HR Saga: Big Hat – No Cattle

From time to time, I meet great people who understand the rules of business engagement and can agree on terms that work for both parties. They understand that when you make a commitment, you stick to it. Their word is their bond. You just know in your heart that things are going to work out when you shake hands and seal a deal with one of these trustworthy folks. Other times… not so much. I work hard to avoid getting stuck with someone who can’t make a comittment – I study the client’s organizational chart and try to determine exactly who’s going to be the buyer of our services (the decisionmaker), just so that I get someone who’s ready pull the trigger once we’ve agreed on the terms. It’s easier said than done when the person you’re dealing with represents one thing and their actions demonstrate something else.

This exact scenario happened to me recently with a senior-level HR executive I was working with. First it was a series of conference calls to discuss their “human capital” needs, company culture and the “perfect DNA”-type of talent they were looking for. Each call brough more clarity and understanding of the details of how both parties would work together. I was pretty comfortable with where this was heading. It felt good. I mean, we’re not talking brain surgery here. I knew what they wanted, and they had a solid understanding of what my firm brought to the table. The conference calls were followed by a proposal and finally – a search firm shootout. No worries. We were ready to win this account and begin our first of multiple engagements to find the best talent in the land. Everything was going smoothly when the phone rang and I was informed that we WON!


(But I digress…)

My new HR friend then scheduled a conference call to cover the details of our search project with the executive who owned the budget and introduced me as their “new search partner.” Nice ring to it – don’t you think? I like the word ‘partner.’ It really raises the potential value for the type of relationship you have when you move up the food chain from vendor to trusted advisor. We nailed down specifics and an action plan (which always starts with a signed engagement letter) – I don’t enage without a signed agreement. As Ronald Regan once said “Trust but Verify.”

A couple of days went by and… nothing. Radio silence. I followed up (always do) with an e-mail. No response. A voice mail – NADA. All communications had shut down and so I was confused. After all, we’d been selected after we’d gone through the proposal and beauty contest and WE’D WON! So what gave? A week later, I finally called my new partner/HR sponsor to inquire about our agreement and clear up our start date. And then she hit me with this:

“The CEO has not approved using an outside firm yet.”

WHAT?! Are you freakin’ kidding me? All of the work we had invested in this project, and my HR executive didn’t have the authority to pull the trigger?! BIG EGOBIG TALKER with nothing behind the curtain. In Texas, they have a saying for that exact type of person – BIG HAT NO CATTLE. What a collosal waste of time for everyone involved.

Maybe this HR professional (if you can even use that term) wanted to get multiple proposals to prove to the CEO how much money they could save by (attempting) to execute the searches internally. If that was the plan – I was the last one to know. Wrong move. I seriously doubt I will work with that company again. Nope.

But… it will be a great place to source candidates from. Oh YEAH!!!

FOT Background Check

Tim Tolan is a partner at Sanford Rose Associates and specializes in Executive Search in Healthcare IT. He's a closer, and you really don't want to call him unless you're ready to bring out the bazooka to bag some big game. When I started Fistful, I checked four references on Tim - his wife, his kids, his pastor and a client. The references were great, even if it sounded like they were reading from a sheet of paper. I just chalked that up to them being "detail oriented" in their feedback....


  1. John says:

    I agree that the firms actions were completely inexcusable and unacceptable. However, just because the firm/HR person did you wrong, does it make it right to go after them in that fashion?

  2. Colby B. Smith says:

    Close, but the saying is “All Hat…No Cattle”

  3. Tim Tolan says:

    John: Thanks for your comment. The actions of the HR executive were completely inexcusable. Period. That being said if the company is not a client, I like you source candidates from lots of places. I did not know about this company until they called me. Now I do and if I have a search and they have candidates that are qualified I will contact them. Does that mean I am “going after them”? I don’t think so.

  4. Tim Tolan says:

    Colby: I guess the Urban Dictionary has it wrong:
    Big hat, no cattle: Someone who presents themselves as a person of great importance, but who’s actual credentials are spurious or questionable.
    Thanks for your post.

  5. Colby B. Smith says:

    I’ve spent all 36 years of my life here in Texas – never heard that version.
    I will add that for some reason I can actually see things playing out the way you described. The folks you were talking to didn’t want to go to the CEO without a plan ready to execute, but he has some questions that are delaying things.
    It sucks, but happens that way sometimes.

  6. John says:

    Tim: Thanks for the clarification. I remember having been down this road with clients before and it was never cool. When I read the capitalized “Yeah” followed by three exclamation points, I took it as a (and this may be a bit too strong of a word) revenge. Kind of like “Thanks for messing with me, now I’m going to make it a point to poach your peeps whenever I have a chance.”

  7. From the land of both big hats and lots of cattle. We say,”Big Hat ,No Cattle” have heard it that way for over 50 years. We normally use it to refer to the folks who wear big brimmed Stetsons but have nothing to do with cattle, ranching and can,t ride a horse.
    “drugstore cowboy” interchanges , but “Big Hat, No Cattle” is worse because it means they have a big mouth to go along with the Big Hat and No Cows.

  8. Tim, you definitely speak to our realities here as Exec Recruiters (aka “Headhunters”). You’re so right about flipping this company into a “source” – it happens all the time. Between you and I, do you think companies consider this? Or do you think they only reflect after they have a crisis scenario (such as you recruiting away several key players)?

  9. Tim Tolan says:

    Josh – It makes me wonder although I don’t want people to think that if you don’t do business with my firm – we go poaching…
    My point in this post was that this person who claimed to have power – had none. NADA. We source from lots of places – except clients. We NEVER go there. My guess is that most of the time when talent walks out the door they seldom know the (real) details of how it happened. That’s my two cents worth…

  10. Gina says:

    My guess would be that this is how they run most aspects of the company- hence the need for help in hiring. When there is a complete breakdown in communication – whether it be between you & the client or just between the company & it’s own employees- it leaves everyone with a bad taste in their mouth & feeling jilted to say the least. All trust has been thrown out the window & sometimes it never comes back.

  11. Tim Tolan says:

    Very good point Gina. All employees probably get a steady diet of this same behavior. The speed of the leader(s) is always the speed of the pack.

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