Some ideas for mitigating risk in high-stakes executive hiring

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Author: James Brocket

In my three decades in executive search, I have had the privilege of working with a diverse range of clients, some of which have become global leaders in their sector. As we approach a pivotal period where numerous companies contemplate initiating executive search processes to enhance their leadership teams, I thought it might be opportune to share some insights I have gained on mitigating the inherent risks of this critical undertaking. In no particular order, here is a list of thoughts and suggestions:

  1. Dedicate Adequate Time: It is imperative to recognize the importance of allocating substantial time to perfect the hiring process. Time should be spent in identifying and selecting an appropriate search partner and ensuring they are thoroughly briefed about your specific needs and expectations.
  2. Refine the Pitch: A crucial element of the search process is the candidate pitch. Its effectiveness in captivating passive candidates, the delivery method, and the presenter’s expertise in representing your company and the opportunity is vital. Ensuring that your messaging is coherent and that there is alignment between you and your search partner at the commencement of the process is fundamental for attracting top-tier candidates.
  3. Implement a Candidate Evaluation Scorecard: While a brief is typically established at the beginning of the process, sometimes that will be the last time it is referred to. I advocate for a scorecard system for all interviewers, including the search firm. This scorecard, ideally encompassing 4-6 categories like ‘Role Fit,’ ‘Team Fit,’ ‘International Experience,’ ‘Leadership,’ and ‘Market Understanding,’ should be simple and focused on the key requirements. In contexts where diversity is a significant consideration, include a ‘Diversity Objectives Fit’ category. Scoring should be straightforward, perhaps on a 1-5 scale, with the diversity aspect being binary to reflect whether candidates align with your objectives. They either do, or they don’t.
  4. Prioritize Appropriate Experience Over Extensive Experience: Optimal hiring often involves selecting the right person at the right stage of their career. Assess whether candidates will find fulfilment in the role. In rapidly growing companies, ‘overhiring’ can be strategic for roles requiring quick scaling of responsibilities, but in other scenarios, such hires may lead to disengagement and underperformance.
  5. Focus on Key Objectives Beyond Job Descriptions: We encourage clients to envision the future: “What would have transpired in a year for you to deem this hire a success?” This foresight should guide candidate evaluation as much as the job description itself.
  6. Maximize Data Collection: Beyond interviews and scorecards, it’s crucial to gather other comprehensive data. I advocate for all final-stage candidates to undergo psychometric assessments, and for thorough reference checks to be conducted, extending beyond the typical ‘friends and family’ references. Your search partner should leverage their network to provide insights not only into a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses but also strategies to maximize their potential. Confidential discussions with past direct managers can offer invaluable perspectives and should be facilitated by your search partner.

A focus on implementing some or all of these ideas in every search process will reap dividends. I hope you find this useful.