Today I want to share a soup-to-nuts summary of the executive recruiting process as well as highlight some common misunderstandings.
Along the way I will probably share some information on the search process you have not heard before.
Let’s begin with the biggest misunderstanding in the search process, and it is very understandable one — if you are a candidates the process is not about you. It is all about the recruiter or search firm who is working to meet the needs of the client.
I once remember being frustrated when I was not selected for an executive position. The search firm never called me to provide an update but one day I received a letter telling me I had not been selected. This was at least a month after I assumed the search had ended. I was very busy at the time and participating in that search, at least from my perspective, was a big imposition on my time. When I was not selected I remember thinking: well if they weren’t interested in me, then why did they bother calling me in the first place! Clearly I did not understand that the whole of the recruiting process revolves around helping the client find the right match, not me or my now bruised ego.
Secondly, most people do not think about the amount of time it takes to complete a search. When you are out of work and earnestly — anxiously — seeking employment, the search process will not move as a fast as you want it to – ever! Recruiters should provide qualified candidates a project timeline at the outset, but few do. I am not sure why — the candidates are an important asset to the process and are worthy of respect — but that is just how some organizations operate.
If you are involved in a search for a senior level executive, the candidate sourcing phase could take up to 30 to 45 days. If you are early to the party, you will have to wait the longest. Now, if you are provided a schedule then you will know the deadline for making decisions concerning which candidates will advance. If you are not provided a schedule, you have the right to ask for that information.
The information on a particular position that recruiters and search firms share with candidates varies widely. The average “position description” is about 12 pages with narrow margins and generous spacing between the lines. Primarily candidates are provided a narrative of the selection criteria as well as a brief overview of the position and the hospital.
With a 12-page summary, much of the necessary research for the position is going to fall to the candidate.
Pursuing a position based on 12 pages can be risky since many search firms, as well as internal recruiters, do not address the organization’s culture, the performance deliverables or the obstacles to success. It would seem that clients only want the candidates to hear positive things about their organization. That’s too bad since ever organization, from the Mayo Clinic to the remote cowtown community hospital, have their good, their bad and their ugly.
Not providing full disclosure to candidates is but one reason the turnover of candidates recruited externally is so high. So if you have questions that were not addressed in the job overview, it is perfectly ok to ask questions … with this caveat: there are some recruiters who see candidates who ask a lot of questions as high maintenance. High maintenance candidates take more time and to some, they pose more risks, and for recruiters who are notoriously risk-adverse, these candidates may be moved to the “bubble” for possible elimination.
If an external search firm is coordinating the search, there is another important question you should ask: how long is your placement guarantee? Contingency recruiters would just as soon not offer any guarantees given the nature of their business model, but most will offer up between 90 to 180-days. Executive search firms, including the global giants and industry specialists, typically offer a 12-month guarantee.
Why should you care?
The shorter the guarantee the less risk a firm has. If they are not comfortable with the concept of complete transparency in their disclosures to the candidates, the one-year pledge is actually no guarantee at all.
Consider this: fifty percent of externally recruited candidates usually leave within two years, according to search industry research. In 2009, Heidrick and Struggles disclosed that more than 40 percent of their placements were fired or left within 20 months.
Ask about the firm’s “stick rate” — the average tenure of a placement at your level in the organization. You may also want to know if the firm has recruited other executives to the organization you are considering, ask about their status.
We offer our candidates detailed information on each client we represent. We cover all facets of the position. We detail the organization’s cultural profile. We list the performance deliverables as well as the challenges that the candidate must overcome in order to be seen as successful. We specifically ask our clients to define what success will look like at the end of the first year.
So here is the big takeaway: the longer the placement guarantee the more likely it is that the search firm has done ample due diligence to protect their financial interests.
Lack of communication between recruiters and candidates during the recruitment and screening process is the source of most of the candidate complaints about the search process.
Candidates call it the dark hole and they hate being left there.
While communication in a search, given the number of candidates in the process, can be challenging, we as an industry need to step up and realize this is really not about our convenience but respect for the candidates.
Now, let’s spend a few minutes with the search process.
In terms of the actual screening process, no two search firms are alike.
Some rely heavily on candidates they source themselves, and pay less attention to those who might submit but are not known to the firm.
