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I spoke to a couple groups of business owners recently on executive retention and development. Along the way, the discussion veered to the search process. Executive Springboard deals directly with what happens after the search, but I haven’t spent much time providing insights on the search itself. Having interviewed a couple dozen search firm principals and HR leaders, I can offer six best practices to put in place when you recruit.
1. Decide Whether to Build or Buy.
At the core of a search discussion is whether or not a search is even necessary.
OK, I have covered this topic before. Here’s a link to my blog called Ready for Prime Time? The Cliff Notes version is this: We often make the wrong analysis when deciding somebody is not ready for promotion to a senior spot. The internal candidate (the “build” option) may not be ready today. But it will take you months to conduct a search and select a candidate (the “buy” option). Then it will take 6-8 months before that external hire is fully up to speed. So, the correct question to ask this: “Will your internal candidate will be ready in a year, when hopefully an external hire is up-to-speed and making the contribution you expect?”
It’s a coin flip whether an external hire will work out or not. The risk is even higher if your new hire just assumed a more senior position with you than in their previous company. Mix learning a new culture with learning a new position, and it is easy to see why this is a daunting challenge.
Executives shared with me lots of reasons why they would buy their leadership, rather than build it. They might not have anybody in their organization who is close to the talent profile they seek. Maybe they can’t afford to move somebody off of their current responsibilities. At the top of the list was the need to make a significant change. If your team only knows one way of doing things and you’ve concluded that isn’t cutting it, then you have to look elsewhere for a course correction. Just recognize the risk inherent in the decision.
2. Leave it to the Experts.
Indeed and LinkedIn make it easy to conduct your own searches. And you can probably save a lot of money by not engaging a search firm. Larger organizations may have their own in-house recuiters. But are you good enough at it to hire a leader? Probably not. You just don’t have the opportunity to do it all that often.
Headhunters are more experienced at senior level recruitment than you are. They have a broader data base of candidates. They are especially adept at finding executives who are not actively looking for their next opportunity, those who might be satisfied in their current position with a competitor. They know how to entice these candidates to consider you, coming off as far more of an honest broker than you can pull off yourself.
Not only does the headhunter’s third-party status provide objectivity that candidates value, but it can improve your own role in the search. They can question your criteria, your speed of response or your reaction to the relative polish candidates have. They can get involved in negotiations on compensation, helping you avoid a zero-sum game that creates a cloud before your new Chosen One walks in the door.
3. Sweat the Position Specs.
The advertising titan David Ogilvy said, “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.” He wasn’t referring to ill-fitting underware. He was talking about how great execution relies on solid direction. It applies to executive search as much as it does in advertising.
Here are two sets of qualifications I pulled from VP of Marketing searches on LinkedIn:
A offers an open house. Just about anybody is welcome to apply. What does this tell you about the thinking that went into creating these specs? What does it say about the company that published this?
B is far more complete, but it leaves a candidate with several big questions:
I’d suggest keeping your priority list of requirements to about five items. You can leave the lower-bar requirements unstated and focus instead on what is important. You are unlikely to hire somebody for a VP of Marketing position who doesn’t have a Bachelor’s degree. Don’t bother saying it. But does the candidate need experience in your industry? Should they have a expertise in digital lead generation or in developing a global portfolio of brands? These make it easier for a candidate to read and comprehend your position description. They also make it easier for the headhunter and you to evaluate higher-level differences between candidates.
4. Work with Transparency. You should demand transparency from your search firm partner. They should keep you up to date on critical metrics in the search. They should share a real-time list of candidates they are evaluating and what their status is.
As I touched on when considering the benefits of a third-party relationship in a search, you should demand that the headhunter be up-front with you on how you are managing your part of the search. If they think your job specs stink, they should not hold back in saying so. If they see you drifting off into considering things that were not the priorities, they should flag it. Search firms almost always have a recommended first choice. Hear them out on their rationale, especially if it is not aligned with your choice. Their POV is based on a different view of the candidate than your own.
Transparency also extends to what you share with your candidates. In the search process, both sides are selling. The headhunter helps to ensure that there is evidence to support what the candidate has said in their pitch to you. They might do the same thing for the candidate about the environment that they will face. But it is important for you to be as honest as possible with the candidate about the environment, the culture and the people they will face. Executives’ failures in new roles often results from disconnects between expectations and reality. Better for these to come up during the search process, even if it leads to a candidate rejecting you, then for them to find out once they join that important information was withheld from them.
5. Fully Utilize Assessments.
Personality assessments are increasingly common as part of the search process. Some are detailed and validated. Others may be little more than a horoscope. Conducting a thorough assessment will set you back a few thousand dollars.
A few search firms incorporate assessments into their base offering. This can add value for you, but those assessments are often proprietary or licensed at low or no fee. The question is whether you compare outcomes with more broadly used tools. Headhunters will seldom cut into their margin to conduct a Hogan, EQ-I or DiSC for free.
At least a dozen CHROs I’ve interviewed have told me that they use assessment tools in the selection process, primarily to understand strengths, watch-outs and cultural compatability. Then the results are put in a vault, to be used again in succession planning discussions. There is often a missed opportunity to use personality assessments as part of the assimilation process. This is Executive Springboard’s preferred way of working. Understanding strengths and development needs within a cultural context is an enormous help in effective onboarding.
6. Nail the Interview.
You normally think of this as the concern of the candidate, whether or not they do a great job when they get face-to-face with your organization’s decision-makers. A headhunter told me a horror story that he saw repeated among his clients during his time at KornFerry.
Interviewers focused on the fact they were seeing somebody when they looked at their calendar in the morning. In meetings prior to the interview, they studied the candidate’s resume, took a few notes and came up with some questions. During the interview itself, they spent the majority of the time talking about the company and their role, which they thought was appreciated by the candidate. They refrained from note-taking, in order not to tip of the candidate on what they thought was important. Immediately after the interview, they took a phone call, then went into an emergency meeting. That night at home, they tried to recall cogent parts of the conversation. They had an overall reaction to the candidate, but it already felt more like a gut feeling than something tied to specific things the candidate had said.
Interview “leakage” happens all the time. It leads to suboptimal selection or a consensus supporting the few people who were the best note-takers. A little discipline can go a long way towards nailing the interview from the company’s perspective. All interviewers can agree ahead of time on which of the job spec priorities they will address and how the will do it. Each interviewer can ask the same questions to each candidate. Everybody should take notes or use score sheets. A short conference call can be conducted at the end of the day for a top-line debrief on how candidates were viewed. The debrief should be placed on calendars at the same time as the interview.
Even if your upcoming search goes perfectly, things can go wrong when that great leader joins your organization. That is why Executive Springboard exists. But you can increase the chances that your next leader succeeds, by getting the search right. I hope this advice gathered from headhunters and CHROs around the country opens up avenues that you may not have considered.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.