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Like graduating with honors.

In Milan’s Quadrilatero della Moda, the city’s fashion district, the value of the clothes people on the street are wearing any given day is many multiples more than along any comparable set of city blocks anywhere. It was here, along Via Monte Napoleone, that I received the one most overwhelming lesson that’s shaped my work as a headhunter.

On an autumn morning some 10 years ago I’d just arrived to Milan to meet a potential client. The meeting was set for the following day, and so I had an afternoon to wander around, taking in sights. I couldn’t resist the Prada store at the old train station. And soon I was drawn in to the Quadrilatero della Moda nearby. Along Via Monte Napoleone I found a shoe store named Tanino Crisci. I went in with no intention to make a purchase – didn’t need any shoes, really – just the hope of filling the afternoon with human contact. I’d no idea before going into the store how much Mr. Crisci thought, and thinks, of his shoes. There’s for sure a lot of self-confidence in how the shoes are priced.

After a few minutes I noticed one of the employees at the store, someone in his early 20s, looking after a customer. He had a warm, easy manner and I thought that were he to approach me, he’d be someone I could readily engage and learn about Milan – but for sure I wouldn’t be buying. In my confidence as to who’d be profiting from our exchange, I was certain the ‘buyer’ would be him. Sure and soon enough he came over, and after a formal greeting invited me to look around and feel at home. Of course he realized I was an English-speaker, and talked to me in something that was more broken than English, though with a glimmer in his eye that conveyed a depth beyond the stumbling words.

We chatted a bit about the history of the shoe, how it was different from others of its category (Testoni and the like), and what critics were saying. It was a delightful chat, his words accompanied by much gesturing and the best of all Italian smiles.

Soon, of course, our young friend was inviting me to try one of their shoes. Having surrendered to his wholesomeness, automatically I said yes, for sure. I told him my size and pointed to a model shoe next to me. He returned with a box. In the meantime the store had emptied, and the three salespeople congregated around, all chattering in broken English, which didn’t matter at all, I was already enchanted.

Our young friend returned with the pair of shoes, which he helped me put on, and promptly realized, even before I did, that either my feet were too fat or the shoes too narrow. (Later I would learn that it’s more that Crisci’s shoes are the narrower.) He took them off my feet, left, and came back promptly with more varieties of the same kind of shoe. Again, once he put them on, he just as promptly took them off without waiting for my own nod. He stood up, left me in the company of his colleagues, and returned again, I’m certain, with about five more boxes. The maneuvers repeated with the same sequence and with his immediate conclusion that the shoes were too tight.

By this point, I knew I wanted to buy from this guy. I needed to reward his dedication to sell the right shoe for the right foot. As I was contemplating whether I had room in my carry-on for a pair of shoes, young Integro (let’s call him Integro) had gone and come with yet more boxes.

It must have been around the 30th pair that he put on that I decided I had to make my stand. I stood up and walked towards the mirror, looked at the shoes, and said that they were fine and I’d take them. Not so fast, I think Integro must have thought, as he bent down and felt the shoe with his fingers. “No,” he said, they didn’t fit well enough. I walked back to the chair, took the shoes off, put them on the box, and started to hand the shoes over to Integro, insisting that I’d be taking these. To which, he simply said “No.” And then I saw his hands on the shoe box on one end and my hands on the other. While I pulled in the direction of buying the pair, and he pulled on the direction of not selling them to me.

As this went on for a few seconds, it reminded of a comment a client had made earlier that year. The client was about to extend an offer to a midlevel associate in China. I’d known the candidate for well over a year and knew the position for which he was being hired required certain traits. I alerted the client that while I thought the candidate had solid skills and stamina, I noted that under pressure, he sometimes didn’t make the best judgements and urged the client consider this. The client said that he appreciated my frankness, and added that while hiring the wrong lawyer may solve a problem in the short term, chances are high that it creates a much bigger problem later on.

I then realized that insight probably was exactly on young Integro’s mind: namely that he didn’t want me to buy shoes that will give me blisters down the road, shoes I’d then associate every time I saw them with an act of deception. So it was at that moment that it became clear that it isn’t so much whether a candidate does a good interview and has the skills to get the work done. Rather, the determining factor should be whether a year or two later, the associate will be part of the solution or part of a problem that tends to beget even more problems.

The worst part of not solving a problem is creating a bigger one. No headhunter wants to be linked to that outcome, just as young Integro didn’t want to be linked to a disappointed customer – and far more merit to him as I was a tourist or likely a one-time buyer.

There’s a finale to our story and it has to do with rewarding merit. Having seen this level of excellence and wanting to ensure that Integro would be rewarded, I devised how to get around his criteria of what could and couldn’t be sold. I selected a style of shoes I hadn’t tried before and as the foot slipped readily in, I curled the toes and left a lot of room in front. Once Integro checked the fit, he found lots of room and he allowed the sale. We shook hands and I was pleased to have done business with a prince.

I’ve since kept the shoes in the closet, unworn. I see them as a certificate of fine credentials of a sort that could be proudly framed and shown on the wall of an office.