There are also firms that deploy extensive psychological testing, online and in-person, to identify the candidates who will be the best fit for their client’s organization.
Other firms require candidates to fill in detailed professional and personal profile forms, and write mini-essays on their leadership style, or even how they would approach a client-specific issue.
Most firms, including those with special features like those I just mentioned, conduct two or three interviews with targeted candidates before they are submitted.
In our case, we use two or three screening interviews along with a DiSC profile from each candidate that we will match against the cultural profile we developed from our client. The first interview is typically conducted on the telephone. If you are selected to advance, you will meet the engagement partner for a 3+-hour interview in which a portion will be videotaped and presented to the client as part of our overall dossier.
In this age of technology, some firms are forgoing the face-to-face interviews in favor of videoconference meetings between the partner and the candidate. They say it saves time and money. Ok, I get it – we need to be sensitive to client expenses. But not at the expense of obtaining a complete assessment of a candidate’s substance and that is something, I believe, you cannot obtain by looking at someone on a computer or big screen tv.
Let’s talk about references. Most firms will also conduct reference checks prior to you being submitted for client consideration. While the industry standard has been for the candidate to provide three references, we recommend four — one or two superiors, people you have worked for in the past, one or two colleagues, peers you have worked with in recent past and at least one subordinate, an individual you have previously supervised.
Increasingly, firms are now conducting background checks on candidates they plan to submit to the client. We use outside investigators which requires that candidates sign a special release under the fair credit reporting act of 1998, as amended. Even if they are not checking a candidate’s credit, the requirements and protections of this law come into play.
So why would a recruiter want to review your credit profile? What investigators are typically looking for are patterns of inappropriate behavior or evidence of prior fraud or judgments from inappropriate business ventures. In essence, what they want to know is if there is something in a candidate’s background that, if disclosed publicly, would prevent them from discharging their duties or would harm the reputation of the employer.
In my more than 22 years of executive recruiting, I have encountered only a small handful of situations from a credit report that precluded a candidates from advancing. By law, we cannot show the client this report. We can only report serious adverse findings.
The search process can be a frustrating ordeal for candidates, even when all the trains are running on time.
If the firm cannot provide you information on the project timeline, or if there big gaps in what they do not know about their client, that is a red flag that you must seriously consider. You do not want to accept a position that turns into a career train wreck that seriously damages your brand.
Finally, as a candidate, you must remember that regardless of your relationship with the recruiter, internally or with the firm, they are not your representative or your career coach. They represent the client. The honest souls who practice this craft do an amazing job of balancing the needs of their clients with the needs of the candidate, but in the end, you must keep your own counsel when it comes to negotiations.
Less you think I am being too tough on my brethren, please know that I love my profession just as so many of my colleagues do. We know that our work can help a client be more successful, or can cause great harm.
We also know that when you recruit an executive to move to a new job — across town or across the country — that is serious business. So much rides on these types of decisions, from the happiness and the well-being of an executive’s family to the success of their new company.
© 2017 John Gregory Self
The cover letter is a much cussed and discussed document in a job search. It can be very helpful, or it can hurt your cause.
In our searches, we see cover letters only about 20 percent of the time. Typically, candidates send only their resume. Candidates who do not include a cover letter with their submission are not disadvantaged by that choice.
When you are sending your resume to a targeted potential employer, the cover letter is a useful tool for an introduction and a brief summary of your experience and skills. Personalizing it to the company to which you are submitting the information is always a good idea, specifically if you have job or role in mind and want to reaffirm your relevant experience and associated quantifiable accomplishments. It also explains why you are interested in working for that particular enterprise.
When you are solicited by a search firm, or if you are responding to a search posting, the cover letter is less important on the front end of the process. Let me explain. Let’s assume we are leading a search for a CEO of a 200-bed hospital. Typically there will be significant interest in this type of position. Recruiters may receive 60 or 70 resumes from a “matter of record” job posting plus those candidate resumes they solicit through their own networks. In other words, for many searches it quickly becomes a crowded field of executives, all vying for the attention of the person making the decisions.
When faced with so many candidates the recruiter’s first goal is to eliminate those who are clearly not qualified. From that point, the researchers and recruiters winnow the list down to a more manageable pool for screening and followup interviews. From a field of 75 candidates they will want to have a working panel of only 20 to 30. To get to that point they quickly focus only on the resume. If the candidate’s experience and skills are not a fit, then reading a cover letter is superfluous and an inefficient use of time.
