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8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

Finding a good executive can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Just ask Caroline W. Nahas, managing director of Korn/Ferry International’s Southern California office.

“The best executives — people who can really make a difference — are tough to find,” says Nahas, whose office posted 2007 revenue of $23.2 million.

But that doesn’t mean the task is impossible.

While managing the 60 employees at the executive recruitment firm’s Southern California office, Nahas has picked up a few helpful tricks, including expanding your initial search outside of your industry to others that yield the kind of executives you’re interested in.

Smart Business spoke with Nahas about how to gain clarity about the position you’re trying to fill and how to approach an outstanding potential candidate.

Q. What should every executive know before trying to recruit someone to his or her leadership team?

First, they need to have clarity about the role for which they’re recruiting, both in terms of the content of the role but also the expectations for that role and the person fulfilling it.

Secondarily, they need to be prepared to give a scenario analysis in an honest way of why the opening exists and what the potential is given outstanding performance for the future.

Q. How do you gain that clarity about the role?

A healthy exercise, whether you’re using a search firm or not, is to actually sit down and document the responsibilities and the context of the position: The position is responsible for X, peer positions would be X, Y, and the position reports to the CEO.

So again, they know what the role is, but also what is the role in the context of the whole company and how does it fit? And then a description of the actual content of the role from the standpoint of the metrics: How large is it? Is it a transforming role?

Think about the role and responsibilities and the context in which it’s positioned. The next part would be what are the requirements needed in terms of a profile of an individual. What skills does a person have to bring to be successful in this role?

Q. How does gaining that clarity help an executive fill a role?

It just makes you cogent about what you’re discussing and projecting out to the marketplace. If you thought, ‘It’s just like everything else,’ once you document and you really think about something, then you’re able to better articulate that to individuals with whom you’re meeting.

It also really forces you to really sit down and say, ‘What is really most important here, and what are we really trying to accomplish?’ Lastly, whatever we’re trying to accomplish, ‘How does that help form the kind of person we’re seeking?’

You can also use those documents as a marketing tool to potential candidates. If someone is interested in the opportunity, then you can send it to that person and say, ‘Here is a description of the company. Here’s a description of the business that we’re discussing. Here’s a description of the role. Here are the criteria that we think are critical for this person’s success.’

Q. How do you approach a potential candidate?

I would get as much information about them as possible so that you’re armed. You may not project that information to them immediately, but you’re armed with the information to kind of shape the conversation you have initially with them.

I would call them up directly and say, ‘I have heard outstanding things about you. I know you have had an outstanding career at X company, but we have something pretty special here. I’m the CEO of this company. I would love to just get to know you.’

Get them into a conversation or a meeting, and take it from there.

Q. Once you get their attention, how do you gauge chemistry between potential hires and existing staff?

One is to do the interview and have some behavioral questions to ask that would indicate what kinds of cultures in which the person has been most successful: ‘Give me an example of where you ended up being completely wrong on a decision, and what you communicated to your staff regarding that decision.’ Do those cultures match up with who you are as a culture?

Two is to do extensive referencing. Ask the people with whom you’re referencing to not just describe the person but to describe the culture in which they were operating without giving them any leads. Have the person describe the culture and ask probing questions about that culture. See if you see any matches or some hot buttons.

The third is to do a psychological assessment.

None of these things are the deciding factor alone. All combined, do you see any trends either on the positive that match up, or do you see any hot spots that could be problematic that might not surface necessarily in an interview.

HOW TO REACH: Korn/Ferry International, Southern California office, (310) 552-1834 or www.kornferry.com