Whether you’re a seasoned executive at a Fortune 500 company adding to your management team or a first-time founder and CEO making a critical leadership hire for your startup, there are common mistakes that can derail the recruiting process. As a partner at SPMB, one of the world’s largest retained executive search firms focused on technology and innovation, I have visibility into the most frequent recruiting mistakes and the simplest solutions to avoid them.
The 4 Most Common Mistakes in Recruiting for the Executive Level
- Thinking about filling the position rather than solving the business problem.
- Choosing a search firm based on upfront cost instead of the value added.
- Focusing on vetting before interviewing rather than maximizing candidate experience during the interview process.
- Avoiding the compensation talk instead of bringing it into the discussion early on.
1. Thinking Only About Filling the Position
Sometimes, the notion of bringing on a new executive leader can be reactionary. Maybe there was a misfire on hiring a candidate, or perhaps an important leader just left the company, or instead, the business is simply growing quickly and needs additional support urgently. Before jumping into a search, you should first ask (and answer!) these two questions:
Answer These 2 Questions Before Starting an Executive Search
- What business problem are we trying to solve with this hire?
- Will this open req address that need?
The Fix: Focus on Solving the Business Problem
This may be shocking to hear from an executive search partner, but a new search is not always the solution to a problem. I avoid searches that seem unnecessary or mis-scoped, particularly when there’s a strong internal talent for an organization to draw from. Why? My priority is for the company to make long-term, successful business decisions, versus selling a search service.
There are plenty of instances when you should pursue an executive search and bring in outside talent, but I urge my clients to first look at their team and the broader organization to better assess the holes and leverage underutilized talent to address those gaps. There may be individuals within the organization that can take on pieces of new responsibility or a successor who can be up-leveled into an open role.
Perhaps the way a role was segmented in the past isn’t the way it should be defined in the future. In this scenario, you may need to bring in a more senior leader from the outside with a fresh perspective to drive an overarching GTM or product strategy from the top down. If this is a backfill, these questions will also likely uncover why a past exec in the role was either unsuccessful or left to pursue a more fulfilling opportunity.
Once you’ve done a full assessment of the talent on the team, you can better evaluate the organization’s weaknesses and, thereby, the most essential traits of your new hire — all of which results in a smoother, more successful recruiting and hiring process.
2. Choosing a Search Firm Based on Upfront Cost
Hiring a retained executive search firm for a key leadership role certainly has a higher upfront cost than a contingency search firm. However, short-term cost savings may result in a longer-term risk to the business.
By selecting a contingency firm rather than a retained firm, you run the risk of a drawn-out recruiting process, making the wrong hire, or potentially tarnishing your brand in the market. I started my career in contingency search and know first-hand that these types of organizations have to take on 15-20 times more searches to keep the business afloat.
Due to overcapacity, there is a lack of targeted research and personalized outreach that can damage a company’s brand over time.
The fix: Choose a Firm Based on Value Added
In contrast, a fully retained search firm:
- Completes all of its searches with a hire unless there are outside influences like a liquidity or restructuring event that changes the company dynamics.
- Takes on a limited amount of searches (by design!) to provide our clients and candidates with a high-touch, hands-on, consultative experience.
- Allocates a major part of its workforce to focus exclusively on research and market mapping.
- Has a priority and focus is on building long-term relationships with our clients and candidates solving business problems through talent acquisition, as opposed to simply putting “butts in seats.”
3. Focusing On Vetting Before the Interview Process Begins
The pressure of making the right hire can cause a hiring manager to over-index on the vetting process and not spend enough time persuading the candidate to take the job. It’s a highly competitive talent market and the candidates you’re interviewing are likely exploring a broad set of opportunities.
Candidates desire transparency, so as a hiring manager, aim to structure your end-to-end interview steps before processing candidates. This will allow you to streamline the recruiting cycle and keep candidates warm as they move through the steps (you’ve previously outlined) that get them closer to a decision.
The fix: Focus on the Candidate Experience During the Hiring Process
Candidates need to be sold on an opportunity. To make the role stand out, seize the opportunity at every candidate touchpoint to examine their skills, but equally, to sell the people, culture, opportunity, and vision for the future. If you need a little extra help in the closing process, bring in a board member or the CEO to help drive home your case and to highlight the importance of the hire.
Candidates want to know what they are walking into. Share the good, the bad, and the ugly about the role. Being direct and honest during these candidate conversations will build trust. Don’t shy away from discussing the areas in which the business needs to improve. Those issues are likely why the candidate is being brought on in the first place!
Avoiding the Compensation Talk
Whether you have a strict budget for the compensation package or there is some wiggle room, you should have a transparent “numbers talk” with candidates early on. This is standard practice at SPMB so our clients and candidates have a smooth negotiation process and no surprises at the offer stage.
The Fix: Bringing Comp Into the Discussion Early on in the Process
If the company’s compensation range is far off from a candidate’s expectations, it’s best to be direct with what the company can and cannot achieve along with the benefits and levers they have at their disposal. This will save everyone time and energy — and the potential embarrassment of running a candidate through the interview process only to have them decline at the very end due to compensation misalignment.
If you lay out a budget but realize after spending time in the market that your required talent for the role is in a higher bracket, this comp expectation data can help make the case for adjusting the budget, spec, or scope of the role to meet the client’s needs.
The final reason to have these conversations early on is to loop in internal stakeholders and/or the HR team so they can start to think about the levers they can pull to address a candidate’s unique compensation requirements, like a bonus or equity leave-behind. These things can take time to approve, so to streamline the process, get in front of it so you don’t lose momentum during the offer stage.
These recruiting mistakes are frequently made but easily avoidable by implementing processes like:
- Taking the time upfront to assess the core business needs and whether some of those needs can be met by internal talent.
- Selecting a firm based on value-add vs. cost-saving.
- Being transparent about the state of the business, the role, and the compensation range.
Candidates will appreciate the personalized experience and you’ll be able to build trusted relationships early on in the process. Evading these recruiting pitfalls will allow you to bring in the right, long-lasting executive talent quickly, which in turn, will lead to a healthier culture, happier and more successful employees, and better business results.