Recruiting the next Chief Executive, Chairman or other senior executive can be the most important decision an organisation has to make. But in many cases, finding the best person for the job is a significant challenge, especially when the requirements are very niche. Sometimes there are only two or three people ‘out there’ who are both capable and willing to do the job. How will you access those people?
The traditional answer is to engage an executive search firm. However, this is not always possible: sometimes the fees are prohibitive, sometimes the role is too junior. In which case, the organisation my want to consider running its own search process in-house. This certainly has its challenges, but below are some guidelines to consider.
Search (don’t just advertise)
To find the best person for the job, you will probably need to actively search rather than passively advertise. This requires deliberate research and networking to identify and approach the very best candidates. Although advertising helps access a pool of candidates who are actively looking for role, that pool rarely consists of the most high-calibre candidates.
This reflects the difference between executive search firms and recruitment agencies. The two are often confused because they are superficially similar. Both try to present a group of candidates to match a role, but the approach is very different.
Identify Search Partners
The first step is to identify a group of people who will partner with you in the search. These people must be willing to help and likely to know potential candidates (or at least know people who will know potential candidates). These search partners are not candidates, but are people who will help you find candidates. They are effectively a team of volunteers for your search. These search partners must all be well networked and have a good eye for spotting someone’s suitability for a role.
Identifying 30 partners is a good start. The list might include:
- Ambassadors of your organisation
- Church leaders
- Other CEOs
- Well-networked donors/ advisors/ mentors
- Personal friends
Before identifying partners, map out the areas in which you think potential candidates might exist and pick a few partners to give you access to each area.
After identifying partners, you need to take the time to engage properly with each person and ask them to think carefully about potential candidates.
The mistake many organisations make is simply to send round an email asking for suggestions. In practice this is rarely particularly effective; nearly everyone will give it two minutes of thought and conclude they do not know any suitable candidates. Instead, you need to have a face-to-face meeting or 15-minute phone call with each partner, impress upon them the importance of the role and have a proper conversation about potential candidates. It is amazing how this gets people thinking. If needed, ask to meet again in a week once the person has had more time to think. If a partner is really unable to help, could they recommend another partner instead?
It’s important at this stage to cast the net as widely as possible. Encourage your partners to think creatively. Also, encourage them to think big: often there are candidates who people do not consider because they think they would never be interested in the role. At this stage, lateral thinking and an open mind is key. Is there someone much more senior to could be encouraged to consider the role? Are there capable up-and-comers who could be mentored into the role? Are there people in totally different sectors who could adapt to the role?
Investing time in these conversations will pay off later down the line. After a few days/weeks of these conversations, you should have a handful of potential candidates to approach.
Another way to proactively identify candidates is to create of map of relevant organisations and candidates. This may involve listing 50 organisations where the potential candidates might reside, and then trying to identify one relevant person in each. Your search partners, LinkedIn, and general online research can be used to identify the candidates.
Again, don’t merely look for the most obvious candidates. Think creatively. Don’t reject candidate ideas too quickly.
LinkedIn can be a useful too. The search function allows you to search by job titles and key words, and this can generate interesting candidates that might not be generated by the networking or mapping approaches described above.
Once you have identified candidates through your partners, mapping and LinkedIn, you will need to whittle this list down to the most promising candidates and work out how to approach them. Who do you know who is best placed to approach each potential candidate? What’s the best approach? What is most likely to make the role attractive to someone?
There will be right concerns about poaching people from other organisations at this stage. If you are running an in-house process, you may consider it more appropriate for partners outside the organisation to approach the person.
There is no harm in supplementing the search process with advertising.
Take your time over this process. If you rush it, you’re unlikely to find the best person for the job. Getting the wrong person can be disastrous, so it’s worth the discomfort of waiting a bit longer for the right person. It may take two, three or four months for a process like this.