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The 5 stages of executive hiring grief [and the 10 steps to avoid them

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The 5 stages of executive hiring grief [and the 10 steps to avoid them Banner

It's interesting that there are lots of books, articles, and blog posts written about what candidates should do when interviewing.  However, there are many fewer that are directed at the other side of the desk--the company hiring and the executive interviewer.  There is little more frustrating than finding a super-star candidate, and then having them slip off the hook and end up at a competitor.  We recently finished 3 searches in under 75 days.  The only way this happened was because of both deep cooperation and coordination between the search firm and the client as well as tight coordination internally within the client company itself, encouraging both interview quality and speed.

So how long do searches usually take you might ask? Every good executive search firm is pretty much done with assembling a high-quality short list of candidates in 60 days or less.  After that, most of the timeline rests in the hands of the client company.   David Lord and Simon Mullins of Executive Search Information Exchange (www.esisonline.com) run an annual survey each year to determine the average duration of retained searches.  Their 2015 Benchmark Survey of 62 mostly Fortune 500 companies across multiple industries shows the average length of a retained search at 123 days (initiation to offer acceptance). This number has been fairly steady in a range between 109 and 135 over the past 6 years.

When searches take longer, it is typically because one or more candidates remove themselves from the short list.  Each time this happens, the company often suffers their own version of the 5 stages of [hiring] grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

1. Denial: "They [the candidate] hasn't really accepted another role. We still have a shot at them.  They're probably just bluffing to move the process along faster and increase their compensation negotiating position."

2. Anger: "They really missed out on the best career opportunity. They'll learn soon enough that they missed out, and will come back around with their tail between their legs asking if the role is still available."

3. Bargaining: "Let's see if we can get an offer out to them that is sweeter than the one they've just accepted. They haven't started in the job yet, and there's still time to woo them over to our shop."

4. Depression: "We'll never find a candidate that good.  Yes, there were others on the short list, but none of them were as good as the one that got away.  So let's start the search all over again with a fresh batch.  I must have been fooling myself on the other candidates who made it to final rounds... they don't hold a candle.  Flush the short list and start over."

5. Acceptance: "OK, I understand that the next time we find someone really promising we'll move faster, sell harder, and be more aggressive around the executive compensation package we put out as an offer framework."

So, if you've recently suffered from similar executive hiring grief, what are the top 10 do's and don'ts in the executive hiring process to keep in mind for the "next time"?  Here is our list we generated after doing a post-vitum on each of these 3 recent sub-75-day search completions:

1. Help to perform early triage of candidate profiles to clearly communicate what a "bull's-eye" candidate looks like. On all 3 of these sub-75 day searches, the key client stakeholder reviewed actual bios of potential candidates to boil down what a "10" looked like.  In another search not in this sample where search start to candidate acceptance took 140+ days, this was not done, and it took much longer to calibrate between what the company wanted in their mind's eye, and the profiles that existed in the marketplace.

2. Make sure to create a short-list of at least 2 to 4 executive candidates, all who are "over the bar."  Nothing drives indecision more than the sense that you have no choice.  "You can get this one in any color, as long as it's black" never a passionate buyer makes.

3. Schedule candidate interviews quickly with all key stakeholders.  The death knell for candidate interviewing is the length of time it takes to schedule them through all key participants in the interview process.  It is ideal to have each candidate be interviewed by ALL stakeholders on one visit to the company.  If not possible, making sure that candidates are scheduled for 2nd interviews to occur no later than 2 weeks after first interview is key.  As the deal-making aphorism states, "time kills all deals."  Sometimes think about flying one of the stakeholders to the candidate if a roadblock crops up in the calendar.  This can both speed up the process, and demonstrate to the executive candidate that you think highly of their candidacy, enough to fly you to them, not only them to you.

4. Don't "serial-process" candidates. Working executive candidates one-at-a-time through the interviewing process means that the rest of the talent fruit that began ripe, rots while waiting. So, if a basket of candidates all hold promise, move at least 2 to 4 through the process in parallel, and save serial for the breakfast table.

5. Establish a "candidate ombudsman" early in the interview process. This is best when it is the senior most hiring authority involved. The goal for this role is to "sell" on first interview meeting, and help to maintain interest by the candidate across the process.  Most companies fear having a senior manager play this role, but if a critical executive hire, it is really important to have this person be the first impression, sell the high level vision/culture/chemistry/values piece.  This is NOT a candidate advocate, but rather someone who establishes trust with the candidate and to whom a candidate can confide their concerns about the role, the company, culture, or other.

6. Create "candidate interviewing strategy." Establish and validate the core success attributes for the position, and then parse out across the interview team those attributes and make each stakeholder responsible for doing a deep dive on one or more, and then reporting back to the rest of the stakeholder group on their findings.

7. Train stakeholders on interviewing best practices. Make sure the position is described with alignment across the stakeholder team, ensure interviewers are using behavior-based interviewing techniques [http://blog.timesunion.com/careers/50-behavioral-based-interview-questions-you-might-be-asked/1538/], and are basing their impressions on facts and experiences rather than "vague feelings."

8. During the pre-offer process, don't forget to sell. Companies are so often in the "buyer" mode that they can sometimes forget that once they've found a talent they really want, they need to woo, sell, and offer themselves up as a resource to answer any residual questions lurking that the candidate has felt uncomfortable asking, or felt it wasn't the right time.  These questions could come from their spouse to their mentor(s).

9. Be prepared to make a "win-win" offer. In all 3 searches, the offer process was run more like a dialogue between three interested parties sharing their needs and wants with the goal of a win-win outcome--the company, the candidate, and the search firm.   This is in stark contrast to the "guess what I'm thinking" approach often used in generating an offer, where company puts out an initial framework in writing with little consultation with either candidate or search firm, and then negotiation occurs from there.  In a win-win offer approach,  the offer letter is only committed to writing once all the major elements are agreed to verbally.  Then a letter is generated more as confirmation of verbal agreement than a trial balloon.  This often cuts down on a week or more of back-and-forth, acrimony, and ultimate disenchantment and turn-down.

10. Make sure the offer process is run by the senior most stakeholder. Not HR, or the CFO or even the search firm on its own.  If it's a CEO search, then the head of the search committee.  If another senior operating role, it should be the senior most stakeholder (CEO or other), plus the search firm as a partnership.

And a bonus observation on moving executive searches to closure:

Don't be afraid to pull the trigger. Coming out of the 2009 recession, companies were interested in "seeing all talent available" before making a decision. They might even say, "We won't make a decision until we've interviewed at least a half-dozen candidates."  However, in today's high-demand executive talent market, by the time the 6th candidate is interviewed, candidates 1 through 3 have often already accepted other opportunities.  In these 3 sub-75-day searches, each client company was prepared to move to offer if they found a compelling talent.  As the saying goes, "perfect is the enemy of great."

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