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Seven Lessons in Recruiting from Recent Searches

Getting the right leaders is crucial to the success of any organisation. But making excellent senior appointments is often hard and requires much wisdom. Some of our recent searches have highlighted valuable lessons.

Seven Lessons in Recruiting from Recent Searches

Four Lessons from a Successful Search

Madlug is a BCorp that serves children in the care system. Founder Dave Linton discovered that many children who move between foster parents carry all their possessions in a black bin bag. This reinforces their feeling of being worthless. Madlug is a bag retailer, and the concept is simple: for every bag you buy, a child in the care system is given a free travel bag. This wonderful business is now growing rapidly and has formed partnerships with major corporations.

In 2022, Madlug contacted Carnelian about recruiting a new non-executive chair. Recruiting an external chair has its challenges. We have done many such searches over the years and some have been especially tricky. But in this case, the Madlug board really understood the nature of executive search at this level. The partnership we formed was much more powerful as a result. In many ways the board modelled what it means to engage with a search firm. Three particular lessons stood out:

  1. Take Your Time

The board contacted us in plenty of time and were willing to take the time to make the right appointment. Too often organisations approach us expecting a quick turnaround. Madlug appreciated that excellent search is careful and painstaking and were willing to take many months over the search if needed.

There may be a spiritual component. A hurried approach can betray a lack of trust in God’s ability to provide what is needed at the right time. Often in recruitment we want tomorrow’s manna today.

2. Use the Whole Search

Madlug used the whole search, not merely the final result. Ultimately the search resulted in an excellent final appointment, but a search is more than the final appointment. Madlug recognised that a search involves contact with dozens of senior people and that each contact is something to be benefited from. At the beginning of the search, the board said: “even if we don’t appoint anyone, the search will not be a waste of time because of the connections we will have made”.

The Madlug board wrote to thank every candidate who was willing to be considered for the role but who was not shortlisted. This attentiveness has ensured that the search has left in its wake a group of supportive and senior people who are likely to champion Madlug in the future.

3. Don’t Take “No” for an Answer

When we first approached the person who would become the successful candidate, he initially said “no”. This is a common feature of searches: often the very best candidates are busy doing other things and not looking for new roles. This can be one of the most rewarding aspects of search. Often the candidates we appoint end up saying, “thank you for persisting with me and showing me why I should reconsider the role.”

4. Use Face to Face Meetings

The board wanted to conduct all the important meetings face to face, both with us and with the candidates.

Currently at Carnelian we are trying to always conduct briefing meetings in person. The benefits are that we are more emotionally invested in the search, we have a more nuanced understand of the organisation and role, and we have more credibility with candidates.

Whether a board wants to meet us in person or online can also be a litmus test of how they view the relationship with Carnelian. If the board are reluctant to meet in person, perhaps they view the relationship in more transactional terms. If the board are keen to meet in person, probably they view the relationship as a genuine partnership. The latter is far more likely to generate excellent results.

Three Lessons from ‘Failed’ Searches

Over the last few months we have worked on two searches that failed to appoint.

For one of these searches, we knew from the beginning it would be a tough one. We therefore invested especially heavily in digging out candidate ideas beyond the scope of our existing networks. In the end, we considered more candidates than we had done for any other previous search. Yet, despite this, the number of interested candidates was extremely small and most were not of the calibre we were hoping for. In the end, no candidate from our search was appointed, rather the role was reshaped and an internal candidate was appointed.

For the other search, all the shortlisted candidates pulled out of the process for independent and personal reasons. The search was left dead in the water.

In neither case was it clear that anything could have been done differently. Both roles were attractive, both clients excellent to work with, and in both cases the Carnelian team worked hard to get the best results.

Reflecting on these searches, three important lessons have impressed themselves on me.

1. Pursue Mission, not Glory

The internal appointment made in the first of the searches described above was actually an excellent outcome. At one level, it was frustrating for the Carnelian team: months of work did not deliver the expected result. But ultimately we exist because we want to see the best leaders in place. Whenever that happens, we praise the Lord, whether or not it happens in the way we designed.

  1. Trust God, not Self

Search is such a powerful method of recruitment. Moreover, many clients come to us after previous attempts have failed, and our success rate is extremely high. Given this, we must be wary of self-reliance. The reality is that unless the Lord builds the house, we labour in vain. Problematic searches are a reminder of this.

No piece of recruitment is merely a professional exercise. It is also an opportunity to worship. The ups and downs of a recruitment process – indeed, any professional activity – reveal the hearts of all involved. Recruitment that honours God is steeped in prayerful reliance on Him.

  1. Patience & Persistence

It is often said: ‘hire slow, fire fast’. There is wisdom in this – especially in hiring slowly. Patience and persistence are the chief virtues in recruitment, and sometimes the Lord uses recruitment processes to grow these virtues in our hearts. When all the shortlisted candidates pulled out of one of our recent searches, we were forced to conclude that none of the shortlisted candidates were right for the role. The Lord clearly wants us to be patient and try again. We often advise clients not to appoint unless they are confident – better to keep looking than to make the wrong appointment.


This piece was written by Allan, Founder and Director of Carnelian.

Other posts by Allan include:

What boards should ask search firms

All Roads Lead to the Board

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