What Axl Rose's Gig with AC/DC Has Taught Me About Redefining "Qualified Candidates"
Or, how past performance does not guarantee future results.
Axl Rose performing with AC/DC at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio on September 4, 2016. Photo credit: author
AC/DC brought the rock to my hometown over the Labor Day weekend. This concert was originally scheduled for March 2016 but was postponed after long-time lead singer, Brian Johnson, was told by his doctors he must step away from live performances or risk total hearing loss. The news was made more complicated because AC/DC were in the middle of the Rock or Bust tour. They had 10 concerts to go in North America plus a slew of European dates over the summer.
This was not the first time AC/DC had to replace a singer. Indeed, Brian Johnson himself stepped in soon after the tragic death of Bon Scott in February 1980. At that time, the band moved quickly. They found a new singer, wrote and recorded new songs, and by July of that year, had released the seminal album, Back in Black. Brian Johnson remained with the band for 36 years, though he was always referred to with affection by fans as the "new" lead singer.
Fast forward to April 2016. Amid fan speculation as to whether AC/DC would--or should--continue on, gossip sites published photos of Guns N' Roses lead singer, Axl Rose, leaving an Atlanta studio where AC/DC were reportedly rehearsing. Within days, the band made it official, announcing that Axl Rose would replace Brian for the rest of the Rock or Bust tour. If there was any doubt about the veracity of this news, Angus Young joined GN'R on stage at Coachella to perform a couple classic AC/DC songs.
Though it might seem straight forward to an outside observer, this was monumental news. And it was not without controversy. Axl Rose to join AC/DC? It seemed unthinkable. Inexplicable. A terrible choice. There were certainly better and more qualified candidates. Though a bona fide rock star, Axl Rose personified the worst characteristics of rock stardom. He was petulant, recalcitrant and insufferable. He spat on and cursed at fans during concerts. He arrived late and quit shows early; that is, if he deigned to show up at all. He treated his bandmates terribly and is widely blamed for the disintegration of the classic lineup of GN'R.
Axl Rose (left) with GN'R back in the day. You'd want to hire this guy, right? photo credit: Getty Images
AC/DC, on the other hand, are perhaps the hardest working and least pretentious rockers on the planet. They are simple. They are straightforward. What you see and what you hear is what you get. They do one thing and they do it really well. And they've been doing that thing for 40+ years. They profess nothing more complicated than sex, booze and rock and roll. Sure, they are bawdy. Double-entendre is a staple song-writing ploy of theirs. And, as evidenced by the 21 songs with the word "rock" in the title, AC/DC just wants to rock and they want to rock for their fans. To them, the fans mean everything.
That sincerity is what has endeared legions of fans to AC/DC. From across generations and across geographies. So, in the opinions of most fans, inviting Axl to join the band--even temporarily--was a decision that was sure to end in disaster. He did not fit the profile of the band. Again, for nearly all of Axl's professional career, he has acted out the worst, most unpleasant parts of rock stardom. And it is documented. Great for tabloid fodder, but not so much for the fans and the band who just want to rock.
Of course, as everybody knows, the sound approach to screening and selecting a candidate to interview is to go with the candidate who has done the job before, who meets all the requirements set forth in the position description, and who looks terrific on paper. But that approach has the potential to discount a lot of people. What about the recent college graduate whose GPA, rather than reflecting a lack of intelligence or ability, is indicative of drive, ambition, work ethic, budgeting, and time management because that student worked through college and had family responsibilities? What about college drop-outs, many of whom are entrepreneurs, who are strategic, creative and first-movers, and for whom a traditional path to education does not resonate? What about the veteran who lacks the degree or certification you say is required for the job but who did nearly that exact job in the military--the only difference being the job was accomplished in a combat zone? What about the convicted felon whose sentence has been served (and debt to society has been paid) and whose motivation to stay out of trouble has greater consequences than most yet who is destined to be barred from the workforce because of bias and prejudice? What about the person with a disability, who has intelligence, drive, enthusiasm and commitment but who requires a simple, often inexpensive, accommodation to do the job? None of these people look pretty on paper. But they likely bring magic to your workplace if given the chance.
