7 reasons why executive searches fail

In recruitment, there are few greater disappointments — to all parties involved — than when an executive search assignment fails. When the right candidate is not found, a continuing vacuum in a key position can have a serious impact on an organization’s operations. The candidate(s) who came close walk away bitter and disillusioned.

And the professional recruiter can only feel a sense of personal disappointment that efforts have come to naught. (It doesn’t do much for one’s reputation, either.)

There are common reasons — seven to be exact — why executive searches fail. Being able to identify when an executive search project is going off the rails allows HR to avoid pitfalls and take remedial actions when necessary.

First, let’s address the myth that the search has ended in failure because the recruiter couldn’t find any acceptable candidates. That just doesn’t happen very often. A recruiter will be able to identify several, sometimes dozens, of promising candidates for the vast majority of executive vacancies. If the organization fails to hire one of the top people identified, the real reason can usually be traced to one of the scenarios below.

Four of the most common factors leading to failed search projects occur before the search has even begun.

1. The groundwork isn't laid

This boils down to insufficient preparation and discussion, and sometimes, an inability between the two parties to have an open and honest discussion. As well as briefing the recruiter thoroughly on the organization’s history, current situation, short- and long-term plans and strategies, there must be full disclosure of specific problems and challenges, especially those that will impact the successful candidate directly. The recruiter needs the information to assess the potential “fit” of a candidate’s experience and values to the challenge at hand, as well as to properly frame a thoughtful response should a top candidate raise the same issue.

A key part of laying the groundwork also includes sorting out the roles of each member of the search committee or recruiting team. A successful search is always a collaborative process between the recruiter and key decision-makers from the organization, be they members of the board of directors, the CEO, vice-president of HR or others. Determining what role each team member will have in key steps throughout the process — such as pre-search discussions, interviewing, negotiating compensation, making the offer — is essential to ensuring a smooth, professional, conflict-free project.

2. Role of the new executive not clearly defined

Although this could be considered part of laying the groundwork, it’s such a significant factor (and such a common reason why some searches fail), it warrants in-depth discussion of its own.

Defining the role of the executive sought is not simply a matter of reviewing the job description of the previous incumbent. An up-to-date job description is useful as background and as a starting point for further discussion. But more essential is a full and honest discussion about the job to be done by, and the expectations placed on, the new executive.

•What are the key “deliverables” (such as cost reductions, revenue increases, improved relations with customers, suppliers or shareholders)?

•How will performance be measured?

•What went wrong (and right) with the previous incumbent?

•Have any problems that contributed to the downfall of the previous incumbent been fixed?

•Are the compensation parameters realistic? That is, given the nature of the role, and the skills, experience and deliverables expected of the successful candidate, is the proposed compensation package sufficient to attract candidates that match the desired profile?

Not only are answers to these questions (and more) required to manage the process successfully, there needs to be agreement among all members of the recruiting team on each point. Failed searches can often be traced to a lack of consensus among key decision-makers in one (or more) of these areas. And there’s real trouble if this disagreement doesn’t rear its ugly head until midway through the search process.

Of course, it’s up to the recruiter to ensure this consensus develops. And it should be reflected in the report submitted to the organization, outlining the consultant’s understanding of the organization’s needs. That report should be studied and signed off by every member of the search team.

3. Candidate criteria not clearly defined

This is the coup de grace that kills many well-intentioned search assignments. Flowing out of the role-defining process described above, the next step must be to develop the profile of the “ideal” candidate who can meet the demands of the position.

It’s incumbent on the recruiter to put forward a detailed list of “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves” that are realistic in market terms and acceptable to the organization. In turn, the organization must sign off on this list of necessary competencies and desired qualifications to indicate agreement.

It’s in situations where this step is omitted, or skipped over lightly, that trouble often occurs. Typically, the organization and consultant will not agree on the quality of candidates presented or the wrong candidates are put forward. In the worst-case scenario, the wrong candidate will get the job.

