The importance of understanding what you are looking for when beginning a personnel search !
The 1st step in executive search is understanding what you are looking for. This is often very straightforward. However, sometimes this step can be very challenging. If you have a position whereby the new employee will be 1 of a group doing the same work, it can be apparent what you are looking for.
An example of a common position we work on is Credit Underwriter for automotive finance companies.
Credit Underwriters usually join a group of other Credit Underwriters doing the same work. The search is to find experienced Credit Underwriters with automotive finance experience . It is very apparent what you are searching for.
What if you have a much more complex position or are establishing a new position? What if you are replacing someone and want to make changes to the existing position ? Now, this can become much more challenging to understand what you are looking for, especially if there are other manages involved in the position . You may or may not be surprised how different personnel can view what is needed for the position very differently.
The GREAT QUESTION that will significantly improve the results of your personnel search!
I bet you have been in this position. You need to make an important hire. To help with the interviewing you gather a group of employees whom the new hire will interact with. You make a list of what experience, education and attributes each member wants to see in the candidates. A lengthy and well intentioned job description is then created as your “checklist” for the candidates to be matched against.
You are confident that the extensive search criteria will help insure that you hire the “cream of the cream”!
After extensive interviewing, you find that the candidate you like best does not “fit all the criteria” as well as others candidates do. You hire the person who fits all the criteria but he turns out okay at best as a contributor. How could this be if he best fit all the criteria? The answer is not readily apparent to the staff who worked so hard to produce such as so-so hire! Remember this adage – “A camel is a race horse designed by a well-intentioned committee”.
The early part of my career in headhunting, I realized that the job descriptions were of no value to our search process. They were frequently counter-productive because clients were often “married to the requirements” and therefore passing on superior candidates (race horses) and choosing candidates that pleased everyone on the hiring committees (often camels!).
At some point in my career I found a way to “cut through” all the detail of a job description and get to the root of what was needed for success in the position. I had to then learn how to communicate this efficiently to clients to get their cooperation so a terrific hire can be made and not a vanilla hire.
I began to ask, what I now refer to, as “the great question”. Asking this question allows all members to focus on the aspect that is crucial to success and put correct emphasis on hiring criteria. For us, it brings organization to the search process, sheds light on most important aspect of the hire and tunes us in on that little voice we call intuition.
The Great Question : A year from now what will candidate need to accomplish to be considered a great hire ?
With this question, I have seen search committees break in to arguments. That’s ok!
My guidance is “Do not give me a laundry list”. Every position will have a major focus and everyone involved has to be on the same page. Stephen Covey taught us to “Begin with the end in mind”. The great question does just that.
Let’s look at a recent example.
The Search: A midsize subprime automotive finance company was looking to replace their national sales manager. The hiring committee gave us a long job description. As with nearly all job descriptions there was nothing of value to help us hire a great candidate . The usual was included.
- 10 to 15 years experience in the subprime automotive finance industry
- College degree required
- The CFO wanted a candidate who was very experienced with financial statements
- The Head of Credit wanted a candidate who started as a Credit Buyer so that they understood the credit process
- The COO wanted a person who could also “assist” in the recovery area because that has been a challenging area
- Highest score on corporate assessment tests came from HR
Do you see what just happened?
The request for a camel was just drawn up!
This is why it hard for a company of well-intentioned executives to see the mistake of this approach. They think the more the criteria, the better the candidate. But with so many criteria – that are not part of the root of what will drive success in this position – they are eliminating most of the pool of candidates. They are not selecting from the best of the best, they have just greatly reduced their chances of hiring the best! Now, a much smaller group of candidates will be left to select from. There may be candidates that meet all their criteria, but there may not be a great National Sales Manager (NSM) among them.
This is how a well-intentioned committee builds a camel ! They all mean well, but hire mediocre.
That is why we ask the great question, to cut through this!
Let’s examine each point above.
- Of course experience is required, but setting a hard number is usually a mistake. Never be married to a number. Why? Some people are doing a better job after 5 years than other’s after 15 or 20 years. You need enough experience to excel at the position, but “enough” can vary greatly among candidates . Allow for this in your search.