There's another essential truth that comes to us by way of every financial prospectus printed in the last 20 years: Past performance does not guarantee future results. Just because something happened yesterday does not mean it's going to happen again tomorrow. Same goes with our employees. Pairing a superstar performer with a terrible boss will not likely result in the same outcomes as the superstar had with a fantastic boss. And, maybe just maybe, the fantastic boss is why the superstar was able to become a superstar in the first place. Environment means something. Culture is everything. Cohesion and group dynamics--all of it makes a difference.
"Axl Rose Triumphs at AC/DC Debut in Lisbon" ~ Rolling Stone, May 7, 2016
So it goes with Axl. For the first few European concerts, many fans took the band up on its offer to refund tickets purchased prior to Axl coming on board. AC/DC karaoke? Who wants to see that? Not Roger Daltry, for one. But those who stuck with their tickets were pleasantly surprised. Delighted even. Rave reviews of European concerts confirmed Axl was doing an outstanding job. "Axl Rose Truimphs at AC/DC Debut in Lisbon," the headline screamed. He far exceeded expectations of even the most begrudging AC/DC fans.
It's not just that the band is merely tolerating him and his usual antics. No, Axl has changed. He's transformed. Axl is living up to the expectations of his new environment. He has adapted to the culture of his new band. He is well-mannered. He's personable and respectful. Humble, even. He shows up on time and delivers outstanding performances while, at the same time, deferring to the band and it's star, guitarist and co-founder, Angus Young. While AC/DC's future is uncertain after this tour concludes on September 20, Axl has said he wants to continue for as long as Angus will have him. How about that for a loyal and engaged employee?
"I love that it's my job, I love that Angus is my boss." Axl Rose, Guns N' Roses frontman filling in as lead singer for AC/DC photo credit: Fantastico, Globo
This was a job Axl wanted and thought he could do given the opportunity. While the terms of the arrangement are unknown, and it is most certainly lucrative, few would be surprised if it turns out Axl is doing this gig for free. After all, he's playing for--and with--his favorite band. It doesn't get much better than hiring someone with the attitude that they love it so much they'd do the job for free.
Not only is Axl a new man, but he has to some extent reinvigorated the band. Oh, sure, there's all the bells and cannons and inflatable Rosie's you'd expect from any AC/DC concert. But Axl has encouraged the lads to bust out Bon-era songs that haven't been performed live for decades. He's helping the band deliver an even better product for the fans. Isn't that what every employer wants? An employee who goes above and beyond?
Axl says, "I love that it's my job. I love that Angus is my boss." Wait. A rock star has a boss? And the rock star is an eager and engaged employee? And the rock star is pushing for innovation to the delight of the fans? What if AC/DC had dismissed Axl Rose out of hand because of bad behavior in his past? Based on past performance, he would definitely not be worth hiring today. Except Axl is proof that, when someone is in the right environment, that person can excel.
Many are happy for Axl's success. His earliest musical collaborator, Tracii Guns of LA Guns, tweeted after Axl's inaugural show in Portugal, "Dude, you sang for AC/DC tonight. Hahahaha. Amazing and congratulations." His former GN'R bandmates, with whom he's recently reconciled for their own Not in This Lifetime tour, were equally enthusiastic. Duff McKagen gushed, after seeing the AC/DC show in London, "But we got to see him do that thing with AC/DC, and it was magical.”
@traciiguns: @axlrose dude you sang for @acdc tonight hahahaha . Amazing and congratulations:)
We talk about how hard it is to find "qualified" candidates. Oh, it's easy to find candidates. Perhaps it's time to redefine how we judge qualified. It's true maybe the magic you'd get from a risky hire is the same you'd get from the traditional looks-good-on-paper candidate. And you might argue, why take the risk? But you just said you're not getting enough of the traditional candidates. So you're going to have to take the risk. Lucky for you, there's a lot more potential magic out there than you think.
In an arena filled with fans who just want to ROCK, you need the performer who is going to do just that. Past performance be damned.
Ready to rock! The author waiting for AC/DC to take the stage at Nationwide Arena on September 4, 2016