonder if one day that, you’ll say that, you care. If you say you love me madly, I’ll gladly, be there. Like a puppet on a string.”

Are your strings being pulled?

Are you jumping through the following hoops and feeling like a puppet as the golden nugget of that coveted role or dream organisation beckons? If so, you need to hold your nerve and reframe how you respond.

  • Goal posts and process criteria keep changing.
  • Excessive and ongoing interviews (suddenly, there is yet ‘another person’ they want you to meet).
  • Deck and presentation requests to address the company’s actual issues, clients, etc.
  • Expectations to share your network IP.
  • Inadequate communications and feedback.
  • Do not keep to timeline promises.
  • Lazy and poor communications.
  • Request for references upfront (come on, there is LinkedIn).
  • Ghosting behaviours.

Navigating the presentation IP deck demand

Declining any request always feels uncomfortable. Indeed, the request shouldn’t be made in the first place (note to hiring managers).

To ask a senior professional with years of expertise and achievements to “prove” their suitability by sharing their IP, concepts, and solutions is bloody nonsense.

Come on, there are many ways that you can get a sense of a person’s thinking process without the potential for commercial pillage.

Essentially, it’s supplying free consulting advice. So there are three options as I see it. This can be taken on board by both hiring managers and candidates to equalise commercial integrity:

  1. Ask for written confirmation that any presentation you deliver will never be used by the organisation without a fee due to yourself. Obviously, if you land the role, this is moot.
  2. Decline a brief for their market but put forward a brief for a totally different sector or product. This demonstrates cognitive ability and creativity.
  3. Ask for a consulting fee upfront, which will be refunded if you land the role. Yes, this is very bold, but hey, you need to demonstrate your negotiation and management skills at every opportunity.

Apart from the IP deck request, you do have every right to push back against other unfair requests and behaviours.

Don’t shy away from asking uncomfortable questions that concern you about the company or process. If the questions you ask (respectfully) lose you the opportunity, then good riddance. Never let fear hold you back from fair play, as it really is a two-way street.

The market is going to get more competitive in 2024. For hiring managers, you need to lift your game in the above areas.

For executive and highly experienced candidates, remember, you are not a puppet on a string but a talented, valuable equal in the hiring ecosystem. Hold your nerve.

Sue Parker, owner of Dare Group Australia, is a communications, LinkedIn expert and executive career strategist.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.