Companies & Industries

Top Management: Interviewing to Win


Even the most carefully orchestrated executive search assignment can go astray if the top brass fails to impress sought-after leadership candidates

How do you measure the cost of the big fish that got away? If your organization is competing to recruit world-class management talent (perhaps because it has failed to develop potential successors from within), the cost of seeing top prospects bail out of the executive search process can seem very high indeed.

Consider what those individuals might have achieved for your company had they taken their candidacy to the next level. Then think about what they might deliver for one of your chief rivals. Pretty disheartening, isn't it? Yet this is what organizations face when senior management fails to recognize the importance of the executive candidate interview process and the effect it can have on the company's performance trajectory.

Not surprisingly, corporate bosses usually want to play a role in interviewing and assessing top candidates' experience, qualifications, and fit with senior leadership. The problem arises when those leaders just don't commit to the executive recruiting process. Often they fail to appreciate its urgency, the fact that candidates may be weighing other offers, or that candidate interviewing can be a process that's unpredictable, and one that isn't completely in their control. Even the hiring of a top-notch executive recruiter can't guarantee there won't be bumps along the way. Yes, your company may be doing the buying, but you can't assume it's a buyer's market.

Making Time for the Interviews

If candidates for top executive jobs come away from interviews feeling the company's senior leaders aren't really prioritizing their potential hiring, they'll look elsewhere, especially since the most sought-after candidates usually have a handful of other career options to pursue.

A lack of commitment and/or interest is often first demonstrated by how difficult it can be merely to schedule interviews. Internal stakeholders must understand that having potential recruits come in for interviews will occasionally disrupt their schedule. If management team leaders aren't willing to make time for candidate interviews, they're likely doing the process more harm than good.

Then there are those business leaders who assume smart executive level candidates will fight for a spot in their company. That misguided belief often leads employers to undersell whatever it is that makes their company unique, and ultimately to undercut the kind of compensation top candidates would require to commit to a career move.

Brush Up on Your Interview Techniques

If you're guiding the process at your company, think about the interviewing team you're going to assemble. Make sure it represents a cross-section of your company's cultural makeup. Especially for employers with a purported commitment to diversity and management inclusion, failing to mobilize a diverse interview team can leave candidates with a sense that the hiring organization doesn't mean what it says and lacks sufficient follow-through on its commitments.

Another potential problem: It's likely many executives haven't engaged in any interview training for some time, so their interactions with top executive job prospects will follow a rather predictable path. The senior executive interviewer does most of the talking, biases the interview by asking leading questions, and otherwise comes across to discerning job candidates as self-centered, lacking in listening skills, and inflexible. One or more of those kind of interactions could turn off the candidate in a hurry.

The softness of the U.S. economy and recent corporate layoffs may have added to the overall number of active job seekers, but that doesn't mean hiring organizations should be any less prepared to compete for the "A" players who always bring the most coveted experience and leadership skills—and who always have plenty of teams from which to choose.

Put Your Ego Behind You

Accomplished executives often come away impressed by their one-on-one interactions with executive headhunters (who are, after all, professional interviewers and people-readers), only to be let down by a lack of preparation, commitment, and true engagement from the internal management stakeholders with whom they could one day work.

Leading employers recognize they always have to compete for top executive talent. That requires a commitment to making a great first impression, then to elevating the search process by demonstrating some finesse, charm, and personal warmth in their reception of potential management recruits.

The executive courtship process is an opportunity to put your organization's best foot forward to woo and win someone who's probably already meaningfully employed. Don't let egos and faulty assumptions ruin your chances.

Joseph Daniel McCool is a writer, speaker and advisor on executive recruiting and corporate management succession best practices. He is the author of Deciding Who Leads: How Executive Recruiters Drive, Direct Disrupt the Global Search for Leadership Talent, which has been recognized as "one of the 30 best business books of 2008" by Soundview Executive Book Summaries.

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