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Hiring Leaders: Six Tips from Professional Recruiters

You don’t have to pay recruiters tens of thousands of dollars to find the best business leaders.

Yes, hiring great leaders is difficult. Headhunters vet dozens of potential executives to find the CxOs that will fit their clients’ companies perfectly.

But what if you can’t afford to hire a recruiter? (Or you’d rather take on the job yourself?)

There are many benefits to hiring a recruiter, but with some time and commitment, you can go through the leadership hiring process yourself. You’ll need to learn what it takes to hire a great executive, and then you’ll need to put it into practice.

To help you get started, we’ve put together this list of six tips from professional recruiters. Keep them in mind when you’re going through the leadership hiring process, and you’ll find the perfect candidate to elevate your company to the next level.

1. It’s All About Your Network

The best recruiters don’t just take to LinkedIn and job sites to find leadership candidates. They start with their professional network. Over years of recruiting, headhunters build up a strong network of highly qualified executives—and that’s the first place they go when they’re looking to hire.

This network is one of recruiters’ greatest assets, and the reason why companies keep hiring them to source candidates. Recruiters know a lot of people. And they prune their list of connections to the highest performers.

If you don’t want to hire a recruiter, you need to take advantage of your own network. You probably don’t have the same level of connections as a headhunter. But you definitely know some people in your field. And that’s a great place to start.

Let your acquaintances know that you’re hiring and that you’re interested in hearing their recommendations. Ask them if they know anyone who’s interested in a new leadership role. Tell them about the opportunities at your company (we’ll discuss this in point six below). Ask others to put word out to their own networks that you’re hiring.

When you don’t have the huge network of a recruiter, take advantage of the networks that you’re connected to. This is how leadership positions get filled—while job board postings can be effective, you’ll get better candidates from personal recommendations.

2. Check References Thoroughly

Whether the candidate comes from your own network or not, it pays to check their references. Some recruiters only entertain candidates whose references are also in their network. You may or may not have that luxury.

But you will need to spend time thoroughly checking references. Be prepared to spend up to an hour on reference calls if you want to get the most out of them. Go in with a plan and know what your goals are for each call.

Rebecca Knight’s article “The Right Way to Check Someone’s References” is a thorough guide to the entire process, from soliciting questions to getting information about social-emotional intelligence. Give this article a detailed read when preparing for reference calls.

Remember that a large part of your candidate’s success could be determined by cultural fit (which we’ll talk about next). It’s important to get a feel for how the candidate works, how they solve problems, what drives them, what they believe in—and, of course, how well that matches your company’s culture.

Effectively checking references is tedious. There’s no way around it. But once you’ve narrowed your candidate list a bit, it’s a crucial step that can be the difference between hiring the right candidate and starting the process over in a year.

While references are the best source of information on a candidate’s abilities, you can also seek out information elsewhere. Has your candidate presented at a conference? Been featured on a webinar? Published a paper somewhere? Track down examples of their thought leadership to find out if what they’re saying is a good fit for your company.

3. Emphasize Cultural Fit (or Add)

Recent years have seen an increased emphasis on cultural fit in recruiting. Not just with executives, but with all employees. This is especially true at startups, but the point holds across all companies. And while the inherent problems with the phrase “cultural fit” are now being recognized, the idea—or at least part of it—still holds.

Every company has particular working styles, values, and practices. Hiring for cultural fit doesn’t mean that your candidate has to fit in perfectly with those norms. It means that they should complement them. Sometimes candidates with good cultural fit are already on board with your values. Sometimes it means that they have a different set of values that helps improve your company by adding a new (but compatible or complementary) perspective.

The idea of adding cultural diversity and hiring people with different viewpoints is sometimes referred to as “cultural add.”

Whether these two phrases are contradictory and if cultural fit includes inherent bias is discussed at length elsewhere. What you need to think about is whether a new leadership hire will fit in your company. They don’t need the exact same values and practices. But if their values are antithetical to yours, the relationship might not be a very good one.

Of course, understanding cultural fit or add means you need to understand the culture at your company. If you don’t already know how to describe your company culture, you’ll want to spend some time figuring it out. CultureIQ’s “What Kind of Company Culture Do You Have?” is a great place to start. It details four types of company cultures that you might have in place at your company, as well as advice on how to make a shift to each type.

Hiring Checklist

Download our free Leadership Hiring Checklist

4. Recruit for Your Mid-Term Priorities

Hiring new leadership to help you meet your short-term goals within six to twelve months is short-sighted. But focusing only on the things you want to accomplish five years from now doesn’t take full advantage of your candidate’s abilities, either. You need balance.

