Uncovering valuable information beyond a candidate’s references

When looking at a resume, it’s no longer the case that a long tenure makes an executive candidate the better choice.

“Many of today’s executives have short stays at several companies over their career,” says Larry Ormsby, a partner at ON Partners. “That’s why it’s increasingly important as an employer to work your network and talk to references beyond those provided on a candidate’s resume.”

“It pays to know people,” says Steve Cornacchia, a partner at ON Partners. “Getting to know the candidate both through and beyond his or her network enables you to dig much deeper.”

Smart Business spoke with Ormsby and Cornacchia about referencing strategies that can help employers determine whether a candidate is truly a good fit for their organization.

How effective are a candidate’s supplied references at helping an employer understand more about the candidate?
A candidate’s handpicked references are usually people who know him or her well in a working environment. Their value is more in determining how to on-board the candidate, and how to work with and partner with that person once it’s clear the candidate is a favorite for the job.

Ideally, the references comprise successive bosses through the past five to 10 years. They’ll offer a view of the person’s performance, the culture of the company the candidate was in, how decisions were made in that climate, how the candidate operates, and where they excel and falter.

Handpicked references should be the candidate’s champions. If the best references given are positive but not energized, or lack details, that should be a warning sign.

What strategies should employers consider that could help them uncover more about a candidate’s professional experience?
A strong network enables a hiring agent to reference pretty much anyone. A robust network is the most significant tool a search firm can offer an employer. It provides the capability of tapping into unsolicited references from trusted sources that give unbiased opinions about candidates.

For employers, a good technique is to multiply references. When interviewing a provided reference, find out who else worked with the candidate and get permission to talk with that person. How the candidate responds when asked if someone can be interviewed can tell an employer something about that relationship.

There are always bad employee/employer matches, but it’s revealing to understand why the candidate didn’t want to provide that reference. The hope is the candidate is honest, admits they didn’t get along and didn’t provide the reference for fear it could be negative. That’s better than the candidate being evasive.

Employers, however, shouldn’t negate someone’s candidacy based on one reference from outside the candidate’s network. Too many times a reference has a personal issue with the candidate that’s wholly separate from the person’s work performance. Take it with a grain of salt.

Who, generally, are the best references to consult when seeking information about a job candidate?
A good target is the person who is one layer below the candidate. He or she likely doesn’t know how the candidate is packaging him or herself, so they’ll tend to be more honest and transparent. A CEO knows what a potential employer is digging for and can spin a positive message. If you’re trying to find a weak spot, go lower in the hierarchy.

What are the important questions to ask when talking with references?
After the initial in-person interview is done the areas to probe further will have been uncovered. Ask questions around those concerns.

There should also be a lot of questions that deal with functions and skill sets. Look for impact, culture fit, how they make decisions, how they interact with peers, and how they manage up and manage down. Keep in mind that success in one environment doesn’t mean success in another.

Do the referencing. Employers can fall in love with a candidate and put on blinders — they just want to get that person on-board and don’t emphasize referencing. That’s a mistake.

References are good at filling in the holes left after an interview, so do the due diligence and learn all there is to know before making a hiring decision. ●

Insights Executive Search is brought to you by ON Partners.

Using data, strategic hiring framework, to reduce risks inherent in hiring

Data is driving the executive search process, helping companies reach the right decision point faster and with confidence.

“Hiring the best candidates today involves more than just reviewing resumes or searching LinkedIn,” says Seth Harris, a partner at ON Partners.

“It’s about optimizing your hiring process by pairing your institutional knowledge of fit with data-driven insights. It’s about understanding the culture of your company and that of your competitors, and situational leadership competencies.”

Smart Business spoke with Harris about the data-driven search process.

What does an executive candidate search involve today?
Not long ago executive searches were reliant on in-house research or connections within a market. Today, the nature of a search has become multidimensional, combining interviews, behavioral and experiential assessments, online testing, thorough reference checks and validation of a candidate’s previous successes.

These data points are combined to create analytics that can be leveraged to identify the characteristics of the right person for a job.

Popular websites such as LinkedIn and Hoovers have commoditized how source environments, which are the collection of candidates available to be searched in the public domain, are built.

