Headhunter Confidential: Top Secrets to Hiring an Executive

It’s no secret that job openings are at a high right now. However, hiring the right person seems like an age old secret.headhunterIt is tough to get past the disappointment when the seemingly perfect person was not the right fit in practice, plus the added stress and expense of beginning the search all over again.

At Cerius, we have been vetting executives for over 10 years to reduce the risk of company’s bringing in the wrong executive. You don’t need to be a headhunter for a living to reduce your risk and improve your odds with your next hire. To help provide some insights, we talked to some of our experts and got their secrets to finding the right executive.

I vs. We

At the executive level, you are speaking to highly accomplished individuals. They have had successful careers and have achieved quite a bit during that time. It is not unexpected to hear someone reflect on their accomplishments and use personal pronouns such as ‘I’ or ‘me’. Keep in mind, you aren’t hiring someone for what they personally accomplished, you are hiring them for what results they have lead companies and teams to accomplish. A company is rarely looking for someone who will operate by themselves. Listen for the personal pronouns and how the information is conveyed. Did they mentor the team and lead them to great accomplishments or do they consider themselves the star of the show?

Examples & Results Say The Most

If you lived it, you can quickly and easily tell about it. The answer “Yes, I have been through an M&A before,” followed by a pause waiting for the next question is not a good sign. If you need to ask for examples and results – be cautious. Any executive who has lived through whatever you are asking about is rarely needing to think about or reach for examples and stories (even if they need to redact much of it due to confidentiality). When discussing past positions & assignments, there are always results, even if they weren’t the best. Caution is always recommended when an executive can’t quickly rattle off the results they achieved for the company (not themselves). The goal is measurable results. They need to tell you about the numbers, not just how much morale improved.

Directly Applicability

Does the executive’s background directly apply to your company, your situation, and your needs? Having been an executive for ten years does not mean someone can step into any role and ‘figure it out’. Though most executives are quite versatile, make sure you are bringing in someone who can bring applicable experience to your situation. You are bringing this high-level executive to help you avoid costly mistakes rather than ‘figuring it out’ as they go.

It’s All In The Questions

It is often more about the questions the potential executive asks rather than those from the interviewer. The executive has done their research and has some background. Their questions should not include anything that can be found publicly about your company. They should be focused on understanding your team, what needs to get done and start discussing how to accomplish this. It should be a back and forth discovery and the start of a planning discussion, rather than an interview. By the end, the executive has enough information to lay out a plan with some specifics for the first 90 days.

Try Before You Buy (aka. temp to perm, project to perm)

No matter how much research you have done or how good your gut instincts are, it is never easy deciding on whether this is the right person to take on a leadership role in the company. They must have the right experience, fit well with the culture, contribute to the direction, have the right skills and be able (and willing) to carry out the CEOs vision. The best way to increase your chances of selecting the best of your options while still making progress within the company is to bring them in on a project basis. There is never a shortage of projects that need to get done. How quickly can they assess, put a plan together and start executing while not having total authority over the team during this period? You will know quickly whether this is the right person or not.

One thing on which the Cerius experts all agree – do your full due diligence. Don’t skip a step. Make sure you can step back and answer the question: Will, not can, this person help me accomplish my business goals? It is easy to get caught up in how well you connect with a person and lose sight of whether they meet all of the other qualifications. The old saying, “Slow to hire, quick to fire” could not be truer when you are hiring at the executive level.

This is the first in a series to share the knowledge of headhunters, recruiters, executive search and client perspectives. Let us know what questions you have to help make you the expert.


Kristen McAlister

Kristen McAlister joined Pamela Wasley to purchase Cerius. She has spent most of her career helping companies establish and improve their infrastructure for high growth. She has grown companies and created optimal infrastructure from both an operational and client management perspective. Kristen has spent the last ten years teaching companies how to leverage executives for transitional situations such as high growth and turnarounds. She is a national speaker and is published on topics ranging from operations and productivity to talent management and the contingent workforce. Kristen is a mother, Ironman, and Marine wife. Click here to learn about Kristen McAlister and send her a question.

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