- I love college degrees. It does show many things such as the ability to stick with something. In many positions they are needed – Director of Risk – CFO, accounting and engineering, etc. However a degree does not correlate to being a great leader nor being driven beyond the point of personal comfort. So I will ask a client “ If we come across a terrific NSM, and she does not have a college degree – what would you like us to do with that candidate? Some clients will tell us not to send any NSM candidates – regardless of how good they are – who do not have a degree. Most will answer with, “Well if they are really good and they do not have a degree, we will still be interested in them”. So, why make it a hard requirement? If a client insists on a degree, that is what we will find, however there is a price, you will be eliminating a great percentage of candidates !
Keep this in mind : Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Mark Cuban all dropped out of college. Richard Branson (Founder of the VIRGIN companies) and Peter Jennings never attended college. All are exceptional leaders in their industries.
- Head of Accounting wants a National Sales Manager very experienced with financial statements. Requests like this usually stem from the fact that it may be easier to relate to someone with a similar background. However how much experience is required ? Most NSMs need to understand expenses and P&L but not opine on long-term capital projects. There is a clear difference.
- Head of Credit wants someone who worked as a Credit Buyer to better understand the process. Sounds good, problem is most sales leaders never worked on the credit side. So you again greatly reduce your candidate pool. Aren’t we moving away from the root of what will define success in this NSM position? Another hump added to our race horse!
- COO wants someone to “assist in recovery” . It is typical to “add requirements” to strengthen other areas of a company. Sounds great, but again how many Sales Managers have the ability to strengthen Recovery or any other department? This is adding another hump to the race horse and moving further from the root of what a NSM will be hired to accomplish.
- If you have an assessment test that has worked great for you – terrific. After 28 years of headhunting, I have not seen any that are a better predictor of success than looking at the candidates proven track record or lack of it. As the great football coach Bill Parcells likes to say –“ you are what your record says you are”. So take the time to learn about the person’s record. This comes from hard work and often no one on the hiring committee wants to do it.
To hire a great NSM, it is very important to find out about their past performance. We have found that the very best predictor of future performance is past performance for any position. Intelligent Interviewing means you will be researching past performance such as: Where sales were when candidate started and where did candidate take company and how did she do it ? Take the time to see what specifically candidate did to drive success. Were they a cog in a very well-oiled machine or did they have to build their own success?
Caution : Most candidates can sparkle in the interview and really talk Xs and Os. However you are looking for a “driver” and that is much harder to find. Talk the talk Vs walk the talk. You have to research their past performance!
Check with their references and dig into what the candidate accomplished.
A tip for successful reference checking: We tell candidates to call their references and let them know we will be calling them and will be asking questions in depth about ……….. We have found that if candidates call their references and give them their ok to speak openly with us, we get much more helpful information on a candidate than calling them cold. But this is very time consuming and often overlooked by hiring committees.
So, getting back to our NSM search.
When we asked the hiring committee the great question: A year from now what will the NSM need to accomplish to be considered a great hire ?, we got quickly to the root of their need.
Client was getting fewer deals from its dealer base and because of the increased competition in their space, they felt forced to fund deals of poorer quality yielding poorer performance.
To solve this we needed a candidate who truly understood the industry and how to raise the individual achievement of each Field Salesperson to make them better at selling against their competition.
In the end we did not need 15 – 20 years of experience, a college degree, expertise with financial statements, experience as a Credit Underwriter, ability to assist in recovery , nor someone to ace their corporate assessment.
We needed a “ race horse” who could improve both the hunting and farming skills of the sales staff and take them, collectively, to a higher level. All race horses have a very proven track record!
As a devotee to Stephen Covey – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – “Begin with the end in mind” and you do this by asking “The Great Question” : what will the candidate need to accomplish in their 1st year to be considered a great hire? Then, focus on finding someone who can accomplish that !
Founder and CEO of Automotive Personnel, LLC