But it’s the application of a company’s own research and knowledge that’s needed to assess the experiential competencies — the acquired skills and experiences a person must have to do a job properly — and the behavioral competencies — those that focus on character traits — that lead to a tremendous hire.

How are data points captured that are used in a search?
Information is being gathered and tracked through proprietary systems that quantify experiential and behavioral traits linked to the key attributes of successful leaders, creating unique source environments of pre-qualified candidates.

For example, there are search firms that have identified a core set of leadership competencies for C-level and top functional executives based on decades of research. This enables companies to zero in on their own talent gaps to address their ideal future state relative to human capital and leadership.

What are the starting points for a data-driven candidate search?
To get started, it’s important that a company assess the leadership qualities necessary for the different stages of its growth.

Within each stage — be it startup, turnaround, realignment or sustaining success  — a company must understand what leadership competencies are most critical and then map the business situation to the competencies needed. Each business situation requires a leader with a different set of skills.

For example, a startup requires a leader who can make tough calls early without the benefit of infrastructural support or data. Conversely, a company or division that is already successful and needs to sustain that success requires different skill sets to succeed.

Companies must then determine the baseline qualities that define successful leadership attributes at their company. Enroll as many people cross functionally in this mission.

The companies that have the strongest hiring track records are able to draw good results statistically because they have clarity of those attributes, which they can measure and coach to. Once it’s clear what success looks like for a position, then determine how to test for those behavioral and experiential competencies.

What should companies keep in mind as they approach a data-driven search process?
It takes time. Companies that struggle with making quality executive hires are typically treating each search as an exclusive event and fail to look back at what’s worked and what didn’t to get smarter about making better hiring decisions.

Create a talent strategy that looks at those leadership attributes that transcend the different functions and best represents your company’s culture.

Look closely at your best people, draw conclusions regarding your talent gaps, build your leadership competencies, integrate your process with your in-house talent acquisition team, and measure your success in identifying, attracting and retaining top talent. This will lead to a better flow of qualified candidates. ●

Insights Executive Search is brought to you by ON Partners

Making effective use of interim CEOs

One of the most important tasks given to a board of directors is CEO selection.

Despite the significance, CEO dismissals are an increasing occurrence — 24.3 percent are reportedly terminated each year — and often happen without a viable successor ready.

In an environment where approximately 40 percent of successions fail within the first few months, boards need time to identify a qualified replacement without perpetuating poor company performance. That’s where interim CEOs come in.

“An interim CEO can effectively vet the operating realities of the company, providing the board with critical visibility around the unique challenges hindering the organization’s performance,” says Tim Conti, managing partner at ON Partners.

“Armed with real-time clarity, the board can then confidently set out to identify the right permanent CEO; one who’s particularly suited to address those challenges head-on,” says partner, Bryan Buck.

Smart Business spoke with Conti and Buck about interim CEOs and how they can be used to find the best long-term replacement.

What challenges do boards face when replacing an underperforming CEO?

Boards often operate in a gray area with questionable visibility into the true issues encumbering the business. Despite this, the board must quickly identify a suitable replacement to tackle the challenges facing the organization. The conundrum is evident.

When a CEO is terminated without a viable successor, often the interim leader is a sitting board member. While this can be an effective temporary strategy, it only works if the board member has the capacity and skill set — both professionally and diplomatically — to identify, understand and address the company’s specific challenges.

Another option is to appoint an outside interim CEO; one who can be inserted almost immediately, quickly assess and identify the operating deficiencies of the company, and report back to the board. This insight can then be used to determine the ideal CEO profile given the realities of the current business.

For example, a company seeing a slow but steady decline in revenue may appear to have a sales problem. The reality is there are significant flaws in the organization’s supply chain. If the board, believing they have weak sales leadership, appoints a strong sales-oriented CEO, the executive would be ill equipped to solve the actual challenges stunting the company’s growth.

What are the characteristics of a good interim CEO?

The best interim CEOs are diplomatic, investigative and analytical; skilled in quickly assessing and identifying problems as well as being highly effective communicators. These executives are accustomed to being a stabilizing force in an otherwise dynamic environment.

