Recruiting Senior Executives – The Pivotal Rules

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Nothing is more important to a company’s success than having the best possible leaders in place. Not necessarily the most easily found or most—or least–expensive. How should we go about securing them? Are there principles that apply to all organizations, regardless of industry, culture, or mission? In my experience, this list represents the most important, most common features of a great search. All are invited to comment and make this the best resource it can be for executive search in SoCal and beyond…

1. Properly build and prepare your hiring team

Start here. This may be the rule where the reader is most likely to overestimate her company’s capabilities. Smaller companies with less experience hiring outside their circle of close contacts really struggle here. The cause is a combination of a company’s natural tendency to stress rigor, process, and data and sometimes neglect the nonlinear, human part of the proceedings. First prepare your team to just be good people (see rule 5 below for elaboration).

Done well, the interview process for your new CTO (for example) can be a fun, positive, process and not a dreary soul crusher.

  • Select an interviewing team.
  • Prepare the interviewing team.
  • Consult with the team often.
Selecting Team: Get Together

First, assign roles: leader, culture interview lead, technical/process interview lead. Jenny Jedeikin puts it wonderfully succinctly as in her post: for those crucial hires. Someone needs to step up (or be drafted) to be “Recruiter-in-chief” and take on that responsibility.

Preparing Team: Get Honest

What does each interviewer want to contribute to the interview process and what do they NOT want to contribute? Together, gently, the interview lead needs to help the team look in the collective mirror, discuss strengths and acknowledge weaknesses. Communicate and get agreement on the areas of comfort and discomfort for each.

Besides a recruiter-in-chief , there needs to be at least two more sub leads. A functional lead that is in charge of screening for functional experience and knowledge. Finally, a culture lead who has a handle on the interpersonal relationships at work in the company. This person should not be overly concerned with job knowledge—there are others for that. This lead is concerned with finding out if the personality fit is there. Each of the leads should have veto power.

Make plans for each step of that process that are natural and organic for your company. If you’re a proudly quirky company (and I hope you are) put some of that quirk into your interview plans.

Consulting with the Team: Get on the same page

Plan to get together (face to face) and discuss each candidate the next day, if possible. I suggest the following day because that gives some time to process interviews and reflect. There will be fewer knee-jerk opinions. Waiting longer than a day, and the impressions start to fade too much.

See Bob Norton’s opinions in items 4 and 5 in his blog post. There is large crossover in his opinions—but some differences as well.

2. Network with purpose and identify first candidates

The idea of tapping your personal network first is uncontroversial. The point is to apply some rigor to the effort. Getting the word out to those within your team’s immediate circle of influence takes planning and organization. Recruiter-in-chief must carve out time—maybe 2 hours—and get the search team together to systematically build a personal networking plan. This process is familiar to a quality executive search firm, and even some of the better staffing agencies for non-executive recruiting. Not many technology/media companies have this in their bag of tricks—and it needs to be there. If your executive search firm does not suggest this up front and organize it for you, the internal Recruiter-in-chief should suggest it and make it happen. In short, the process consists of the interview team meeting and systematically remembering who they know. This entails a guided, coached process of

  1. Premeeting preparation – everybody takes time to go carefully through their contact lists—Outlook, Google Contacts, LinkedIn, etc and find all the strong candidates and all the people who are very likely to know strong candidates. This process can get unwieldy, so the interview lead must coach well
  2. Meeting – go around the table going through the contacts briefly and discussing the whys. The real power comes from the ideas that build as patterns emerge.
  • Personal networking is not always easy—accept guidance here
  • Professional recruiters can help get the most out of your hard-earned network

3. Face to face conversations that leave technology aside

Everyone agrees that sharing a room with a candidate before making a final decision on bringing him on board is practically required. The exception to the rule is the occasional virtual employee or contractor whose work is such that isolation from others poses no real problem in productivity. A senior executive is never in this position, so we need to spend quality time with this person during an extended interview period.

As quoted in Jenny Jedeikin’s blog post, Eric Herrenkohl says, “While it’s a great start to connect with people on social media, people need to know, like, and trust you before they’re going to have career conversations with you at the higher levels,”

For that matter, every effort should be made to spend some significant time with candidates over food and drink—or some other non-business venue. A person’s personality can take many hours to fully express itself. An accomplished candidate has learned to keep a lid on any rough edges for the process of interviewing. We’ve all be coached constantly since college on how to interview. Those lessons stick! In practice, our team has found that even one dinner with the, say, three finalists for Chief Revenue Officer are priceless. Those edges show through and the final decision can become much easier.

Others have suggested to go even a step further and have a candidate work for a week with the team if possible. The hypothesis being that a jerk’s true nature will always make itself known in that time. They can’t help it.

4. “Power Up” your interviews

A new senior leader at your company has the potential to inspire her reports, peers, and bosses to new levels of productivity, profitability, and add to the company culture in positive ways. The opposite is also possible. The difference between the two is a chasm—a hiring mistake that has business costs, including the opportunity cost of “what if we had hired him instead…”. The expression “data-driven” is now mantra at tech companies—this gets useful data!

Harvard Business Review suggests going beyond the typical interview and we agree wholeheartedly with this approach. A bit of planning and imagination is all that is needed to come up with ways to see an exec in action and give the hiring team plenty of information that will truly differentiate among finalists.

Among other recruiting professionals, The Overture Group suggests asking the candidate for work-product as part of the interview process. A Chief Revenue Officer candidate might be asked to bring a quarterly sales plan she architected—perhaps with details obscured—especially numbers. A CTO candidate should have access to block level IT or application development plans and be able to talk through the decision-making process which could be just as important as the results of the projects.

In my experience, the most impressive senior executive candidates have been eager to speak to their onboarding plan and the overall approach to their first few months based on what they know now. A confident executive and hiring company know these plans will certainly change, but the ability to think through the process speaks volumes about the quality of candidate.

5. Find empathy, and don’t lose it during the search

The average company gets poor marks here. The kind reader probably doesn’t think of her company as “average” …but a lot of companies are…by definition of the word. Look in the mirror and embrace this. Unless your team has made your recruitment effort a core competency, you may not be very good at treating your candidates right. It is probably true that you do a much better job for the one or two people that get to be finalists. Don’t save your humanity only for the person that’s the frontrunner. “Candidate experience” is an oft-spoken phrase at many organizations but the day to day habits that make for a good experience are often lacking.

Care about the experience of all candidates that have been contacted. Establish a system to quickly respond to rejected candidates you’ve made real contact with to close the loop with them—even if it’s a form letter. Take the responsibility as the hiring company to bring conclusion with any candidate who has screened or interviewed. An executive search firm will (or at least should) handle this for you whenever engaged.

Deb McClanahan at Broadband HR calls this, appropriately, Golden Rule. Candidate experience is such a problem that every hiring manager has a bad story from their career as candidate. How about committing to never doing the same to the next person? That commitment by the Recruiter-in-chief will probably bring the proper empathy to the process…for all engaged candidates.