That’s why focusing on mid-term priorities, between one and five years out, is a great way to screen candidates. Complete executive onboarding can take upwards of six months, so aiming for full effectiveness within a year is reasonable. That’s when your new executive will be able to start working toward the company goals.

What are your company’s mid-term goals? What resources will you need to meet those goals? How could a new CxO help you get there? You’ll need to know the answers to these questions if you want to hire leadership that will be most beneficial for your company.

5. Assess Leadership Competencies with Questionnaires and Tests

There are many ways to assess leadership competencies. References, as we discussed, are one way. Interviews are another. One method of assessment that’s becoming popular is the administration of questionnaires and tests.

The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, StrengthsFinder, verbal reasoning tests, and other personality and cognitive tests help you get insight into a candidate’s abilities. You can use these insights to build a better profile of the candidate.

Of course, you’ll need to take care in interpreting these results. Tests that have been around for a long time are backed up by research, but they can only tell you so much about how a candidate will actually perform on the job.

General traits like communication, problem-solving, and the ability to set meaningful goals are crucial, and these tests can intimate whether your candidate has the necessary skills. But factors like helping subordinates perform at their best are difficult (or impossible) to measure with a test.

Some personality traits might be correlated with these factors, but in the end, you’ll probably have to assess them through references and interviews. Social-emotional intelligence, for example, is quite difficult to assess in the vacuum of a written test. Motivation, too, is affected by so many factors that tests fall flat in measuring it.All tests should be interpreted cautiously. Human beings are notoriously complex, applicants may be motivated to game the test to get specific results, and there are factors significantly more important than personality test results in the hiring process.

With all of that being said, the results of a questionnaire or test can help you get an idea of some of the underlying personality factors that a candidate will bring to the table. Recruiters who have experience with these types of tests often use them to screen leadership candidates, and it’s a strategy that you can use, as well.

Also keep in mind that some of the most important leadership competencies can’t be measured by a test. In a 2016 survey, companies stated that ethics and morals were highly valued in their executives. Flexibility, providing safety for trial and error, and creating a feeling of succeeding or failing together were also on the list. Those are quite difficult—if not impossible—to measure with a test.What’s important to your company? Which traits do you want to make sure that a new leader absolutely has? Talk to other leaders at your company to find out what they value and make a list of ranked traits. Reference the list during the hiring process.

If you decide to use psychometric tests, balance the information you get against what the candidate’s references tell you. If the two profiles are similar, you can be confident in the results of the instrument. A difference in profiles indicates that the test either isn’t well-suited to what you’re looking for or that the applicant did their best to represent a particular side of themselves (you’ll have to decide whether that’s a red flag or not).

6. Understand What Leaders Want

Finding the right leadership candidate isn’t just about what you want—it’s also about what candidates want. Every candidate will have a different list of priorities, but Russell Reynolds found some interesting patterns.

For example, the most common factor that leadership candidates assess when considering a job offer is the possibility of a more challenging or interesting role. Are you offering that challenge? If not, your candidate might not be the best choice (or you may want to rethink your expectations of what that candidate can accomplish).

Advancement opportunities, increases in authority, company growth, and autonomy are also ranked highly.

You can use these desires in two ways. First, you can make sure that your job offers these things. Setting challenging goals and allowing leaders to exercise authority on their own will make the position an appealing one to many candidates.

Second, you can think about whether or not the position offers these factors to specific candidates. If one of your candidates is considering a decrease in authority by taking the position, you may want to be wary—even if they think they’re okay with it, it could become problematic in the future.

It’s also a good idea to talk to leadership candidates about what they’re looking for. If their desires are a good match for the position you’re offering, you’re off to a great start. If there’s a mismatch, you may want to consider tweaking the job description or offering another of the factors that candidates are looking for.

Follow Your Intuition

Leadership hiring is a long and sometimes arduous process, so it’s important to use every resource available to you. And sometimes that includes your own intuition.

There’s only so much quantitative assessment you can do in leadership hiring. In the end, it may come down to the feeling you get when you talk to a candidate. Sometimes you just have a feeling that you’re talking to the right one. That’s important. There’s no way to quantify intuition—but you should pay attention to it.

When should you go with your intuition and when should you go with hard data? There’s no good answer. In many cases it comes down to another difficult-to-measure factor: experience.

In the end, you know your company (and your executive team) better than anyone else. So if you have a strong feeling, you’re the best one to assess whether you should go with it or ignore it. If you can combine your intuition with the points above during the leadership hiring process, you’re well on your way to hiring a standout CxO.

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