Their role is clear: come in without an agenda, be the bridge between the employees and the board, expeditiously assess and uncover the operational gaps, and provide real-time actionable visibility back to the board.

What advice can you offer regarding the search process for an interim CEO?

Oftentimes confidential discussions are started weeks, if not months, in advance of when a CEO transition is executed. It’s during the initial dialogue that the search partner should be brought in.

A good partner would provide a draft board of viable interim options — an ever-evolving stable of prescreened and established former CEOs with specific industry and skill set offerings. After an abbreviated interview process with the board, the selected executive is then inserted into the company for immediate assignment.

Within the first 60 days, the interim will have assessed and identified the strategic deficiencies, and presented his or her findings to the board. Once the data is understood, the board can then proceed with confidence in identifying and attracting the right CEO to expedite the company’s return to growth.

An effective interim CEO provides the board with something it desperately needs: visibility. This positions the board to hire the right CEO for the company for the long term.

Insights Executive Search is brought to you by ON Partners.

Navigating the executive search process

There are numerous challenges when attempting to fill a senior level executive position: the lack of qualified candidates; mountains of data, which may not fully articulate the candidate’s capabilities; time; and the pressure to make the right hire.

“The wrong hire can compromise an otherwise sound strategy, lead to misjudging a market, missing opportunities or steering a company down the wrong path,” says Matt Mooney a partner at ON Partners.

“While there are many challenges, there are strategies that can be used to avoid costly stumbles during a very important process,” says Brad Westveld, a partner at ON Partners.

Smart Business spoke with Mooney and Westveld about the do’s and don’ts of conducting an executive search.

What are the challenges companies face when looking to fill executive positions?

There are likely not enough qualified executives with a proven track record of success to fill most of the in-demand jobs, especially in hot segments such as wireless, cloud computing, analytics, Internet of Things and wearables. To find the right candidate, companies need to look beyond the obvious.

There is significant data that can be used to find top candidates. Parsing that data to find a qualified candidate, however, only scratches the surface of the available market. The growth of LinkedIn and its integration into the search process leads companies to believe they are seeing the entire market of talent, but they are often not doing enough to diversify their searches.

Hiring managers can also overemphasize candidates from specific companies or backgrounds. It is an easy trap to assume where someone has worked is the best indication of skill or potential.

There are top executives in challenged companies and there are very average executives in some top companies. That is why it is important to dig beyond the superficial and have a deeper understanding of the talent and related market dynamics impacting your search.

How can companies improve their probability of landing the right candidate?

Getting the right candidate is balancing market availability and culture. Having an accurate understanding of your company’s position in the market and industry, your competitive advantages and disadvantages, and your goals and your culture are critical. The ability to articulate these key points to potential candidates is one of the most important aspects of the hiring process.

Top talent in this current market can afford to be picky. Even a passive candidate may be approached on multiple opportunities, even when they are not actively looking. Companies cannot attract these top influencers if they cannot accurately describe the company’s position in the market, and that does not happen through a clever elevator pitch.

Companies must develop a relationship with their candidate, both for the benefit of the candidate and the company. Give him or her insight into your strategy and culture, and provide anecdotes to demonstrate a human element to the company.

Make the candidate feel as if he or she is already a part of the team. You want any candidate to come away highly interested and a fan of your business. The search process is also a great marketing campaign and a unique opportunity to show the outside world the best elements of your business.

A poor candidate experience has a negative impact with that one candidate, but will also hurt your reputation, making it harder to attract and retain top talent.

Finally, referencing has largely become a lost art. Go beyond contacting the three formal references the candidate provides, and have the hiring manager make several of the reference calls.

Push candidates for additional references and view the process as more than a background check, but also the first key step in a new employee’s successful on-boarding process. The reference should highlight situations in which a candidate performs well and where he or she struggles.

Conducting a senior-level executive search is a simple process that most companies struggle to do well. No individual component of the search process is difficult, but taken as a whole it is complex and fraught with pitfalls.

The successful hire is critical to the future of a business, so it is important to invest the time to get it right or find a competent partner to help.

Insights Executive Search is brought to you by ON Partners