How to Select Your Next Executive Hire

Knowing which exceptional candidate to pick from a short list boils down to understanding culture fit and the critical demands of the role

You've probably heard it before: Hire for "fit" first and "qualifications" second. Yet searches for top executive talent have long been driven almost exclusively by the positions that business leaders currently hold or by the ones they have held in the past. The problem with relying too heavily on how prospective candidates look on paper is that is has kept a lot of high-potential leaders, women, and cultural minorities out of the running because they haven't held a certain role in the past.

To be sure, concerns about putting untested and comparably under-qualified managers in a leadership role that some may believe is over their heads shouldn't be dismissed lightly. However, if one considers the rate at which many executives crash and burn in new leadership roles based on the tired assessment strategy of whether they've held the same job elsewhere else, the time for a new approach becomes clear.

Bad executive hires happen for a variety of reasons. Avoiding them requires a disciplined process for exploring a candidate's credentials and their fit with the role. But steering clear of potential (and extremely consequential) management hiring misfires also demands some risk-taking, thinking beyond ineffective recruiting and interviewing conventions, and opening up the organization's view of management talent and the forms it comes in.

Initiation Process

One of the issues I explore in my recent book, Deciding Who Leads, is the total cost of a bad executive hire. I peg the indirect costs alone at somewhere between 8 and 12 times the misfit executive's annual salary. The problem is that few organizations ever do the sort of post-mortem on the bad executive hire that might calibrate and improve the hiring, onboarding, and talent management process. Thus, the management succession status quo lives on and the costs from occasional but significant executive hiring missteps continue to mount.

The key to attracting outstanding candidates and selecting the right person for your company's next executive hire comes down to several things: your ability to describe the challenge in a detailed way; whether your internal stakeholders truly understand the behaviors that drive success in the role; and all the cultural intangibles that together constitute management style, effective communication, and ability to inspire and lead others.

It was suggested to me recently by one executive recruiter that aside from the actual job description for a senior-management role, there exists an unwritten, far more nuanced playbook the new executive must recognize and master. This unwritten script includes an assessment of the personalities involved, office politics, potential interpersonal land mines, and a list of essential influencers whose support must be solicited to help the new executive secure some early progress toward the role's written objectives.

Neither a prospective hire nor the hiring company can afford to underestimate how the new hire's fit within a company's culture and with people will impact the person's ability to succeed. "Fit" requires a leader to be flexible and adaptable and to know when to lead and when to follow. An ability to inspire and motivate through one's own personal example is also key, as is emotional intelligence to understand how individual decisions and behaviors influence one's professional colleagues.

Open Mind

Interviewers involved in the recruitment or potential promotion of new executive leaders should also consider whether they are willing to learn and grow—whether they bring an open mind to the role. For example, do they understand that the things that made them successful in one organization or role may not serve their best interests now?

One way to discern candidates' openness to new ways of thinking it so ask whether they would be willing to act on a consensus view of their early in-role performance, based on a formal onboarding survey of lateral peers, superiors, and perhaps a few well-placed subordinates. Effective interviewing requires that kind of thoughtful examination about a candidate's adaptability, especially since change and change management are on the agenda for so many corporate leaders today.

Assuming that your organization can count on good takeaways from candidate interviewing, there are also a large number of psychometric, personality, and specific skills tests that might be included in the assessment process to help develop a short-list of qualified successors.

At some point, however, whatever data can be gleaned from those instruments and no matter how enlightening the key findings of solid interviews, your organization will have to make a choice about people to narrow the field down to the individual who would fit best. The more you know about the subtleties of your own organization, the more you can speak to its shortcomings, potential, and the kinds of leaders it needs to embrace the cultural elements that make it a great place to work and eliminate those that don't support the mission.

And the more your organization knows about the successes and failures of people who've held this executive role in the past and the kind of behaviors that will drive the organization's agenda, the better prepared it will be to make key leadership selection decisions with confidence.

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