I’m amazed by the number of times I see companies performing searches, even for key positions, without a clear idea of what they’re looking for. Rephrasing Lewis Carroll, “if you don’t know what you’re recruiting for, any candidate looks great.”
I liken executive recruiters to Realtors. If you don’t give a Realtor specific guidance on what you want to see, they’ll show you whatever’s on the market. Moreover, even if you do tell a Realtor that you want a 4-bedroom on a cul de sac with great schools, you are likely to end up visiting a 3-bedroom “charmer” on a main thoroughfare that they just had to show you because it has a certain “je ne sais quoi.” That know-not-what, by the way, is that it’s for sale.
This is a moment of truth for your relationship with your Realtor because if you do not say “if you show me another house that doesn’t meet my must-have criteria I’ll be working with another Realtor,” then three years hence you’ll be wondering, to the sound of passing traffic, why you live in a 3-bedroom and the kids are in private school.
Let’s stick with the house metaphor. It’s actually fairly easy to make a list of criteria. Make a two-column list, with one column titled “Must Have” and the other “Nice to Have.” (One way things go wrong is when you mix up the two.)
|Must Have||Nice to Have|
|4 bedrooms||Hot tub|
|3 baths||Ranch (one level)|
|Quarter-acre lot||Half-acre lot|
|Great schools (K-12)||Less than 20 years old|
|No swimming pool||Walk to downtown|
|$1.0 to $1.5M price|
This process has a number of advantages:
- It forces you and your spouse to discuss what you really want. What’s truly a must-have vs. a nice-to-have criteria? You might be surprised.
- It provides a crystal-clear basis of communication with your Realtor.
- If you provide the list before engaging with Realtor, they have the chance to refuse the business if they think your criteria are unrealistic, e.g., given your price point.
- Once engaged, it gives you the basis for holding the Realtor accountable for showing you only what you want to see.
Let’s switch to executive recruiting. What do we typically find in an executive job specification? This is excerpted from a real CEO spec:
The ideal candidate will be or have:
- A track record in building and leading high-performance teams
- Confidence to interact with and inspire belief from present and future investors
- The ability to articulate and define relevant methodology
- An excellent communicator, effective in front of Customers, Employees, Analysts
- Sound judgment and maturity
- A leader who recognizes and respects talent outside of his/her own and recruits that talent to work close to and complement him/her within the company
- Unquestionable integrity
- Organizational tolerance: ability to work with fluidity and ambiguity
That ambiguity tolerance starts right with this spec. Think for a minute:
- Are these as clear as our house spec? A track record for how long, two quarters or ten years?
- Are they measurable in any way? How do I know if they respect talent outside their own or have sound judgement?
- Are they well thought out? (“There, I just questioned your integrity. We’re done.”)
- Are they specific? Which relevant methodology should they be able to define?
Compared to our house criteria, this is a mess. And there are 17 more bullets.
How does this happen? It’s just a tradition in executive recruiting; these sorts of specs get created. These bullets were probably selectively copied and pasted from other specs by an associate at the search firm. While the selection was likely based a conversation with the company about what they want, it’s clear that nobody did any hard thinking about what they really needed.
A big clue that they have no must-have criteria is this “ideal candidate” nonsense. Our house spec didn’t say “the ideal house will have” and then describe some fantasy house we can never afford. We decided what the house must have, and then added some things that would be nice to have as well.
Let’s make an example of what an must-have / nice-to-have list could look like for an EVP of Sales at $50M startup. This list makes a lot of assumptions about company needs and is far from perfect. But it’s a heck of a lot better than the bullets above.
|Must Have||Nice to Have|
|Previously led all sales at an enterprise SaaS startup as it grew from $50M to $100M in ARR||Knowledge of the CRM space|
|Has previously established detailed operational metrics and processes to run a velocity sales model||Ability to quickly recruit a strong VP of salesops|
|A network including top reps and regional managers that can be immediately recruited||Prior experience creating and growing a sales enablement function with onboarding and certification|
|At least 3 years’ experience managing international sales||Prior experience selling or managing outside of North America|
|At least 5 years’ experience managing a three-level sales organization with at least 50 sellers||Early-career experience in a technical or pre-sales role|
|Demonstrated compatibility with the organization’s culture and values||Technical undergraduate degree plus MBA|
What’s most important is that the process of making this list — writing it down, talking to peers about it, sharing it with the board, discussing it with prospective search firms — will clarify your own thinking and help you build consensus around precisely who is needed to do the job.
Otherwise, you’ll just get an “athlete” that the recruiter had in inventory.