Most CEOs and senior executives agree that one of their most challenging tasks is choosing the right people to take on leadership positions. All of us have had the experience of hiring or promoting a person who turns out to be a serious mistake. Even worse, we sometimes realize that it was a serious mistake shortly after they begin – often about three months.
I once hired a fellow for an important leadership job in a highly technical area with a significant number of real experts under him. He had very high technical credentials but no leadership or real management experience. Everyone on the search committee strongly recommended him, as did the CEO of a large company in a related field, I knew that this job required significant leadership and management skills but I allowed myself to be persuaded by the weight of the views of others. It was a serious mistake and I realized that almost immediately.
That can be a mortifying experience for the decision-maker. It was for me. If there is a search committee or a similar group, responsibility is often diffused and you get the “process answer” to your question about how this could happen – “we touched all the right buttons, asked the right questions and had the right people involved? What more do you want?” Sometimes the decision-maker feels so embarrassed by having made a wrong decision that he or she just avoids dealing with the situation – until the poor performance and drop in morale makes firing a necessity. A full year may have passed and the termination is uglier for everyone than it would have been when the mistake was first realized.
The typical mistakes are made at virtually every stage:
prior to beginning the search,
during the interview process, and
when the decision-maker first realizes that he or she made a mistake.
Let’s look at each step of the process.
STEP 1: What are we looking for and why?
This is a critical step and is the one most often ignored and handled badly. Let’s use as an example a search for a new head of sales.
The first question that should be answered is “what do we want the sales force to accomplish over the next five years? The sales division has been slipping badly and a real turnaround is badly needed. Morale is low. The new head of sales will have a very ambitious target in the first full year. The company needs to raise revenues by 200% over the next five years.
Notice that the first step is what the unit, not the head of sales or the whole company, must accomplish.
The second question is what experience, skills, leadership talents, personal chemistry and cultural fit are required to achieve those objectives? A command and control type, a team builder, someone who can inspire the sales force, a person comfortable with metrics and reporting, etc.? This is not a description of an “ideal” head of sales; it is a description of what the company really needs. And which of the characteristics are most important.
Examine whether that mosaic of experience, talents and skills aligns with the culture of the company.
Make a checklist of the experience (including number of years), talents, skills, and behavioral characteristics. If possible, construct the checklist in order of importance. Notice that this is not the typical job description, which tends to focus on a generalized description of the job rather than what has to be accomplished and what it takes to make that happen.
STEP 2: The Interview Process
If you have not completed Step 1 rigorously, the interview becomes a casual conversation in which each member of the search team pursues what he or she finds most interesting. There is often excessive emphasis on personal “fit” – what someone once described as whether “the candidate laughed at my jokes.” More important, even if everyone has the agreed-upon criteria in front of them, there is a real reluctance to insist on that the candidate meets those criteria. For example, if the company is looking for leadership skills there should be clear examples of situations in which the candidate has obtained positive results by forming and leading a team rather than by his or her personal professional skills.
It is essential to bring real rigor and discipline to this process of evidence-based discovery.
Every candidate should be graded (scale of 1-5) on that checklist. Few or none will satisfy everything, but the checklist will spotlight what is missing and provide a basis for a serious discussion of how significant that gap is, whether it had been identified as one of the most important characteristics and whether it can be remedied with mentoring, training or coaching. If there is an important gap that is consciously passed over, write down the reasons for ignoring it.
STEP 3: What to do?
Notwithstanding the best processes and rigorous interviewing, we all make mistakes in hiring. They may stem from characteristics of the candidate that were not explored, unexpected vulnerabilities or exogenous events, like family sickness. If there is a real opportunity for change and growth in the new executive, an effective executive coach should be brought in as soon as possible – and a realistic timetable for change should be adopted.
If change and growth in the new executive are unlikely, a decision should be made to make a change as soon as it is clear that the problem is not trivial. A serious under-performer in an important job can retard the whole organization. At best, the result is often mediocrity. Perpetuating that is not in the interests of the employee or the company. Then the discussion should turn to moving the new employee-in-transition someplace else in the organization if that is practical or, if not, acting with compassion and supporting them as they move on.
One final note: There is a big difference between a capable executive who is not performing up to expectations and a new hire who simply does not have the experience or the capacity for the job for which he or she was hired. The latter is not a person who can be transformed by coaching. The former can be supported by an experienced coach and often ends by performing superbly.
 For a more detailed exploration of this approach to hiring, see Geoff Smart and Randy Street, Who: The A Method for Hiring (Ballantine Books 2008).