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Less than perfect: the smart way to find the right candidate

In the fierce battle for great leadership talent, looking for the absolutely perfect candidate might well be counter-productive.

'Nobody’s perfect’ is the famous line of film dialogue that concludes the 1959 comedy ‘Some Like It Hot’, starring Marilyn Monroe, lauded as one of the 100 greatest American movies of all time.

It’s a phrase that could be applied to so many candidates. With good reason, of course, because no candidate is perfect, after all. So, how do we select the best ‘imperfect’ candidate after a long, seemingly fruitless search, whilst avoiding the consequences of making a bad hire?

Well, you have to start by giving yourself the very best chance at the beginning of the process. For our Partners Katja Hartert and Michael Proft it starts with asking the right questions early on, and addressing them with an open mind.

Understanding what the candidate is expected to do is essential, and that’s not to do with the job title. It’s about the impact expected from the candidate.

Is this appointment about making change? Or steadying the ship?

Is this a position with a clean slate, or a host of legacy issues to overcome? Are you looking for some fresh thinking or an injection of perspective from another sector or market?

Always create a clear vision of what the candidate will be expected to do, the ‘big picture, if you were, not the 9 to 5. Make sure that picture is agreed by all those who need to. If you’re taking a calculated risk with somebody, that risk should be understood and shared.

“Base your job spec on that clear vision, and your expectations too. Sometimes, it’s useful to look at who is doing an outstanding job in a similar position at a competitor to refine your vision. Avoid adding extra tick boxes along the way - there are some things that are ‘nice to haves’, but really not essential to the mission. A narrow spec brings clarity.” says Katja Hartert.

Test to understand

But what if the vision of the position is clear, but the candidate choice is less so. Or seems sub-optimal.

It’s time to dig a little deeper. You’ll want to test and assess intelligently. Great leaders all have different competencies, motivations and potential. Assessing their strengths, performance risks, and core values will help you determine an executive’s ability to deliver results against a strategy, build a high-performing team and manage key relationships.

Understanding a person’s past experience is so important too. Did they exhibit the qualities you are after in previous positions or related situations?

Research tells us that experience determines at least 40% of a leader’s future performance.

But can experience and accumulated expertise be measured in a systematic and structured way? We think so, and you would be wise to do so with a professional party equipped with the right analytical tools.

What’s their ceiling?

Understanding a candidate’s potential is obviously a key consideration.

But if you are taking on someone with an expectation that they will grow, what is their ceiling? How far can they be expected to go?

And we’re not simply talking about knowledge and skills here – both can be learned - do they have the mindset and attitude to keep developing? It’s one of the many aspects of leadership that we measure in our LeaderFit assessment model.

Multiple views reveal more aspects of a candidate

Michael Proft says: “Forming a too narrow view of a candidate can be a pitfall. Not everyone sees the same thing, and that can be an advantage if you are trying to understand something more subtle. So, ask as many people who know the candidate(s) and have worked with or for them their opinion.”

Hold multiple and varied interviews and invite a broad range of your colleagues onto the panel, especially the team they will be leading.

Be creative and innovative with format and venue. VR tools have now started to allow candidates to ‘perform’ in virtual business situations, for example.

More haste, less speed when conducting a search

Do take your time. Time allows thorough search and referencing, looking beyond local borders perhaps, and into other sectors and industries. The time saved by too hasty a decision will only be lost many times over by the time it takes to rectify that mistake, and start all over again.

Emotional intelligence is a must have

If you are going to hire someone who has it in them, but needs to work it out over time, they’ll need a high degree of emotional intelligence. Remember, they’ll be starting at a disadvantage and will need to have good relationship-management skills and social awareness to work easily with colleagues so they can learn what they need to get up to speed.

Is there talent closer to home?

Finally, don’t forget to look at the talent on your doorstep. In your organization. Good succession planning can ensure the pipeline of talent is ready to take its place in the future. An active approach to succession planning and development is critical to business success and allows new generations of talent to emerge in the workplace.

Succession planning helps organizations close the talent gap by:

  • Better preparing leaders for executive roles.
  • Accelerating the development of high potential professionals.
  • Gaining strategic flexibility by assigning the best people to deliver value.
  • Retaining talent and developing internal leaders.
  • Actively connecting the talent plan to business strategy.

At Odgers Berndtson, we do thousands of searches, across all sectors, across the globe, and we’re always happy to share that experience to help you with your leadership needs, or succession planning. Please get in touch. We will be happy to help to find not the perfect candidate, but the right one.

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