Courting a New Executive: 5 Things to Ensure a Good Match

Courting a New Executive?  Getting to Yes I Talent Targetcall it “courtship”, because bringing on a new senior executive is a lot like getting married.  While it may not be lifetime commitment like marriage, you are getting ready to join arm in arm for many years with a person you are hoping will grow your business.  We all know the cost of getting a yes from the wrong person.  We also know the disappointment of wanting a yes and not succeeding.

Throughout my career as an HR and OD executive and consultant I have been surprised at how quickly some executives on both sides of the equation leap into these significant relationships. Maybe it is because some look at it as more of a transaction than a relationship.  Some base these hires on no more than a phone call, a reference and an interview.  Some do an “extended” search and include lunch.  These “love at first sight” relationships work out for some and make a great story line, but relying on passion and first impressions as a foundation for a successful, long term relationship has disaster written all over it. These may be the same people who tend to be surprised when the person they hired fails to live up to their expectations.  They may also be the same ones who blame the person hired for this failure rather than their hiring process.

With the “meet & greet” approach being pretty widespread, it’s little wonder that the derailment rate of leaders is between fifty and sixty percent (according to The Center of Creative Leadership, DDI and Hogan Research). So what is the right length of “courtship” for senior executives?  Some resist a more lengthy process because they think they have it all figured out, or they believe they have “good intuition” about talent, or because they really don’t have the time.   The latter statement always reminds me of what one of my clients, who was a senior executive at a very large company, used to say, “When you need people really bad, you hire really bad people.”  That tends to be true more often than not.

Consider the marriage metaphor.  Shoals and Rodriguez in Psychology Today say that a 2-3 year courtship results in the longest term marriages.  Ted Houston, Professor of Human Ecology and Psychology at The University of Texas, says couples who begin with a 2.25 year courtship will remain married up to 7 years longer than those with shorter courtships or courtships lasting longer than three years.

While such a lengthy hiring process may not seem feasible, there is definitely much more you can do to ensure a greater success rate. One thing that many organizations are doing is developing and promoting their executives from within through succession planning.  A well-designed succession planning process allows the company the opportunity to “court” the high potential leader and see them in a variety of situations over a long period of time, sometimes over an entire career.  Many high performing companies are being led today by leaders who have come up through their ranks.  A few good examples are in my own back yard, with Doug McMillon at Wal-Mart, Donnie Smith at Tyson, and John Roberts at J.B. Hunt.  I’ll grant that this is easier to do in a larger organization.

So, what do you do if you aren’t a big company with the depth of talent in your pipeline?  Large or small, any time you don’t have the time and resources (including talent in the pipeline) to develop talent internally, you have to look outward.   This makes the “courtship” even more critical. Five Things to Ensure a Good Match:

  1. Start courting long before you need the talent.  One thing I learned from Sam Walton is that good leaders always keep their eyes open for talent.  When you find it, begin the courtship.  Begin learning about them to determine if they would be a good fit.  Tell them about your business, your vision and your plans and hopes for the future.  Ask about theirs.  Prepare them and yourself for the day that you will actually pop the question.
  1. Define your values for the business.  I have known and worked with a particular client for over 10 years and knew the CEO and the company quite well, but when it came to finding a president, I wanted the CEO to be sure he was able to fully articulate what he was looking for.  So before we began the search, we focused on helping him clarify his core values and what he considered to be the foundational pillars of the business.  These were the things he believed to be essential to the company’s past and future success, things he wanted to be certain his new president would sustain and strengthen into the future.  Defining your core values will help you screen candidates more effectively and will allow you to feel more comfortable handing over the reins to a new leader.
  1. Define and rank the competencies required for success in the position.  Once this CEO was ready to start the search we began to refine his definition of the core competencies required of a president.  We ended up with four broad categories broken into nineteen competencies, with seventy-two statements defining those competencies.    I asked the CEO to rank these competencies to help refine the search.   His response was, “This is tough.  All of these are important.”  That’s the point of the exercise.  It’s not likely you will find a single candidate with all of these competencies.  Ranking them will allow you to select the candidate who is aligned with you on those that are most important to you and your business.
  1. Write a compelling position posting and job description.  This document is intended to describe the company, the opportunity, the position, the competencies required, the required experience and education and a few things about the importance of the role.  It will be used to inform people about the opportunity.  Once completed, we sent this document to several hundred people within his and my network of business acquaintances, where we surfaced and screened a lot of interested candidates.  The posting is designed to help people self-select in and out of the opportunity. There are few things more frustrating than having a boat load of resumes that don’t even come close to meeting the job requirements.
  1. Refine your expectations.  While going through this process to this point the CEO reflected on and refined what he was looking for in a president.   Since he was founder as well as CEO, this transition would result in a new role for him and would require an especially talented president to fulfill their role.  At this stage he began to define what his new role would be when a new president joined the company.  It became apparent to him that he needed an experienced business leader with a track record of success more than someone from within his own industry.  This refinement made it evident that we needed to reach out more broadly, so we posted the position on a couple of selected job boards target within and beyond his industry.  We surfaced and screened literally hundreds more great candidates.  The length of this refinement period is greatly reduced, the more frequently you engage in the hiring process.  Building a relationship with a trusted recruiter will also help minimize this refinement process as well.

Now that you have great candidates flowing your way, how can you be confident that you can find “Mr. or Ms. Right”?  That’s the subject of part 2, Maximizing the Likelihood of Getting a Yes when you Pop the Question

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