Cover letters can occasionally work against a candidate. For example, if a candidate elects to emphasize essential skills and accomplishments desired by the client that are not included in the resume, this strategy will not help them win a more thorough review. Candidates should avoid that mistake at all costs. It makes no sense to incorporate essential skills and experience in a cover letter that are not listed in the resume. I have seen that happen in a couple of searches. In one search our Firm was looking for a candidate with extensive experience supervising a unionized work force, with a demonstrated record of success in contract negotiations and prevailing in grievance filings. An otherwise qualified candidate did not list that critical experience in his resume. He made reference to his union experience in his cover letter which was not reviewed in the initial candidate screening because of the sheer number of candidate submissions. The reason: he decided to eliminate some information so as to keep his resume within a two-page rule and relied on the cover letter to mention those issues. There is no such rule.
As an engagement partner, I never look at cover letters unless a candidate is selected for an in-depth interview that I am conducting.
I have seen some candidates send a letter to our firm prior to the second round of interviews, emphasizing how their experience and accomplishments will benefit the prospective employer. In reality, that approach makes more sense to me.
In summary, unless specifically requested by an employer or their representatives in the employment process, a cover letter is not essential.
© 2017 John Gregory Self
To understand what it means to be a transformational candidate in a search, you first need to appreciate the difference between transformational recruiters versus the vast majority which are transactional.
Transactional recruiters are those who are wedded to the recruitment industry business model that is at least 50 years old. Most in that category, which includes some of the biggest names in the business, stick with that model — they are content to “dance with who brung ya,” to paraphrase legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal — because they are not being pushed by clients to do things any differently. A client engages them to conduct a search. They do, presenting three, four or five candidates and when the client selects one, the recruiters step back until the next time they are called. The transaction is complete. They offer the perfunctory industry standard one-year placement guarantee which, in reality, is no guarantee at all given the fact that the overwhelming majority of candidates last at least 18 to 24 months.
Firms that practice transformational recruiting do not limit their focus to each transaction. They are committed to the long-term success of their clients, providing a portfolio of value-added services, some the clients pay for and some they do not. They are not in the limited business of finding qualified candidates, they are in the business of helping the clients succeed by meeting current and future talent/leadership needs in a way that will ensure their long-term success. From a comprehensive onboarding solution that is priced into the professional search fee, to offering a placement guarantee of 36 months covering tenure and performance, these firms focus on accountability and fostering a long-term relationship with their client partners. Along the way they add in features such as building a cultural and leadership profile with a screening process that includes rigorous vetting. They know the strengths and weaknesses of their clients and they are always searching for ways to bolster those weaknesses with top talent, even when there is no specific assignment.
As you can see, there is a big difference. So, what differentiates a transformational candidate from one who is purely transactional?
Transactional candidates are those individuals who are qualified, who performed satisfactorily in the screening interview and present well. They are typically not well prepared regarding the client’s history, their cultural profile or even their operating/market challenges. They may be very accomplished and exceedingly confident, so confident that they do not feel the need to do much in terms of preparation for the interviews. They frequently talk more about the history of their various jobs, perhaps even their scope of responsibility, and less about quantifiable, relevant accomplishments. They come to the table hoping they get the job, providing it is a good position.
Transformational candidates are those individuals who, either from the recruiter, their own robust research, or both, come to the table with a depth and breadth of knowledge about the hiring organization, from their culture to current operational and market challenges. They have looked in detail at the potential employer’s website, they have done extensive web research and talked to their own contacts who may have direct knowledge about market and internal challenges. They construct a resume that addresses the needs outlined in the job posting, or they send a revised version on which they have the necessary information, and provide evidence that they can deliver relevant value.
When they arrive at the table, they are confident, focused and prepared, ready to connect the dots between the client’s needs and their experience and successes in similar situations. They are unafraid to sell themselves in a professional, factually-based manner. They come to the table knowing they can do a great job because they have done great homework. True transformational candidates know they want the job before they ever finish the interview process.
When asked by an old-school recruiter why a competing firm that employs a transformation approach would provide services that clients are not asking for, their reply almost always is: Because they deserve it.
© 2017 John Gregory Self