Don’t blame the headhunters

Paul
Simpson provides a few quick tips on how to avoid making disastrous recruitment
decisions

When
the appointment of a new chief exec who hasn’t risen through the ranks goes
wrong, it is all too easy to blame the headhunters. But mumbled excuses such as
"When he said he’d run Apple, I didn’t realise he meant the orchard
business" just won’t wash.

Getting
the most out of your headhunter needn’t be that difficult if you stick to a few
simple principles.

Help
draft the job specification

That’s
one way to ensure you won’t get the default ‘Company X, which is in the ______
(fill in as appropriate) business, seeks a new chief executive officer with
proven leadership skills’ type of job description.

As
part of the process, create the opportunity to ask specific questions. For
instance, if you’re in the car industry, you could ask a candidate to suggest
how they propose to cope with the upcoming slowdown in demand.

Give
yourself a choice

This
probably sounds too obvious a point to make. But at the recruitment agency’s
suggestion, one famous US company interviewed just one candidate.
Unsurprisingly, the appointment didn’t work out.

Don’t
get star-struck

Too
many interviews of well-known outside candidates turn into meetings of mutual
appreciation societies. However good a candidate’s CV might be, they have to
impress you as much as you have to impress them.

Some
agencies suggest that directors split into two teams who create the time to ask
candidates searching questions. That way, you’ll lessen the risk of being dazzled
by a candidate’s presentation skills.

Remember
why you’re hiring

As
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School Of Management, says:
"For the most part, external hires are evidence of a board’s failure,
rather than its responsiveness to shareholder interests. There is no real
scarcity of talent for the top job, just a mindset that distorts the real
market."

Headhunters
often say their clients choose chief execs for the wrong reasons. One agency
boss told The Economist magazine: "It used to be a case of ‘Get me a name,
even if they can’t run the firm’. Boards didn’t care if a person fitted
in."

Use
your contacts

Rakesh
Khurana, assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, is highly critical
of the cult of the superstar chief executive officer. And he believes the
companies that are most effective at hiring externally, pool all their
knowledge and external contacts to inform their decision.

If
a candidate’s CV contains a flaw or an outright lie, you can’t just blame the
headhunter for not picking it up. It’s also extremely difficult to decide
whether a candidate’s success at ‘Company X’ really was down to them, or down
to somebody else. Any informal (but informed) soundings you can make will
reduce the risk of error.

(For
more guidance on how to recruit chief executives, read ‘How to buy a CEO’ in Personnel
Today
this week.)

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