C-Suite Recruitment – Challenges & Opportunities

Case Study #1 Company A is desperately searching for a suitable candidate to head their operations in South East Asia. After performing consistently well in North American and Central European markets for more than three decades, this company is trying to make inroads in the emerging markets of Asia. But its efforts have somewhat been thwarted due to regular changes at the helm. Indeed, there have been four changes at the top most level in past six years.

Company A used time-tested methods and trustworthy sources to find suitable candidates and utilized its substantial experience in making the selections. Yet, it seemed both the company and its head of operations had to part ways after mutual disillusionment, sometimes only after a tenure of six months.

Case Study #2 Company B, one of US Midwest’s most prominent names, is facing a different kind of concern. It is having two of its top level management positions (one of which is at C-level) vacant for more than six months. The talent acquisition team has interviewed a number of candidates meanwhile, but to no avail. The team is receiving regular heads up from its recruitment partners. The compensation on offer is competitive. But it seems all of a sudden, “the talent pool has completely dried up.”

The two above mentioned examples amply showcase the challenges involved in finding and then recruiting talent at senior level positions. Before we delve deeper into this discussion, let me share with you a striking bit of information (keep in mind our case study #1 while going through this). A report published by Strategy& earlier this year measured the cost of poor succession planning in C-suite appointments in financial terms. This turned out to be in excess of USD 100 billion! (1)

“Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.” – Sir Ken Robinson

Why Failure Seems to be a Norm rather than an Exception?

Today, every company, directly or indirectly, operates at a global scale. Even more locally concentrated smaller enterprises are not immune to global impacts on their businesses. Accordingly, the roles of the senior managers – the decision makers for any business – are experiencing a rapid change.

(I) More often than not the recruitment team, including the agencies handling the job, find themselves unaware of these changes. They neither keep themselves updated about the changing needs of the market nor are this information conveyed by their corporate counterparts. The latter often mistakenly assumes a premium fee (USD 80,000 upward) to be a guarantee for reliable services.

(II) In this process of recruiting senior executives, many recruitment partners fail to act as consultants. This results in lack of clear understanding among the parties about what exactly is wanted from a candidate. The foggy job descriptions that are published to attract suitable candidates exhibit this lack of clarity in glaring terms.

Brad Remillard, co-author of You’re NOT the Person I Hired, narrates his experience (2) about how a flawed job description resulted in hiring a candidate not fit for the job at all.

“The job description didn’t really define the real job. It defined a person everyone expected or thought could do the job, because they had done it before.”

In fact, job descriptions such as these put off potentially qualified candidates from applying for the position at all.

(III) It is a common knowledge that some premium recruitment agencies provide little better than a glorified resume service. If it is a contingency recruitment then the situation becomes worse. Besides, multinational companies are known to involve more than one agency to assist them in spotting the perfect candidate for their job. Many unscrupulous agencies are known to push their candidates through without due consideration about their fitness for the job. In the end, the entire process turns out to be a disappointing exercise for everybody involved wasting precious time and money on the way.

Companies find themselves left with the bottom quartile of the talent pool consisting of a few very aggressive candidates and hardly ever manage to get in touch with the relatively passive ones who may have had better qualifications and compatibility for the job.

(IV) Recruitment consultants sometimes fail in possessing a thorough knowledge of the brand they are representing. Without a good understanding of a company’s culture, work environment, stage of development and other crucial aspects it is unlikely that a consultant will be able to spot someone eligible for a senior level management role and then coach that person accordingly before sending him or her off for the interview.

Remember what Nick Corcodilos, an experienced headhunter and author of Ask The Headhunter: Reinventing The Interview to Win The Job (1997), has to say in this regard, “When you hire, you don’t hire a person. You hire the person’s work.”

(V) It is also true that recruitment partners, both agencies and recruiting managers are responsible in this case, often get too bogged down into the specifics of the job requirements. Details like educational and technical skills and experience take precedence, much like “ticking the boxes” for a list of wanted items, over the broader picture, i.e., how good a person is in performing the tasks at hand and solving the issues that are being faced by the company. Too much emphasis is also given on the so called first impressions.

Many companies tend to delay proper succession planning for senior positions until it is too late. What A G Lafley, P&G’s Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, found out in 2011 has hardly changed over time, “Two-thirds of all corporate directors admit they don’t give succession planning sufficient energy and time.(3) An age old wisdom – “there is nothing in the world that remains unchanged. All things are in perpetual flux and every shadow is seen to move (4) – is often conveniently forgotten. It proves perilous for the organizations and there remains hardly anything to do when a contingency arises.

How can these Situations be Avoided?

A great hire has a genuine capacity of transforming your company. But how do you go about it and avoid the common pitfalls on the way?

(I) Understand the fact that a high paying contract with a reputed recruitment agency is not a guarantee for finding qualified top level candidates. Try to partner with consultants who have excellent domain knowledge and experience about the business you are dealing with. For example, all these years you have partnered with XYZ Agency to assist you to locate excellent talent for senior positions. But now you are foraying into a new business or perhaps exploring a new geographical location. Does XYZ Agency has an adequate knowledge about the challenges a potential candidate may face while leading the company into this new business area or location? If not, then consider opting out of the existing relationship, at least in this instance.

(II) Maintain a database of precious contacts as well as people who have sent unsolicited resumes in past and seemed to be fit for positions of authority and responsibility. Ensure your recruitment partners are indulging in the same practices.

(III) Rely on those consultants who perform the right amount of background check on candidates before or during the process of selection. Do not shy away from speaking with the references yourself.

(IV) Share a clear image of your company and its workings with a recruitment consultant. Better still, rely on someone who is already in possession of such information.

(V) Recruitment too is a PR operation. Nurture your brand image carefully. Foster your existing talents, irrespective of their positions in the company. In a different way, they too are your brand ambassadors. The positive vibes of your employees would help attract newer talents to your company at every level including the senior executive positions.

(VI) Do not eliminate the other sources of information beyond recruitment agencies, traditional ads or social media contacts. A word of mouth is still a great way to find the right person for the right position. Trust those who are known to have extensive insider knowledge of the industry.

(VII) Do not make the mistake of hiring someone on face value or solely on the basis of his or her impressive resume. Make sure a potential senior manager exactly understands the demands of the job, the company’s ideals and working methodology. It is better to acquaint him or her with people he or she is going to closely coordinate with beforehand.

What Peter F Drucker realized through his experience (5) is worth remembering here,

“Effective executives differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values and beliefs. All they have in common is that they get the right things done. Some are born effective. But the demand is much too great to be satisfied by extraordinary talent. Effectiveness is a discipline. And, like every discipline, effectiveness can be learned and must be earned.”

What others define as a harrowing experience could as well turn out to be the most rewarding experience for you, not to mention your organization and the other important stakeholders, if you care to profit from the frequently committed mistakes by others.

Author: Kristian Cvetkovic

(1) The cost of failed CEO succession planning by Ken Favaro, Per-Ola Karlsson, Gary Neilson (http://www.strategyand.pwc.com/global/home/what-we-think/reports-white-papers/article-display/cost-failed-ceo-succession-planning)
(2) “She Seemed Perfect … Wrong?” (http://www.impacthiringsolutions.com/blog/she-seemed-perfect-for-the-position-what-went-wrong/)
(3) The Art and Science of Finding the Right CEO by A G Lafley, Harvard Business Review, October, 2011
(4) Ovid (43 BC – circa 18 AD)
(5) What Makes an Effective Executive, Harvard Business Review, June, 2004