4. Lack of understanding of the search process

Every member of the team must understand that the search process is a pro-active one. It usually demands keen judgment, a sense of timing and, often, excellent persuasion skills.

Employers often have the misperception that there are “lots of good people out there.” That it’s simply a matter of advertising the position and sitting back while the resumes roll in. In fact, identifying executives who match an organization’s needs as closely as possible rules out a big majority of interested applicants. Furthermore, getting top candidates interested in a position has, in some ways, never been tougher.

Many of the highly qualified people recruiters search out and pursue are still employed. And, in a hot employment market, they’re wary about making a move that may carry a high risk or that doesn’t represent the kind of “leap forward” in responsibility and compensation they may be offered elsewhere.

In some cases, recruiters have their work cut out for them in terms of presenting an organization’s “opportunity” as a challenging and attractive one, especially when trouble in the firm may be public knowledge (or even industry gossip). It’s up to the search committee to help the consultant address potential obstacles and frame honest and appropriate responses to candidate queries.

Many of the problems that arise once the actual search process has begun can be traced back to, or flow out of, one or more of the scenarios outlined above. But it’s often not until the search is underway that problems materialize. Some of the top signals of breakdown in the search follow.

5. Failing to maintain good communication, collaboration

Again, this is a two-way process. The recruiter needs to keep the organization up-to-date and informed on any problems, issues or obstacles that may have cropped up. And the search committee needs to immediately avail the recruiter of any inside developments that will impact the agreed-upon candidate profile, search process or timelines.

Search team members within the organization should also commit to making themselves available for meetings, discussions and interviews to keep the process moving along. Sometimes, a client’s lack of availability, sense of urgency or conflicting priorities can turn a very promising candidate off the idea of pursuing the opportunity further. Or, the candidate may be entertaining another job offer (like the old adage, “a bird in the hand…”).

6. Failing to manage needs, expectations of good candidates

Things can go very wrong when a less than realistic and accurate view of the job opportunity is given to candidates. No one benefits by “gilding the lily.” And if the recruiter and organization aren’t reading from the same agreed-upon script with discussing the job with a candidate, it’s natural for doubts to arise in that individual’s mind. The same thing happens when any “bad news” about the organization or the position is held back until late in discussions with the candidate.

It’s primarily the recruiter’s task to ensure that top candidates fully understand and agree with the job requirements early in the process. For instance, it’s not unknown for a candidate to wait until an offer has been made before seriously discussing the implications of a relocation with a spouse, and then finding the partner is totally opposed. That won’t happen if the recruiter has effectively managed preceding interviews and discussions to flush out potential problems or barriers and reach early understanding and agreement.

To a large extent, the search consultant is walking a tightrope as the process draws closer to a job offer being made. The organization is the client; it’s paying the bills after all.

But after several meetings, a strong contender can also begin to feel that the recruiter is representing him or her. This is when the judgment and ethics of the search consultant must really come into play to serve the best interests of the client and maintain the candidate’s interest, commitment and trust.

7. Inadequate reference checks

Potential problems here stem from not checking with the right people or not asking the right questions. For instance, an organization requires an excellent leader of ongoing change. Hard information to substantiate that competence has been demonstrated by the candidate must be elicited; you can’t just go on someone’s generally favourable impressions.

Checks on academic degrees and professional designations can’t be overlooked. Many top candidates have been blown out of the water at the eleventh hour by thorough checking of claimed credentials that proved not to exist.

We’ve all read about high-profile executives who were summarily fired following revelations that they were less than honest on their resumes.

Two root causes

All of the problems and pitfalls described above have one of two common, underlying causes: poor preparation and communication between the recruiter and the organization, or else a lack of firm leadership from the recruitment consultant.

Eliminating the first pitfall requires a concerted effort by both parties to lay a solid foundation and to keep the communication open, full, frequent and honest. The second requires search consultants who can and will take a leading role — and an organization that will let them.

James A. Parr is vice-president of Michael Stern Associates Inc., a Toronto-based executive search firm. He may be contacted at(416) 593-0100.

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